There is a natural socio-cultural pessimism surrounding unmanned drones. The idea of a horizon filled with independently operated or completely unmanned devices, flitting absently from place to place while loaded with recording and communications devices (Graham, 2010, in Jensen, 2016, pg.69), hasn’t proved palatable enough amongst consumers, organisations, or governments to warrant becoming widespread.
Or at least not yet.
Links to surveillance (Jensen, 2016, pp.71-72) and targeted attacks in modern warfare, in particular, have created an atmosphere of distrust around these machines that seem to distance human action, and sometimes error, from reason and forethought (Gregory, 2011, pg.192).
However, the potential for drone technology stretches far beyond this limited, and often distorted outlook (as Gregory highlights, it often actually takes entire teams of service personnel to operate a single drone (2011, pg.194)).
Jensen states that: “one key issue when looking at the emergence of drone technologies is whether they will also hold empowering potential for institutions other than states, government bodies, commercial enterprises and organised crime,” (2016, pg.67), and here is where we will look at drones from a more everyday, practical perspective.
Large organisations such as Facebook and Amazon have been piloting (pun intended) the use of drone technology for social good (Facebook, which seems ironic, in the current climate surrounding the company) and to enhance the experience of consumers (Amazon). for some time. With individuals also having the access to purchase and deploy these machines, this creates: “a scenario of little attractiveness,” (Jensen, 2016, pg.67), whereby cities could become swarmed by hordes of remotely operated, or programmed machines, zipping around the skies with unregulated freedom and increasing social tension (see clips from an episode of South Park, below).
Many other small startups and scaleup businesses are also deploying the technology in ways that bridge the gap between consumerism and improving quality-of-life. Zipline, for instance, delivers medical supplies across the vast and often unnavigable terrain of Rwanda – the: “land of one thousand hills,” and soon-to-be home to the world’s first drone port (Flood, 2016).
In countries where terrain is usually easier to travel through and over, however, the same concept is being used. Developed by Cambridge Consultants, DelivAir is a drone delivery concept that puts products and services, directly into the hands of customers – wherever they are. Rather than deliver to an address, it delivers to people – including medical aides such as Epi-pens. In the words of Nathan Wrench, from Cambridge Consultants, DelivAir: “has the potential to revolutionise the delivery process, by removing the address restriction that other drone technologies are limited by. We are taking cloud retail to the next level, delivering out of the clouds and into your hand,” (Press Release, 2017).
So with the potential for drones as practical, even essential devices, transferred from war-zone / no-go zone, to hard-to-reach areas – into the lives of western consumers, will any of the pessimism fade?
Unfortunately not, according to Jensen: “Needless to say, the ethical issues connected to drone technology do not go away simply because we turn to domestication and naturalisation within cities that are not in war-like conflicts.” (2016, pg.68). As we see in South Park, albeit a parody, above: “The use of drones in non-combat settings may symbolically transform those sites to areas of agnostic engagement and further militarise domestic police departments and government agencies,” (Wall and Monahan, in Jensen, 2016, pg.69).
Jain (in Jensen, 2016, pg.70) suggests that the mixed feelings surrounding drone technology represent a wider school of thought, about how society could live with and amongst these and similar technologies in the future. While the opportunities afforded the everyday could be significant, so could the opportunities afforded corporate and governmental agencies, and the question remains as to whether such affordances will ever outweigh fears. While drone technology may currently thrive in ‘the land of a thousand hills’, there’s no guarantee, yet, that this will transfer to lands of several-thousand buildings.
Cambridge Consultants: press release (2017). The future of drone delivery. Cambridge Consultants [online resource]. Available at: https://www.cambridgeconsultants.com/press-releases/future-drone-delivery [accessed April 2018].
Flood, Z., (2016). From killing machines to agents of hope: the future of drones in Africa. The Guardian [online resource]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/africas-drone-rwanda-zipline-kenya-kruger [Accessed April 2018].
Gregory, D., (2011). From a View to a Kill. Theory, Culture & Society. 28, 7-8. pp.188-215.
Jensen, O., (2016). Drone city – power, design and aerial mobility in the age of “smart cities”. Geographica Helvetica. 71. pp.67-75.