By Professor Andy Miah
An edited version of this was published in The Big Issue (2020)
I remember my first encounter with a drone vividly. It was 2013, the year before drones really hit the big time in consumer terms. And, from the moment it blasted into the sky, I felt that this would be a game changer.
I had heard about drones before, of course. Everyone had. The US Predator drone was etched into the public consciousness. This new, superweapon signalled a new kind of warfare which removed the combatant from the field of conflict. The Predator was not just another new weapon, it was a device that would completely transform the means by which conflicts were resolved. It was the perfect metaphor for modern society, lived at a distance through remote, digitally mediated devices.
However, the drones that really gained prominence in the years that followed were those we now see around us all the time, in streets, at parks, at events, and whose remarkable film footage we see now in reporting of all major events, from natural disasters to epic fantasy films. They range in size, but among the most powerful examples are no more than 60 centimetres in diameter, with rotating blades smaller than pencils. They can fly to extraordinary heights, distances, and even figure out how to avoid colliding into objects or people.
The most amazing thing about these drones is that we can all fly them. Not only are they pretty easy to fly technically, there have also been nearly no rules to forbid such use. In fact, for five years, the UK — and many other countries — allowed the public to fly drones high into the sky with nearly no regulatory limitations.
This is changing now, with new laws brought in from November 2019 that require drone operators to register their drone and pass an online test to prove competence. We have these new rules because consumer drones, which can be found in high street stores, have also been used in ways that have created widespread disruption. From airports being brought to a standstill to injuries to people and property, drones are seriously dangerous when used with intent to harm. Concerns abound also about their impact on personal privacy, as such drones are all equipped with the latest cameras. In fact, they became so popular precisely because they gave us an eye in the sky, a perspective that had never been held before.
And it is in this capacity that we also celebrate their power. Drones allow everyone to feel like they are flying and their nimble agility allows them to access places that even piloted vehicles cannot go. From collapsed buildings to active volcanos, drones have taken people into new places, creating entirely new possibilities. Drones are even replacing fireworks, as large scale choreographies of, now thousands of drones, are pre-programmed to created three dimensional sculptures in the sky forming, any pattern, from the outline of an actual aeroplane to the Olympic rings at the last Games.
All of these achievements speak to the essence of what our drone society is all about — creative innovation. The drone is an empty vessel, into which any number of applications can be poured. From scientists attaching a petri dish to a drone and flying it over a whale as it blows snot out of its blowhole to the worldwide phenomenon of drone racing, drones have created something completely new.
It is in these senses that they are world changing devices. Not only that. They are world saving and people saving platforms. Drones have been created to rapidly re-plant areas that have suffered from deforestation and they have even been used to save human lives. With a life-ring drone to assist in ocean rescues and dedicated drone police units that monitor criminal activity from the sky, drones have become crucial components of social organization. In some countries, they are even used to hold governments to account, for instance, by verifying numbers of political protestors at rallies where official government figures provided by government managed media seek to underplay their significance, so as to control public order.
What’s most remarkable to me is how early we are still in the development of drones. Some of the most wacky ideas that we’ve seen may actually become real world applications, from drone passenger vehicles to floating drone warehouses in the sky that deploy mini drone delivery services, anything seems possible. But we should still remember that those companies whose patents fuel drone innovation within the military cross over into civilian life and we may not be able to have the brilliant without embracing the bad.