Monday, April 4, 2016

The Drones are Coming! The Drones Are Coming!

DJI Phantom
Actually, the drones are already here, and many more are on the way.  The international market research company Deloitte estimated the number of non-military drones reached 1 million in 2015, driven by sales of 300,000 during that year alone. Business Insider predicts the consumer market will grow by 19% annually for the next 5 years, and Teal Group estimates $93 billion will be spent on non-military drones over the next 10 years. In other words, soon that buzzing in your ear won't be a mosquito, it will be your neighbor's drone.

Until recently the military was the big player in the field of drones, where they have proven invaluable in reconnaissance, spy work, and even as tactical weapons.  However, their military debut was not a smooth one and it took a team of renegade military researchers working against the establishment to develop the first workable weaponized model, called the Predator.  A fascinating article by Wired Magazine recounts how almost everything about the project was cobbled together from off-the-shelf pieces of technology but assembled in a uniquely clever way that proved its worth and introduced a new era in modern warfare.  In October of 2001 a pilot sitting in Virginia fired a missile from a Predator drone in Afghanistan and killed a Taliban commander's two bodyguards. Remote-controlled war with a joystick was born. Military drones require a complex and expensive support infrastructure and the drones themselves can be very expensive depending on the size and capabilities.  In contrast, small commercial and consumer models now available are very inexpensive and simple to operate.

The rise of small drones for commercial and private use was made possible by several technological advances that have come together at the same time: lightweight and durable materials for the drone's structural components;  wireless communication via hand-held computer devices (such as smart phones and tablets); easily programmable flight control circuits that can take advantage of GPS systems; lightweight, powerful, small rechargeable batteries; small high-quality cameras with live video and recording capabilities.  The low cost of consumer-level drones also makes them attractive -- just a few hundred dollars and you're all set.  Drones at this level are touted as potentially having great commercial usefulness, for example to deliver small online purchases, provide agricultural monitoring, allow visual inspections in hazardous environments, provide low-cost mobile security surveillance, and many other industrial applications. One of my first personal encounters with a drone was when a neighbor recently put his house up for sale and the realtor used one to take some of the promotional photos. As useful as these and other applications sound, the possibility of large numbers of drones flying around at once is a sobering thought, and some kind of oversight seems essential to keep it orderly, safe and minimally intrusive -- problems that are currently being considered by various agencies like the FAA and CAB.

The explosive growth of the number of non-military "hobbyist" drones has brought challenges that in some ways parallel those of other technological advances, particularly the cell phone.  The rapid deployment of cell phones outpaced social norms and protocols for using them, and we are still catching up.  For example, we continue to debate how these devices should be used appropriately in public situations where the cell owner's conversations are a potential distraction and annoyance to other people -- such as on airplanes and in restaurants.  Drones have the potential to be at least as disruptive and they expand the potential to invade other people's privacy -- wouldn't it be tempting to fly your camera-enabled drone over a celebrity's house or use it to spy on your neighbor?

In addition to the privacy question, the nuisance factor of personal drones with cameras looms large.  Imagine a sporting event where spectators send their drones over the action for a better look, ruining the visual enjoyment of the event for other people in the stands.  Or imagine visiting a monument like Mt. Rushmore or a national scenic treasure like Yellowstone Falls and having to contend with a cloud of "selfie-drones" vying for best camera position. In some cases steps to deal with the nuisance factor have already begun.  I recently visited Volcanoes National Park here on the island of Hawai'i and noticed a NO DRONES sign at the entrance gate and at scenic overlooks.  If ever I were tempted to fly a drone myself, this is the place, particularly to get a better look at the lava lake that is just barely visible from the observation platform about 1.5 miles away at the summit of Kilauea Volcano. However, the majestic impact of this awesome sight would be greatly diminished if dozens of private drones were buzzing around, and I applaud the restriction.  Maybe a compromise would be to have a park ranger fly an official drone over the caldera once at hour or so, with the live video feed being fed to monitors for visitors to watch.

As you might guess, the potential of drones has not been lost on nefarious ne'er-do-wells, criminals, and even terrorists. British police report drones being used to case houses and businesses for burgleries, and to smuggle drugs into prisons.  In Japan a drone landed on the office bulding of the Prime Minister, and in the U.S. drones have landed near the White House. According to a chilling assessment by CNAS, a bi-partisan think-tank focusing on national security:
"Though most COTS [Commerical Off The Shelf] drones have relatively short range and limited payload capacity, they have been successfully used to smuggle drug packages and could be modified to carry explosives, firearms, or other damaging objects instead. To date, The Wall Street Journal reports, 'authorities in the U.S., Germany, Spain, and Egypt have foiled at least six potential terrorist attacks with drones since 2011,' and more can be expected. The difficulty of monitoring and regulating the sale of such systems in the future – a major contributor to their appeal to disruptive actors – is compounded by the fact that they are dual-use, with both military and civilian applications, and unlike firearms do not require registration." (CNAS 2015 Report, A World of Proliferated Drones)
Much of the drone's appeal to the Bad Guys is that their small size and modifiability makes them very transportable, concealable, hard to detect at low altitudes, and difficult to restrict from designated areas. The CNAS report explains this problem very clearly:
"While some COTS drones contain firmware that restricts flight in designated 'no-fly zones,' such as those around airports and certain national security landmarks, skilled programmers could remove these restrictions. Furthermore, such restrictions do not apply to drones assembled from component parts....given the construction material, small size, and flight altitude of most hobbyist systems, they are rarely visible on radar and are therefore particularly difficult to detect. For this reason, defenses against them often require either visual or possibly auditory identification or concerted signal-jamming to disrupt the operator’s communications link with the system and/or the system’s GPS. Most such detection methods however, require either a pre-existing knowledge or expectation of the system’s presence in a given area and thus are markedly less effective against unanticipated use. And as future systems begin to incorporate GPS-independent means of navigation, such as visual-aided or inertial navigation, signal-jamming will cease to be an effective countermeasure. For these reasons, hobbyist systems hold significant disruptive potential." (CNAS Report)

Although there may be no perfect defense against drone misuse, there are still some ways of making malfeasance more difficult. Authorities in tech-happy Japan are taking a "Drone versus Drone" approach with special six-propeller drones equipped with a 10'x6' net that can snag violators right out of the air.  Laser guns that can knock out the electronics of drones have been developed by American and British companies. In contrast, Police in Holland and in Britain are considering “a low-tech solution for a high-tech problem” by using trained eagles to
hunt down and destroy offending drones. It seems eagles react to drones as rival birds of prey and instinctively attack them to defend their territory, and their eyesight is so good they can easily avoid the propellers.

There are several takeaway lessons worth noting in the drone phenomenon.  First, technological advances are hard to predict.  Few people expected ten years ago that today there would be over a million drones in private hands. But this is neither the first nor last time that a major technological development has caught us by surprise and we should probably resign ourselves to expect the unexpected in the future.

Second, technology invariably has unintended and unanticipated consequences.  Drones have been used since the 60's in the military, but the sudden proliferation of small drones intended for recreational and commercial use has brought with it a host of issues that have little to do with recreation or business -- serious issues of privacy, safety, security, and social interaction. The suddenness and intensity of these consequences causes significant social disruption and an uncomfortable feeling that things are out of control until our institutions and social mores adapt to the new challenges.

Finally, the pace of scientific and technological advance seems to be increasing, perhaps because much of the time progress rests on incremental achievements in many fields, and a single technological development, like small inexpensive drones, results from a novel joint application of newly available knowledge in several seemingly unrelated areas. We are in an age of tremendous scientific advancement in a range of disciplines from nano-tech to astrophysics that offer opportunities for unparalleled numbers of technological innovations. For better or worse, I suspect this pace is not going to slow down anytime soon.

Ok, that's it. I'll just "buzz off" now if you don't mind...