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Drones: saviors or slaughterbots?

| Rense Kuipers

Will we be the last generation that can see a totally clear sky? A sky that isn’t filled with flying, buzzing, blinking, surveilling and even rocket-launching drones? Let’s explore the intricate spectrum of good and bad; of drones being the saviors we want them to be, or the slaughterbots we fear them to become.

Imagine yourself lying in your backyard, catching the last sunrays of this summer. Hearing a buzzing sound overhead. Probably those damn neighbor kids again, playing with their latest toy. Or is it the package you ordered just two hours ago? No, you know for a fact that a buzz of a delivery drone would sound way deeper than this one… Ah well, powering up the geofence with a push of a button kind of gives the same satisfaction as swatting a pesky mosquito. Let the kids have their fun somewhere else.

Playing God

Although this might just seem like some sort of futuristic scenario, Advanced Robotics Professor Stefano Stramigioli sees a huge potential in drone technology. ‘Enormous developments in robotics, IT and electronics have already taken place. We now have long-lasting batteries, advanced GPS sensors, small and precise time of flight sensors, event cameras, inertial measurement units make sure the altitude, velocity and position of a drone are more precise than ever,’ Stramigioli explains. ‘A lot of the constraints that were there a few years ago are already gone. Which means we have even more space to be creative. As I like to say: the sky is not the limit, it’s only the first layer.’

'The sky is not the limit, it’s only the first layer' 

According to Stramigioli, drones are the integration of all disciplines – both technical and scientific. ‘Science is the beauty of what humans are capable of. As a scientist, you can create things that weren’t there before. First by abstracting, using the fundamentals from mathematics. After that, you start tinkering, being creative. Essentially, that’s what engineering and robotics really do: bridging gaps. Robotics is the science of integration. And the complexity and scientific value of system analysis, design and integration, is far too often unjustifiably underestimated. You discover, you can be creative. In a sense, it’s like playing God.’

That’s what Stramigioli loves to do with drone technology and all other robots. ‘Not necessarily on the visual inspection side of things, there are a lot of academics doing that already. My research group specifically focuses on physical interaction: having drones that can touch, measure, inspect and repair.’ The professor names the inspection of windmills as an example. ‘Nowadays, people have to climb a windmill to make sure it works properly. A drone can do the same task, safer and cheaper. The same principle applies to inspecting bridges and other infrastructure. So it’s not hard to see that the technology potentially has a huge economic value.’

Principles and practice collide

Even though physical laws don’t seem to apply to drones, there are laws that are withholding them from being part of our street view already. Michiel Heldeweg, professor of Law, Governance & Technology has an explanation for that. ‘The first response from the government when drone technology emerged was very defensive,’ he says. ‘How dangerous are drones for air traffic, for instance? And soon after, more objections were raised: who is accountable when a drone runs out of battery and falls on someone’s head? And then there’s the privacy aspect: can we allow people to peek at their entire neighborhood from the air?’

And so, Heldeweg explains, a consensus started to grow. ‘Yes, you are allowed to fly a drone, but only up to a certain height and far removed from civilization. But if you look at YouTube videos of people flying drones, you can say in almost every: this wasn’t actually allowed by law,’ says Heldeweg. ‘Ironically, in reality principles and practice collide. You can buy advanced drones at electronics stores for a few hundred euros, but the only places where you are actually allowed to fly them are usually far away meadows.’


But Heldeweg thinks legislation is at a tipping point. ‘Everyone sees drones do have potential to be positively applied in all sorts of fields. From safety and surveillance to agriculture and healthcare. It can be possible for drones to get a defibrillator to a patient quickly. The same goes for emergency organ donation. But these possible applications can’t be researched because of restrictive regulation.’ Heldeweg says the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) also came to that conclusion and recommended EU politicians to literally offer space to experiment. ‘It looks like specific zones will be designated as test zones. Parties that make use of an area like that, such as researchers and developing companies, will claim responsibility for that environment.’ Moreover, the Professor of the BMS faculty says there is an ongoing parallel process of designing responsibly. ‘Meaning the design of both hardware and software of a drone can be techno regulated. Think of integrating geofencing into the drone software, so it automatically can’t come near airports and hospitals for instance.’

'This technology can literally save lives' 

Stramigioli adds to Heldewegs remarks that the technical possibilities like geofencing are indeed there. ‘But legislation is more of hindrance than a set of useful guidelines,’ he says. ‘This technology can literally save lives. That’s why I’m upset with politicians, who lack an engineer mindset and fail to see that there is an abundance of technological solutions, even for problems the technology itself didn’t create.’

Constant loop

Aviation expert and chairman of the Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft, Hans Heerkens, knows like no other that ‘drones’ come in all sorts and sizes. ‘Cargo drones can be as big as commercial airliners. They’re from a whole different order and they serve a completely different function than your everyday toy store drones. So what if you make exceptions in legislation that make it possible to experiment with drones that have a specific goal or function?’

Heerkens believes that cargo drones can do for goods what the internet did to information. That everyone – even in remote areas – has easier access to the goods they need. But that would mean democratization of the airspace. ‘Which has its own difficulties: unmanned vehicles getting in the same space as manned vehicles. And by law, a pilot is responsible for the so-called separation with other aircraft. So there have to be agreements made on the liability in the case of accidents with unmanned vehicles. There are going to be accidents, the same as with regular planes colliding. Even though I strongly believe unmanned aircraft can be safer than equal manned aircraft. The question is what kind of accidents will happen and how we act on it.’

It shouldn’t be that difficult liability-wise, says the Assistant Professor. ‘Looking at regular air traffic, a pilot is responsible for the safety of a plane. But you can’t expect a pilot to inspect the entire plane from head to toe. In practice, he just signs a form saying the airplane is okay. But with unmanned aircraft, it’s a constant loop of constructors, flight companies and governments looking at each other to take action. Everyone is thinking defensively. Governments aren’t looking at policy and why this technology is beneficial for us. Instead, they are looking at rules and singling out aspects like safety and privacy.’

High hopes and growing pains

Both Heerkens and Heldeweg think standardization of legislation can go a long way in helping drones develop. ‘Now the technology is getting better and better, national drone laws are becoming obsolete. Europe can play a role in drawing a line everyone can agree on, while at the same time offering enough room for experimenting,’ Heldeweg states. He has high hopes for the combination of pinpointing test locations and a form of experimental legislation. ‘You can ease the step from high-risk experimental locations to low risk applications in society. In theory, you can get the best of both worlds: still being better safe than sorry, but also keep on developing the technology that is going to be there anyway.’

ITC researcher Norman Kerle agrees that both the development of the technology is not stopping and that legislation is lagging behind. ‘That’s inherent to a technology that has seemingly sprung up overnight. All of a sudden, it has become a reality and we can see the growing pains developing right before our eyes. Now, the technology itself enables both the good and the bad. For me, it’s a completely positive game changer for the research field that I’m working in.’

For Kerle, drones mean that he can do remote sensing in a completely different way than was possible before. Which is especially helpful in the managing of major (natural) disasters, he explains. ‘In the case of the Haiti earthquake, we made use of satellite images. But those don’t completely cut it, since you can only view from above and from a huge distance. Drones, in terms of technology, fill in a huge gap for us. They allow us to zoom in on hotspots and provide much needed multi-directional information, for example allowing detailed 3D modelling of affected buildings, from which we extract damage indicators such as holes, cracks or structural deformation. And with a thermal camera attached to a drone, you can even see fires or other heat anomalies within damaged buildings that may pose a hazard to first responders. Outside closed buildings the thermal data can also help locate survivors scattered by events such as tsunamis.’

Endless war

As Kerle states, drones have an enormous potential to do good if it comes to saving lives. But a fellow UT researcher, technology philosopher Nolen Gertz, sees that the technology has potential to enable the bad. ‘My main worries are that war has become much easier with the use of drone technology,’ he says. ‘It’s lowering the threshold and thereby democratizing warfare. Which means we’re starting to create an endless war. Boots on the ground are being replaced by eyes in the sky.’

'Boots on the ground are being replaced by eyes in the sky' 

But having unmanned aerial vehicles in the air, doesn’t mean there isn’t a human side to armed conflicts anymore. Gertz paints a somber picture from the side of drone operators. ‘Because you were good at playing video games, you were recruited by the army. At a mall possibly. And everyday life is nothing more than getting out of bed, doing your morning routine and getting behind a screen to operate the drone. Which essentially means getting up close to someone for a very long time, or racking up tens or even hundreds of kills.’

Cubicle warriors

‘What does this do to a human being?,’ is the main question for Gertz, who states there is an important difference between the relationships surveillance technology and rocket technology create. ‘With surveillance drones, it’s possible to follow someone for more than a month. So you see someone’s routine, every hour of every day. It’s a kind of humanizing/dehumanizing paradox. You’re getting up close and personal, while still sitting safely behind a screen at the other end of the world. It creates a form of intimacy that has never been there before on a battlefield. There are dehumanizing aspects like looking down on someone from above, seeing them as white dots. But once the kill order’s been given, you don’t leave the battlefield. You see the heat drain from someone’s body after a rocket strike. And that person is someone you’ve been very close to for the last thirty days.’

Actually firing the rocket is also not free of contradictions, Gertz states. ‘The military is doing everything to make drone operators feel like actual soldiers. So you wear a flight jacket, the clock displays the Bagdad time zone and there are cameras on the tips of rockets, so you see what you’re hitting. Strengthening that is the human-technology relationship called embodiment. Which means drones essentially are an extension of the body. And embodiment makes you feel powerful, the same as firing a gun. It’s a kind of power that is being revealed by the use of this technology, instead of being withheld.’

Gertz states that drones shape the way we see the world and the way we act in the world. And that this shaping of experience is something that is ignored when we treat drones as tools that can be used for either good or for bad. ‘Just like with guns, the issue can’t properly be understood if we only think in terms of “good guy with a gun” versus “bad guy with a gun”, as guns and drones, like any technology, mediate our relationship to the world in ways that promote certain aspects of experience while hiding other aspects,’ he explains. ‘Embodiment relations mean that we focus on what the technology lets us do, but we lose sight of the fact that we can only do what we’re doing because of the technology.’

And there is a cruel sort of irony when it comes to drone operators and their embodiment relationship. While usually killing hundreds more people than soldiers on the ground, drone operators are seen as cubicle warriors by fellow military personnel. At the same time, Gertz worries that the rate of posttraumatic stress disorder amongst drone operators is relatively higher than with regular soldiers. That’s one of the reasons why he thinks we should say a harsh no to drone technology. ‘With any kind of technology, we just put it out there in the field. Humans are beta testers and the world is our lab to find out what the effects are. Never is there anyone who says: “we shouldn’t do it, period.” It’s all about how we can fix it, after we’ve put it in the market. Move fast, break something. And profit, of course.’

Scary potential

Gertz knows he kind of stands alone in his views. Which is backed up by the other UT scientists. Like Hans Heerkens, saying that cars are in fact also potential everyday murder weapons, but they are seldom used that way in the real world. And Norman Kerle acknowledging that development is taking place anyway. ‘Yes, we do need regulation. So why not have a parallel process of letting the technology develop in a safe way?’

On the other hand, Kerle does see scary potential in the technology, to some extent. ‘Since anyone can buy a drone in an electronics store, it does have a destructive potential for people that are keen on misusing the technology. So I do see abuse on an individual level happening in the future. Maybe even someone flying a drone strapped with explosives into a stadium, that’s a somewhat realistic scenario. But naming drones slaughterbots is a step too far,’ the ITC researcher states. ‘If you look at the strides academics are making, you can always find a wrong. The same thing can be said about economics, turning people into greedy investors. And even medical technology can be misused.’ Stramigioli agrees with Kerle. ‘The technology offers so many possibilities, but it also creates potential doomsday scenarios. If we concentrate on the positive impact the technology can have and if we create policies to prevent said doomsday scenarios, I believe drones can find their place in our society. And as academics, we have an important role to play in making sure the technology will be used for the right causes.’

The last generation?

But if drones do find their place in society, will our fear of the technology gnawing away at our privacy also go away? Heerkens thinks that in a paradoxical kind of way, we as a society bring it on ourselves. ‘We’re in a cultural shift towards a 24/7 economy. Which means we want supermarkets and shops to be open later and we want the stuff we ordered online to be delivered the same day. It all has to do with the expectations we create ourselves, supply and demand. And drone technology fits right into the picture of “because we can, we apparently must do it”.’ Kerle adds that the privacy issues drones bring into our world are ‘just another shade of gray’. ‘Compare it to putting up curtains if you think people are looking through your window. Our society is accustomed to curtains and outlawing drones isn’t a solution. Having the technology in the world can help to provide legislation.’ Heerkens agrees: ‘It’ll mean the democratization of our airspace. It might well be that we’re the last generation that ever sees a completely clear sky.’

Experts who contributed to this article:

  • Stefano Stramigioli, Professor of Advanced Robotics, EEMCS Faculty
  • Nolen Gertz, Assistant Professor of Applied Philosophy, BMS Faculty
  • Norman Kerle, Adjunct Professor of Remote Sensing and Disaster Risk Management, ITC Faculty
  • Michiel Heldeweg, Professor of Law, Governance & Technology, BMS Faculty
  • Hans Heerkens, Assistant Professor and Chairman of the Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft, BMS Faculty

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