Humans need new logic for micro-drones

A Chinese company has already started using drones to deliver packages, and Amazon wants to do so. With governments looking towards drones for a variety of functions, there is need to completely rethink our policies

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | March 31, 2014




There is a tiny division in the massive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US. Its size doesn't denote its importance, or the flurry of activity that’s besieged it recently. The unit, called the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) office, is mandated by Congressional law to map, document and track all unmanned aerial vehicle flying in American airspace by September 2015.

The flurry is not because of the approaching deadline, or because of any technological hiccups. It’s actually human. The FAA experts had predicted that American skies would be filled with 30,000 drones by 2030. This was before Amazon spoilt that neat figure by displaying a workable model for package delivery by drones. It was also much before powerful New York mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his controversial domain awareness system (DAS) to use micro-drones for general day-to-day surveillance. The experts are now eating humble pie, forced to rework their estimates and figures: according to one estimate the American skies will be filled up by at least 30,000 drones by the end of 2015 itself, with close to 10 million drones crowding the skies by 2030.

In case of a temptation to put this down to a typical American conundrum brought by an overkill of technology, it’s best to put it aside immediately. The Chinese are already delivering packages using drones. Recently, a delivery company SF Express was forced to admit that it was using drones to deliver packages in Dongguan, a city of about 8 million people, when pictures surfaced on Chinese social media websites. Interestingly, the local authorities were in the loop and actually gave permission to the company. Apparently each drone can carry up to 6.6 pounds and fly at about 330 feet.

Drones are no longer esoteric and confined to military-precision strikes. The impending, almost inevitable, arrival of drones into our daily lives raises three issues that we need to start thinking about. The first is the reconceptualisation of connectivity and infrastructure. Historically the first instance of any connective infrastructure for human society has always been roads. All other connective infrastructure from warehouses, ports, rail networks, web networks, highways, and even aviation, all follow the specific logic of a hub and spokes model first evolved by the road network.

Micro-drones primed for use in everyday urban environment break this logic pattern decisively. Each drone is an independent hub and a spoke at a same time. This revolutionary potential of the drone is already being exploited by a few social entrepreneurs to deliver medicines in hard to reach places in Africa and Latin America (Please refer to http://www.wimp.com/dronedelivery/). The docking and charging stations cost less than what building a kilometre of road costs today. Each of these drones can be wirelessly programmed, and reprogrammed, and monitored to deliver the medicines. Additionally, each drone is equipped with a self-diagnostic kit that tells it when to charge and if any part of the software or hardware is malfunctioning.

Incidentally, almost all micro drones are octocopters: for those wanting to visualise it in their heads, one tech enthusiast described it as a squashed spider with rotor blades attached at the end of each leg. The potential of drones, obviously, has major implications for an infrastructure deficit country like India. The application of micro-drones for services ranging from provision of essential medicines to remote healthcare centres, cost effective door-to-door delivery models for retail chains and, of course, surveillance is endless.

The second is the need to reimagine airspace. The history of modern human flight, more or less, has been a curve of bigger, faster and higher. Airspace, by default, has come to mean at least 10,000 feet. Leave out the landing and take-off phase, for airlines, air traffic controllers, aviation authorities and policymakers, airspace only refers to 25,000 to 35,000 feet (the standard cruising altitude for most civilian aircraft). Micro-drones will redefine airspace. Some octocopters cruise at less than 100 feet and other go up to 3,000 feet. If drones are going to be used for practically everything from medicine to pizza deliveries to your doorstep, and trust me they will be, airspace becomes both public and private space. Separate and exclusive navigation policies for micro-drones will have to be evolved.

There are numerous interesting and challenging questions that one will be faced with. Will drones be issued a license plate? How will you monitor those plates, if at all they are issued? Will there be a drone act like the motor vehicles act? What happens if two drones collide and fall down and someone is hurt or killed? What about cybersecurity of the drone airspace? Drones are going to be networked, constantly sending bits and bytes about themselves. Can drones, then, be programmed to attack people, sort of drone kamikaze? The legal and policy implications are fascinatingly endless, complicated and not amenable to any simplistic answers and solutions.

The third issue is one of privacy. Taken together with CCTVs, web monitoring programmes and real-time satellite imagery, drones complete the picture of 360-degree surveillance. Drones have the ability to provide an external and aerial view that’s immediate, intimate and real time. Drones also have the capability of being extremely manoeuvrable, ducking into lanes and bylanes, and the ability to cling on to walls, climb fences and generally do things that an autonomous vehicle can do today. This unique ability to be a flying object as well as a ground-based vehicle raises particular policy issues.

Bloomberg summed it the best when under attack during a radio programme for his plan to start deploying drones, he blurted out: “What’s the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building?” It’s precisely in this blurring of differences lies the greatest threat to privacy. Micro-drones are possibly the last, and the most crucial, flexible link that was needed to tie in every single piece of visible and invisible surveillance software and hardware. Drones fundamentally alter the distinction between public and private space, between information and intrusion, and finally between humanity and machines.

Currently, our legal, policy and techno-social thought processes are lagging behind in grasping these transformations. Micro-drones require an absolutely new human thinking: one that has to acknowledge and understand that the set of interconnected technologies of today constitute an artificial intelligence of tomorrow that will no longer be completely in our control.

Swaminathan is a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow. He is also a Senior Fellow in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). A dyed-in-wool digital native, he is one of the few surviving members of the original tribe of Internet crazies who used floppy diskettes, DOS prompts and WordStar.

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