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Rethinking drones
January 15, 2013

To have this discussion, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. One, “drone” is a wide-ranging term that technically means any remote-controlled vehicle. Second, it’s probably fair to say that the lion-share of money for drone technology has been coming from the military, to put toward the development and use of unmanned combat air vehicles, or simply “combat drones.” Due to this, it’s also probably fair to say that the exposure people have to the word “drone” is typically connected to the unmanned planes the United States uses in war.

The two conversations that are eating up headline space lately are the continuing discussion over “killer robots,” which almost always refer to autonomous combat drones, and President Obama’s new CIA nominee, John Brennan, who has become the face of the secret-but-not-so-secret combat drone program. On the peripheral, there is some discussion over drones being used for spying purposes and the privacy concerns that arise from that.

Unfortunately, that’s what you mainly hear about “drones” in the media. What you rarely hear about are non-military projects that could have a day-to-day impact on you or a positive effect on our knowledge and humanity in general. Chris Anderson over at diydrones.com has made such a list. Some of the ones that claimed a good amount of my research/interest time:

Drones being used to monitor ocean wildlife.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a demonstration off Oahu’s North Shore this week of a small unmanned aircraft the agency hopes will improve ocean monitoring and aid environmental research in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Puma AE, which has a 10-foot wingspan and weighs 13 pounds, can stay aloft for two hours and capture high-definition still photos and video. It is remotely operated.

[...]

It was designed to be quiet and avoid detection, which will allow researchers to observe wildlife at close range, Jacobs said.

“We don’t have to risk personnel being landed on the beaches,” he said. “Exotic species introduction potential gets eliminated and we believe it’ll be less potential for any disturbance of the critters that are being surveyed.”

Drones being used to track hurricanes.

“We are still a long ways away from replacing manned flights,” he said. Instead, the UAVs will supplement manned flights by flying at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet, thousands of feet above the thrashing winds and rain. One aircraft is designed to gather data about the environment around a storm, while the other UAV will study the storm itself.

It’s not the first time NASA has turned to spy aircraft for weather research. Since the 1970s, the space agency has used a version of the military’s U-2 aircraft to conduct a range of observations on everything from wildfires to migratory birds, as well as hurricanes. (During the 1960s, NASA unsuccessfully tried to help cover up Francis Gary Powers’s failed U-2 spy mission in the Soviet Union by claiming he got lost while conducting weather research.)

Like the military, NASA and NOAA are now looking to unmanned vehicles to either replace or bolster more traditional vehicles.

Make your own Google maps or we may be close to getting sky-high WiFi that could help quickly get communication lines setup in disaster zones. So on and so forth.

I’m not certain how the media picks up and comes to use certain terms, or whether it is media that influences our usage and abbreviations. It does seem to me though, from time-to-time, the abbreviation of some terms, like “combat drones” to simply “drones” does a disservice to an emerging technology that does need to be discussed in-whole rather than condemned or mulled over in-part.

Let’s talk about the ethical and moral issues of using combat drones in war, and how they figure into the greater context of war itself. Let’s also talk about the potential for unarmed drones to further tornado research, or the drones being used to rescue people. We could even bring up repurposing combat drones to deliver food to people, instead of bullets and bombs.

We can find good stories and still be accurate in how we use terms and perceive technology. That’s all I’m sayin’.

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