Published:

You’re out in the open. You think you’re alone. But then, looking up, you see it and then hear it. The low buzzing sound of an unmanned aerial vehicle, more popularly known as a drone. As it swoops in closer, you look around, but there’s no cover. And thus, unimpeded, the UAV comes within range and shoots… a photograph of you that instantly appears all over the internet.

Welcome to the brave new world of civilian drones, a lethal threat to your privacy. At least, that’s one possibility explored by John Horgan in an article for National Geographic.

Like the internet, drone technology is of military origin:

  • “The U.S. has deployed more than 11,000 military drones, up from fewer than 200 in 2002. They carry out a wide variety of missions while saving money and American lives. Within a generation they could replace most manned military aircraft, says John Pike, a defense expert at the think tank GlobalSecurity.org. Pike suspects that the F-35 Lightning II, now under development by Lockheed Martin, might be ‘the last fighter with an ejector seat, and might get converted into a drone itself.’”

But, as well as changing the nature of war, the drones are coming home:

  • “More than a thousand companies, from tiny start-ups… to major defense contractors, are now in the drone business—and some are trying to steer drones into the civilian world. Predators [a type of drone] already help Customs and Border Protection agents spot smugglers and illegal immigrants sneaking into the U.S…
  • “So far only a dozen police departments, including ones in Miami and Seattle, have applied to the FAA for permits to fly drones. But drone advocates… hope UAVs will soon become essential too for agriculture (checking and spraying crops, finding lost cattle), journalism (scoping out public events or celebrity backyards), weather forecasting, traffic control.”

Furthermore, the technology is moving forward all the time:

  • “A drone equipped with his visual navigation system… might even recognize power lines and drain electricity from them with a ‘bat hook,’ recharging its batteries on the fly…
  • “…the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has challenged researchers to build drones that mimic the size and behavior of bugs and birds. Cobb’s answer is a robotic hawk moth, with wings made of carbon fiber and Mylar. Piezoelectric motors flap the wings 30 times a second, so rapidly they vanish in a blur…”

While civil libertarians won’t like the idea of the state spying upon us from a great height, this might be the least of our worries. For instance, what if a terrorist group gets hold of drone technology? Actually, it’s already happening:

  • “The militant Islamic group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, says it has obtained drones from Iran. Last November a federal court sentenced a Massachusetts man to 17 years in prison for plotting to attack Washington, D.C., with drones loaded with C-4 explosives.”

So how can we protect ourselves from the threat of drones? With more drones, of course!

  • “‘The new field is counter-UAVs,’ says Stephen Griffiths, an engineer for the Utah-based avionics firm Procerus Technologies. Artificial-vision systems designed by Procerus would enable one UAV to spot and destroy another, either by ramming it or shooting it down. ‘If you can dream it,” Griffiths says, ‘you can do it.’” 

Don’t have nightmares.