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Attack of the Micro-Drones

Tiny drones are going to invade your privacy and rock your world a lot sooner than you think. Watch this Lockheed Martin video for an early look at the new age of drones.  (via Talking Points Memo IdeasLab):

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Once you get over the sheer inventiveness of the people behind these things—from the engineering which brilliantly mimics nature’s best designs, to the clever synchronization of the camera’s shutter with the rotation of the wing to give the pilot a steady video feed—the hazy outlines of what this all means for humanity starts coming into focus. As Francis Fukuyama put it in the Financial Times earlier this year:

What will the world look like when not just the US but many other countries around the world operate fleets of drones; and when powerful, sophisticated drones are owned by lots of private individuals? What would our attitude be if our enemies could pick off visiting dignitaries as they stepped off the aeroplane in a supposedly friendly country, or attack soldiers in their bases in Europe or Asia? Or if Americans became vulnerable in Florida or New York? Drones might become an inexpensive delivery vehicle for terrorists or rogue states that can’t afford to deliver payloads in ballistic missiles. Some of the remotely controlled aeroplanes that hobbyists build are a third to half the size of their full-scale counterparts. As the technology becomes cheaper and more commercially available, moreover, drones may become harder to trace; without knowing their provenance, deterrence breaks down. A world in which people can be routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies is not pleasant to contemplate.

And these things are getting smaller and smaller at a faster and faster rate. The Lockheed Martin group has gotten their prototypes down to six inches already. When you consider that nature has come up with miniaturized complex organisms that are smaller than single cell amoebas, the idea of fully functional nanobots stops seeming like some science fiction fantasy of a distant future. It’s likely that these little critters will have a lot of uses and make our lives better in unexpected ways, but it’s also clear that the boundaries between public and private are going to shift when governments, employers, news organizations, social media sites and anybody else can operate these things.

Of course, like all technological innovations—especially those related to warfare—miniaturized drones will breed a generation of countermeasures which will make them less threatening than they seem today. Perhaps in the not so distant future, VIPs and heads of state will routinely have devices that neutralize pesky invaders in their bulletproof limousines and mansions. Perhaps shortly after that, personal drone disruptor shields will be small enough to fit on your belt, and cheap enough for ordinary citizens to afford.

War tends to accelerate technological development; drone technology wouldn’t be where it is today without the global war on terror that we are not supposed to say is still going on. But war or no war, the accelerated development of socially destabilizing technology is part of our core national business model. Turning the world upside down has been our national pastime ever since the British marching band played that tune as they surrendered at Yorktown.

The 20th century had more disruptive technological innovation than the 19th; the 21st century will be more, much more of the same. The attack of the micro-drones is just one of the surprises the future holds in store for us, and most of these surprises, like the drones, will be both blessing and curse.

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  • Jed

    “The attack of the micro-drones is just one of the surprises the future holds in store for us, and most of these surprises, like the drones, will be both blessing and curse.”

    It’s obvious how drones are a curse, but there’s no argument to be made that they’re a blessing.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Jed: I suspect it’s going to be harder for terrorists to operate and it’s also going be a lot harder for psychos to abduct kids. Fewer people are going to get lost and die in the wilderness. More quake victims and miners are going to be rescued. Firefighters and others making emergency repairs in places like nuclear power plants are going to have more and better information. Life is going to get a lot harder for poachers, especially in Africa; drones may save the rhinoceros.

  • Wired Magazine had some interesting history, and some thoughts about the potential uses for inexpensive drones:

    Coming, no doubt, ready or not. A bit scary, too.

  • Glen

    For the foreseeable future, the most common – and effective – “personal drone disrupter” is likely to be a common shotgun.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Glen: or perhaps a flyswatter. Some of those things are going to be fragile and small.

  • Kris

    [Comment disappeared?]

    WRM@5: Old-time religion.

  • Brendan Doran

    As far as drones…Abu Muqawama explains why not much changes..they know something about war over there.

  • thibaud

    The positives far outweigh the negatives here.

    Drones are to physical facilities services and location-based collaboration as surgical robots are to surgery.

    They’re a vastly improved, more effective and efficient means of coordinating any kind of physical collaboration that depends on real-time, geo-specific information.

  • doc feelgood

    That reminds me of that wonderful science fiction novel of Isaac Asimov, “Fantastic voyage”.

    A soviet scientist, owner of secrets on advanced miniaturization processes still unknown to the US scientists, has defected to the US, and is on his way to the weapon research center of the Pentagon to deliver his knowledge to the host nation.

    His car is rammed by another driven by KGB agents, The scientist, injured by the collision, falls into coma due to the formation of an edema in a brain vein.

    A team of medical doctors, attempting to rescue the poor fellow, gets onboard on a submarine. The sub is then miniaturized to microlevel into a drone version collected in solution in a syringe. It is injected into the blood stream of the dude. The story is pretty fascinating.

  • Charles Starnes

    If drones are truly dangerous in an un-defenseable way, wouldn’t it be unacceptable for rouge elements or adversarial governments to exist?

    The answer seems that tolerance for such groups would be nil. They would be inviting extinction from powerful actors (like us) whose constituents would have no tolerance and support giving no quarter.

    This was the argument for the Iraq war, but there were no more terrorist attacks and imminent fear faded in much of our citizenry.

    If populace lived in consistent fear of drone attacks or surveillance, there would be no constraint on our response(s).

    We’re not accustomed to that as an operating environment, and neither are our adversaries. It could easily become reality.

    That’s the best reason there will in reality be a check on how drones are used.

  • Kris

    doc@9: Fantastic Voyage was indeed a fun (and educational) novelization by Asimov. As to the movie, I have to object to any process that reduces anything of Raquel Welch.

    Charles@10: Forget drones. Biotech is the real danger.

  • Dave from Boston

    All these new technologies are going to make our existing conventional means of projecting power quite vulnerable and possibly obsolete.

    Can you imagine what a swarm of those things could do to a battle group? And all without being detected by any kind of radar I’m aware of.

  • “If populace lived in consistent fear of drone attacks or surveillance, there would be no constraint on our response(s).”

    A warm thanks to Mr Starnes for some acknowledgment of Human Nature actually operates. Politically dangerous waters, of course – you may be interpreted as suggesting that what would be deadly and horrific in the hands of our enemies may not be ALTOGETHER benevolent even in our own hallowed hands. And here I was getting the impression that absolute power only corrupts absolutely when placed in the hands of godless socialists.

    BTW, didn’t Tolkien – whom I’ll admit I may be misreading (can’t I get anything straight?) – have some interesting things to say about just this possibility? Or has he too become one of those “classics” whom everyone reads and nobody listens to?

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