Drones are news when one kills people; otherwise, out of sight seems to equal out of mind. We may regret that; besides missiles, they're carrying political mischief and a transportation revolution.
Drones are remotely controlled air, sea, and land vehicles of various sizes, kinds, and uses. Hobbyists have used small ones for decades; almost anyone can use one. People also hack them and steal them. We're going to see a lot more drones; the latest lets a soldier in the field dive it onto a target, where it explodes. We should be thinking about consequences before we're surprised by events. A public dialogue might save a lot of trouble.
President Bush generated left-wing criticism while allowing comparatively few drone attacks; President Obama, with several times Bush's number of strikes, has hardly raised a dimple on the surface of the news. Because we've wrapped assassination in new technology, it's apparently now acceptable, at least to most of the media. Does President Obama realize the picture he presents apologizing for American arrogance while sending drones to other countries to very publicly kill people? It looks foolish at home and hypocritical where the drones hit.
Killer drones are a very accurate form of artillery that takes everybody close by along with the victim and sometimes finds the wrong house or car. In principle, it's just a big, mobile gun. A drone killing is a P/R disaster where it hits (how would you feel about Chinese drones killing folk in San Francisco?), and it invites future reprisals as drones proliferate. Proliferation won't take long, either; U.S. military drones are active in dozens of countries, flying from 60 or more bases scattered over the world (not counting ships) and with so many hands involved now that the rapid spread of the technology is guaranteed. Add to that the fact that other friendly and not-so-friendly countries are playing catch-up at top speed.
We shouldn't forget that a drone doesn't need to fly to kill people. Those on wheels or in the water can work just as well; naval torpedoes are primitive drones, right? And we really haven't seen what's possible in car bombs yet, though we will: suicidal drivers will be replaced with technology.
At the moment, some victims are al-Qaeda folk, a group that attacked the U.S. More are Taliban, a group that didn't but whose members belong to a country the U.S. invaded. That's a very limited clientele that we should expect to see enlarged as other users' programs come on stream. Something to think about...
For a while, everyone will assume that any drone victim is a U.S. government victim, though increasingly, that won't be true as the technology finds more users. Further issues with U.S. government use appear when the victims are Americans supposed to be constitutionally protected. Historically, killing others at will has been an earmark of tyranny; it was emphatically not a presidential power intended by the Founders. So where did President Obama acquire it? If al-Qaeda leaders and Obama both claim the right to kill at will, maybe they're not so different.
Drones raise other questions; they can replace people; invade privacy; and clutter crowded skies, streets, and waterways. Drones already clutter earth orbits, range into space, and occasionally fall back onto our heads. Driverless drones transport us around airports; those will come to include driverless trains, trucks, buses, and finally cars. Drones also inspect oil and gas pipelines and sewers; tiny ones are beginning to do surgery. The list will only grow.
Air traffic control depends on people talking. How will flying drones fit in? How will illegal users be handled? Drones are already flying; this needs attention.
Driverless transporting of people and goods will probably wait as long as unions can stall them -- especially passenger aircraft with delay enhanced by fear. But how about air freight? The U.S. Navy is now testing a full-sized drone jet fighter designed for carrier use; air freight should be easy.
As drones multiply, conflicts and competition will pull users into a struggle to control or deny uses. Much human progress will be served -- or disserved -- by the way these struggles work out. Government will have its hand in; noting that a camel is said to be a horse designed by a government committee, should surgical drones be regulated by an Obamacare committee at this early stage of development? We know that unionized and regulated American railroads are costly and inefficient; are the benefits of drone tech likely to flower in that milieu? The potential gains are huge, but they could be postponed for decades.
The currently leading user provides a clue: the U.S. Air Force flies most of the Global Hawks, Reapers, Predators, and other large flying drones from control rooms resembling TV studios, often in Nevada. Though computers do most of the flying, the Air Force requires all its drone operators to be fully trained, certified pilots, a bit like mandating that rocket scientists fire 4th of July rockets at the park. Smaller, battlefield-surveillance drones are flown by army sergeants with a week or two of training. The Air Force doesn't like the larger drones out of its hands, grudgingly allowing some to the CIA.
Drones are in line now to transport people and goods, to watch and explore, to improve human control of our surroundings, and to work in places heretofore denied. Those whose places or incomes are threatened by this Schumpeterian creative destruction are already obstructing uses, as the Air Force pilot requirement illustrates; this teachers' union obstructing online classes is predictive.
So drone tech is being used in the interests of politicians without much thought. The accumulating costs of that are likely to hurt more constructive developments by giving the whole idea a bad name.
Autos were famously opposed by buggy whip makers; armies full of cavalry opposed mechanization until the mechanized German Panzers ran over them in World War II. There are a lot more buggy-whip interests today, the Air Force is already defending its cavalry, and lawyers haven't even started yet; drone use will find plenty of opposition.
The Age of Drones is here; the U.S. has the military lead. A transportation revolution is close behind...if the unions and the government don't stall it. If they hold it off, it will still come, just in other places first. The weakened American economy can't afford to let that happen.