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Bard Features

Military and Civilian Implications: The Debate Over Drones

Dan Gettinger ’13 (left) and Arthur Holland Michel ’13, holding a
student-built drone.
Photo by Don Hamerman.

In the

By Dan Gettinger ’13 and Arthur Holland Michel ’13

As seniors, Arthur Holland Michel ’13 and Dan Gettinger ’13 created the Center for the Study of the Drone, an interdisciplinary research and arts project based at Bard. The idea was to bring together academics from a variety of disciplines to discuss, study, and learn about unmanned and autonomous systems technology and its implications for warfare, law enforcement, and other civilian applications. Their project has evolved to include seminars, lectures, debates, roundtable discussions at Bard and in New York City, a blog, and a weekly news roundup that Thomas Keenan, associate professor of comparative literature and director of Bard’s Human Rights Project, calls “one of the most authoritative sources anywhere for news about drones of all sorts.”

Gettinger’s interest in drones began in his sophomore year, when he took a seminar taught by Walter Russell Mead, James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities. Gettinger was intrigued by Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War and how choices in weapons platforms affected the strategies of the ancient city-states. His Senior Project explored drones and the changing nature of modern warfare. Holland Michel, a double major in historical studies and written arts, broached the idea of a center for studying drones to Gettinger. In fall 2012, the two assembled a faculty team and helped design a course on drones that met with overwhelming student response, and the center took flight.

At the time we first talked about creating the Center for the Study of the Drone, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen were peaking. Al Jazeera and the New York Times were regularly running stories about these operations, which the CIA was refusing to acknowledge. Drones hadn’t become a media sensation yet, but a public debate on the issue had begun. Advocates claimed that drones were more precise, surgical, and humane than the alternatives, while human rights activists decried the loss of civilian life, the psychological trauma of living under drones, and the threat that drones pose to privacy. The debate seemed inarticulate, misinformed, and immobilized by its own narrowness. This, we soon figured out, was no accident. Nobody really understood the drone—nobody really even knew what a drone was.

Defining the word “drone” is an exceedingly complex challenge. In the public imagination, a drone is a weaponized, unmanned aircraft that watches, and engages, members of extremist organizations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. But from a technological perspective, this definition is too narrow. An unmanned submarine is technically a drone, too. One of our goals was to help broaden the public definition of drones to include all kinds of unmanned vehicles, be they airborne, land borne, or aquatic. As we understand it, a drone is a machine that uses sensors to collect information about its environment, and then uses actuators to either manipulate its own location and orientation in that environment or manipulate the environment itself. Some drones require a human controller to be in the loop; others can respond to their environment autonomously, according to their programming. All drones, no matter their shape or size, are irresistible, fascinating, uncanny, and somewhat terrifying; we want to find out why, and how, the combination of appeal and fear influences the public conversation. This is becoming increasingly important, as drones are not just for foreign operations anymore.

In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to create licensing procedures and air traffic rules for unmanned aerial vehicles in United States airspace. Unmanned technology is set to become an enormous industry, with some insider optimists predicting that the sector could be worth up to $400 billion in the next few years. More realistic estimates range between $13 billion and $85 billion. Whatever the dollar figure, demand for drones is expected to be extremely high. A farmer who previously operated a $3 million helicopter to survey his crops for $6,000 an hour will be able to run a $20,000 multirotor drone for a few hundred dollars per day (agriculture is expected to account for 80 percent of domestic acquisitions). Police departments will turn to unmanned aerial vehicles as a cheap and effective alternative to manned helicopters. NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) already fly military hand-me-down drones to survey animal migratory patterns and weather changes. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection bureau maintains a fleet of drones, which it lends to police departments, the FBI, and U.S. Department of Justice agencies.

The unmanned vehicle industry is growing despite the fact that the use of drones by law enforcement agencies is controversial. In this era of pervasive surveillance, the idea of government agencies acquiring yet another highly capable surveillance platform to monitor the domestic population is unpopular. Fears of an era of unbounded aerial surveillance have prompted state and local legislatures across the nation to pass bills that curtail aerial surveillance by both private citizens and government organizations. But drone technology, like the Internet, has developed far more quickly than the policies that are meant to regulate it. Driven by the promise of high profits, the industry is developing ever more sophisticated drones, from solar-powered drones that can remain airborne for up to five years to drones the size of insects. Each new drone is accompanied by a set of new ethical questions and policy challenges.

When Amazon announced in December that the company was developing a system for drones to deliver packages under five pounds to Amazon customers in 30 minutes, the prospect of large-scale domestic drone use departed from the realm of hobbyists and futurists and entered mainstream society. By putting its weight behind the controversial idea of domestic drones, Amazon thrust the drone debate into high gear, and highlighted the need for an informed policy response. Crucially, the Amazon announcement put pressure on the FAA to develop a domestic drone integration plan—an extremely complex task. The announcement mattered because it will require society to develop a framework for understanding the implications of unmanned technology beyond the current limited scope of the drone debate. What remains to be seen is whether Amazon’s drone delivery system will actually work in time for the prospective 2015 launch date. Critics note a long list of safety concerns. For example, many believe that Amazon drones can’t possibly work in crowded urban environments. Nevertheless, Amazon’s backing could help the technology and regulatory communities resolve lingering safety and privacy concerns. The question seems to be “when will this happen?”
rather than “will this ever happen?”

This past fall, Keith O’Hara, assistant professor of computer science, taught (De-)Coding the Drone. The four-credit class, which we designed with Professor O’Hara, combines hands-on training in unmanned systems programming with a humanities-based reading list and guest speakers from philosophy, the arts, history, and political science. The fall also saw a formal debate on drones (“Resolved: Drones Do More Good Than Harm”) with Bard students, cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and faculty from both institutions.

In a bid to help the public organize the mass of information and media buzz surrounding this subject, we created the Weekly Roundup, a short, accessible list of the latest news, analysis, commentary, art, and tech from the drone world. Each week, the roundup goes out to an expanding community of interested citizens, researchers, pilots, artists, journalists, and writers. The blog features news analysis, portfolios, and interviews, while the website is a platform for historical, cultural, and aesthetic perspectives on current events. The interviews on the website attempt to bring unheard voices into the conversation about drones. In late fall, for example, we interviewed Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist and engineer who uses unmanned technology to create environmental solutions, and is considered a leading voice on the intersection of art, environmentalism, and technology. In 1997 she created the first-ever piece of “drone art,” flying a small, camera-equipped drone over large tech campuses in Silicon Valley.

The center’s efforts have been praised by a number of influential people and organizations. When Dan wrote about how the German Pirate Party (a socially liberal party favoring Internet freedom and political transparency, among other issues) flew a drone toward German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a campaign rally, the story was distributed widely among the Pirate Party and its supporters. Our work has been quoted by Bloomberg News, and featured in Slate, USA Today, Wired, Artforum, and elsewhere. In January and February, we cosponsored two panel discussions at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. We are also providing research for the filmmaker Carl Colby’s forthcoming feature documentary on domestic weaponized drone use.

Initiatives to expand the center’s programs include concepts for tech literacy programs at Bard’s partner institutions, including the Bard High School Early Colleges, and development of an online archive for research about drones. We are confident that, through this collective enterprise, the public will be better equipped to face the social, economic, ethical, and political challenges that lie ahead.

Read the spring 2014 issue of the Bardian:

Post Date: 07-14-2014