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The drones are coming [Commentary]

Prepared for the next invasion? It will not be led by foreign terrorists or illegal immigrants. This invasion will come in the form of drones — an American specialty.

A judge has just ruled that the Federal Aviation Agency cannot ban from public airspace flying robots or pilotless air vehicles owned by commercial enterprises. This decision means drones will no longer be used primarily for war or border patrols. They will soon become part of everyday life.

Advocates anticipate a veritable panacea. Drones will be the next dominant industry, generating billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Their humanitarian efforts will be welcome for farmers checking on their crops and rescue teams scouting for lost children or hikers stranded on a mountain. Companies are preparing to deliver packages via drones instead of clogging the streets with trucks and vans.

This enthusiastic embrace of the latest flying gadget seems shortsighted. It neglects to recognize how any new technology — regardless of its inventor's intentions — can be used in a variety of unexpected ways. For example, when Henry Ford offered an affordable and reliable car for the average American, he did not anticipate a grateful letter from the infamous thief Clyde Barrow because his Model-T was faster than the police cars. Designers of the cell-phone could hardly have predicted its use in detonating bombs in public areas.

Drone advocates neglect additional features looming on the horizon. First, drones will be arriving in all sizes and shapes. Newspapers and television tend to illustrate drones resembling those toy airplanes that flew in endless circles. Drones are acrobatic machines, capable of being maneuvered amid trees in forests and buildings dotting an urban skyline. Some are called micro-aviaries, as they can emulate the motions of hummingbirds. Scientists are now completing work on nano-drones, which will masquerade as bees or house flies. Not to worry. The naked eye will not recognize them, unless they travel in swarms.

Second, drone advocates neglect to address how humans will use their flying robots to resolve disagreements and conflicts. Hunters have begun deploying drones to find their targets. This is illegal, according to members of PETA, who want their drones to protect the animals or identify the miscreants. The idea of neighbors or criminals obtaining their own drones presents obvious problems. One engineer from a Utah avionics laboratory admits that considerable research is already being devoted to anti-drone drones.

Regulating these potential battles will pose a political nightmare. Ownership and use of drones is unlikely to be limited to businesses and organizations. Indeed, individual citizens can argue that a drone is needed for security of their homes and properties; Second Amendment defenders will assert that a small drone falls within the category of the right to bear arms. On what basis will elected officials — who are afraid to ban assault weapons — forbid anyone access to a drone?

There is a third and somewhat disconcerting issue. Drone advocates generally eschew the word. They prefer an antiseptic acronym UAVs, short for "unmanned aerial vehicles." The derivation of "drone" is uncertain. A droning sound is monotonous, dull and relentless. Here is a case of onomatopoeia. To grumble that the politician or philosophy teacher just "drooooonnnned" conveys by its very sound the meaning of the word. Early technological drones had a humming sound, though researchers continue to minimize it. A drone also refers to a male bee, who is generally lazy and lives off the work of others. The first military drones were largely used for target practice to test the accuracy of new weapons. Perhaps today's advocates are also living off the work of their flying gadgets.

Whether drones in everyday life contribute to the public good is a gamble taken without significant public discussion. One popular science magazine declares that the drone invasion has already begun, with the only question being how citizens are preparing for it.

Recent interviews and photos of advocates often depict a man cradling a remote control while gazing admiringly at his drone. He talks only of the money he can make from drones if the government, and presumably anyone else, does not interfere. He seems oblivious to the darker possibilities that endanger his fellow citizens. His is one of the faces leading this forthcoming invasion.

Alexander E. Hooke is a philosophy professor at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.


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