Drones Provide an Eye in the Sky, but Who’s Watching Them?

Editor’s Note: On July 10, 2012 Peter Singer appeared on KCRW’s To The Point, hosted by Warren Olney, along with Bill Hennigan from the Los Angeles Times, Catherine Crump from the American Civil Liberties Union, and Steve Gitlin from AeroVironment to discuss whether America is ready for unmanned drones.

Warren Onley, host of To the Point : What about wired for civilian use and what are the kinds of issues that you would anticipate based on your research into robotics and conflict?

Peter W. Singer: Oh goodness.  This is a technology that people have made the comparisons: It’s roughly where the airplane was around 1918 and the computer was in 1980, where the military was the primary spender, the primary developer of these technologies; but we are now looking at all sorts of civilian applications.  Just like what played out with the regular airplane, just like what played out with the computer.  If you’re talking about surveillance, of course there’s been military surveillance from above, but that same kind of thing has been used for border control, local police departments are starting to show interest in this, even things like environment monitoring to journalism.  That can be good journalism or paparazzi-like journalism.

We’re seeing other usages.  For example, the Marine Corps has just tested out a couple of cargo-carrying drones and they’re using those in Afghanistan and of course they’re seeing other folks looking at that and going “Hold it, we might be able to use that!” from the logging industry to long distance freight delivery, like FedEx.  Of course, there’s a whole side of recreation here.  And the last thing to note on this, just like the computer, it can be used for fun, it can be used for profit and it can also be used for bad.

And so we should expect that in this space.  And we’ve already seen a couple of criminal groups interested in these technologies, terrorist groups and the like.  The technology is going to be used for a lot of different ends and purposes.  And that’s why we need to push beyond just these very nice guidelines that are in the code of conduct, but it’s really not a code when there are no consequences).  That’s really what we need here, to update the actual laws.  So the Code here is a nice start, it’s things that are inspirational but it really doesn’t have any umph, it doesn’t have any power to it.  So we have to look beyond the just industry saying “we’re going to try to be good.“

Onley: When you talk about journalism using drones, that suggests the price might be coming down.

Singer: Oh most definitely.  These technologies, they come in all shapes, sizes in forms. So they range from teeny tiny systems like quadcopters that cost a couple hundred dollars to build, pop a camera on them.  We see journalists use those.  We’ve even seen amateur journalism with it.  For example, in Poland a couple of months ago, a group of protesters put up their own drone to monitor riot police to see if the riot police were going to commit any crimes against them.  And if they were, they were going to pop it up online and document it. Small journalism outfits out in the Midwest use them to investigate what was going on during a flooding.  And of course again, some people’s fears you might see the negative size of this: paparazzi [use].

But drones also extend to larger systems.  For example, you have the Global Hawk, which is the size of a small passenger jet.  Of course, they have much longer duration, they can stay in the air for much longer, and that also means they can track much wider targets.  So when we’re talking about, for example, the law enforcement use of these technologies, the usages might range from systems that you would have overhead and  monitoring an entire city, like how we use them in the military over cities like we did in Baghdad or Kabul.  Or it might be like what [Bill Hennigan from the Los Angeles Times] was referencing, the really teeny tiny systems that the patrolman might have, to track a single target or peer into a single building or something like that. 

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