AfroMont Editorial April 2017: Drone politics

I attended an academic talk this week on the politics of drones. The talk was not at all what I expected - I had hoped to learn more about the use of drones to combat poaching and other needed technology interventions for the ‘greater good’. I did also originally have my own ideas about drones being useful for flying mountains and doing mountain research at high level (I discussed this idea with the speaker and she said “Ha! I’d like to see anyone fly a drone in and around a mountain. It will be smashed in no time at all!”). So ended my fantasy about ‘quick fixes’ for mountain science.

Being a biological scientist and not a social scientist, I was unaware that there were indeed ‘politics’ associated with drone technology and I left the talk much better informed.

Drones have become commonplace in the public domain in a very short space of time and few people have thought in depth about what this new technology means – and to whom! There have been complaints about urban privacy issues and also about collisions between commercial aircraft and privately flown drones, but these are essentially small issues. The real issues are national surveillance and ‘big data’ and who owns this data. In an increasingly securitized world, surveillance has become much more sophisticated and ominous. Previously, in terms of remote sensing and aerial photography, getting data was expensive and usually paid for by governments or large research studies. Drones put a lot of power in the hands of private individuals in terms of surveillance. So, the big question now is who has the ‘power’ to use drones and where, who owns the data that these devices collect, what will they do with it, and who benefits? It seems that the use of drones in developing countries may be potentially disguised as humanitarian flights delivering vital medical supplies, and indeed, they may well be doing this, but those dinky little cameras? What will they be recording during those mercy flights? They may well be collecting spatial data, data on crowds, filming mosques, schools, roads, households, military installations – and so, the question remains, who ‘owns’ this data and what will they do with it?

The other interesting issue about drones is their link to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the development of unmanned vehicles and the commercial potential of this technology. It seems that the world is fascinated by the ‘unmanned’ aspect of drones in the same way they are fascinated by ‘driverless cars’. Companies developing and marketing drones are tapping into this new desire for ‘designer toys’. This is all essentially about robotics and the world seems very ready for this technology. A lot of the drone material you may read online can be regarded marketing ‘hype’ – this is a technology that was paid for by the USA military decades ago and now the challenge is to find new uses for it, create that demand and make a profit.

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Drones have become a ‘must have’ for birthday and Christmas presents. You can buy the ‘quadro-copter’ type of small civilian drone in any shopping centre now, and soon in toy shops. Does this mean that they are too accessible?

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