Drones are here to stay

October 9th, 2012

ThinkTech Hawaii

Last week, the Israelis shot down a drone that flew into their airspace from over the Gaza Strip. It’s not the first time this has happened. There have been other drones shot down by Israel. None of these are Israeli or U.S. drones. They're made and sent by someone else. Not good.

Drones, as we saw argued in the New York Times a few weeks ago, should be of some concern. They are being used to assassinate people. Sometimes they assassinate the wrong people. High tech or not, they can be made into assassination machines. In that, they can fly in any direction.

As we saw in the “spring gun” court decisions 100 years ago, the American rule is that killing or injuring someone by a remote control device is wrongful, even if that person has been engaged in a wrongful act himself. It’s not clear that automated assassination meets the morality standard.

Maybe we thought we had a monopoly on drones. We thought that our military technology could invent and deploy drones with impunity, and that although everyone could see how they operate and what deadly things they can do, no one could actually imitate and emulate them.

Not true. This is a world where anyone can do research. If you’re not concerned about IP rights, it’s not so hard to emulate what someone else’s device is doing. The Internet answers so many tech questions and reveals so many secrets. So the way drones work is no longer a mystery.

You could learn the ABCs of drone making at any engineering school in the world. You could learn how to design and fabricate one, fly it, navigate it, manage it, take pictures from it and for that matter make it into a killing machine. These days, it’s not exactly rocket science.

Do you recall when we were losing drones over Central Asia because the enemy had found that $50 software off the Internet could block their high tech navigation systems? That was embarrassing, but we were still in charge, the only ones actually sending them into the air.

Now it's different, and worse, in the sense that others are also making drones just like we make drones. It doesn't take a big factory to make a drone; a relatively small machine shop could suffice. Just as they are small, he space in which they are fabricated can be small, and secret

And the same rules apply to deploying them. It doesn’t take an airfield or runway to launch them. You can carry them around in an everyday backpack and launch them, well, nearly anywhere. And they’re not that easy to see when they’re flying overhead because they’re small.

But even with a small package, there can be a big payload, like high definition photography or video, pinpoint sniper firing devices and of course powerful lightweight explosives. Have you heard of the “humming bird” devices that hover over a crowd and take pictures of protestors?

The revelation in the news is that we don’t have an exclusive on drones anymore. Other people are designing, making and using them, over Israel and who knows where else. They can be carried anywhere and flown high enough not to be noticed, internationally or domestically.

It goes beyond the anonymity of backpacks. They can be fabricated from small parts that come separately, none of which is particularly noticeable. Suffice to say we'll see more drones. In the years and semi-wars of the future, we'll see them all over the place, and in greater sophistication.

We have reconnaissance drone makers here in Hawaii and in fact they make very good ones. The School of Engineering builds underwater vehicles as well as air borne drones. And for $300, you can buy a super-lightweight radio-controlled photo helicopter at the Sharper Image.

When we started using them in the Middle East, it seemed like a good idea. We had the edge, and once you get past the moral issues you could say they’ve been quite effective. It’s the miniaturization of war. I suppose you could argue it’s better to have a little one than a big one.

But like the nuclear bombs of World War II, the cat's out of the bag. It didn't take very long for our enemies and not-so-friendly friends to get their hands on some and otherwise learn how to make and improve on them and then use them against us, and now we'll pay another price.

Maybe this is something already engrained in the 21st century, but at the same time maybe we should consider our experience so far the next time we think about rolling out a disruptive weapon of this kind, and maybe that'll make us a little more cautious about the implications.

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