, Salem, MA

June 17, 2014

Watson: Drones are poised to take over

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Drones are poised to take over? Yes, that’s my bet. After all, has there ever been invented a technological advance that we voluntarily decided to not use? Especially when the introduction of that technology — like drones — is strongly supported by both the media and large, economically powerful, commercial interests?

Drones come in all sizes and shapes and have different purposes. Because of that enormous variety, they are more accurately referred to as UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles.

Perhaps the UAVs best known to us are the military drones that the U.S. has used to assassinate terrorists (or suspects) in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Somalia and other places. Most common is the Predator, 27 feet long with a 55-foot wingspan, resembling a conventional airplane. It can carry two supersonic missiles.

The U.S. also flies a large surveillance drone, the Global Hawk, which is 48 feet long with a 131-foot wingspan. Additionally, the military possesses all sorts of smaller, specialty drones — many in unusual shapes — and some only inches long.

The U.S. Air Force and the CIA, located in facilities in Nevada and Virginia, control overseas drone flights via satellite links and have conducted more than 100,000 missions since 2003. The military owns roughly 9,000 drones and sometimes loans them to the FBI, DEA, Border Patrol, and state and local law enforcement.

The UAV industry, still in its infancy, nonetheless offers a rapidly expanding variety of drones for public or private use. Hobbyists can purchase small drones that resemble either airplanes or helicopters or flying saucers for prices that start around $750.

Many common, popular UAVs that are often used for aerial photography resemble helicopters, although they usually have four or eight horizontal rotors rather than the typical one. Manufactured by dozens of companies, these “quadcopters” or “octocopters” range in size from 14 inches across to 40 inches or so.

Those and scores of other models are incredibly sophisticated already, and their technological development is advancing rapidly. Currently, drones can be programmed and controlled with software on tablets, smartphones and laptops. They have autopilots and are GPS-guided. Their range and payload capabilities are constantly increasing. Some have bright lights, and some are quiet, although almost all emit some degree of whirring sound.

Although the FAA currently severely restricts the use of drones, many are in use anyway. Utilities, farms, energy facilities, scientists and construction companies already make productive, monitoring use of drones, and many more commercial uses await the FAA’s anticipated approvals. Newspapers and media companies, especially, can’t wait to implement widespread use of drones. Aerial video of accidents, disasters, wars, events, sports and celebrities will proliferate.

Private citizens will own drones, too. As the prices come down, and as more uses increasingly are found for the devices, UAVs will multiply enormously.

As you can guess, there are many issues that will arise as drones fill the skies. Already, in many states, privacy concerns are being debated, as flying cameras capture images that individuals or corporations want kept hidden. And as police departments increasingly (and avidly) employ drones, what privacy rights will citizens have on their own property, or simply to travel untracked? Will drones be permitted to immobilize suspects during a chase? How about street demonstrators?

What rules will govern commercial drones? Can they fill the low-level skies with commerce, noise, movement, lights and advertising? The valuable tasks — like delivering medicine — that can be performed by drones are numerous and wonderful, but on the other hand, the potential for an overwhelming number of problems is huge.

I am not optimistic that we’ll be able to strike a healthy balance between the pros and cons of widespread UAV use. Look at the powers pushing drones: the Amazons, Googles, Facebooks, big media, big corporate, big oil, big finance, academia, Hollywood, law enforcement and government. That’s just about everybody except ordinary citizens and big labor (which anticipates net job loss with UAVs).

Social media companies, especially, like to promote drones as the natural next “open-source,” democratizing, empowering, Web-YouTube-Tumblr-Snapchat-interfacing, must-have app. But we are losing sight of the reality that the original, sort-of-iconoclastic, sort-of-status-quo-challenging Internet culture is being transformed into something that just captures us with new market forces — under the guise that the Web has somehow freed us from a consumer mentality.

The FAA — not immune to the Zeitgeist — will not attempt to halt UAVs. So, we are about to witness a drone invasion. My guess is that within a decade, we will see UAVs everywhere, at all times. Within buildings, neighborhoods, parks, towns, cities, and above roads, drones will hover, move and go about their useful or silly or monitoring business, constantly.

Some people will not mind that. Others will feel like it diminishes some aspects of the quality of life. Either way, when we look up — day or night — there will be less quiet, less calm, less stillness, less presence of the natural world, and more conformity.

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact