Robots have already changed the face of modern warfare, particularly through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called “drones.” Currently, armed drone aircraft are in widespread use transnationally and have proven highly effective. A current trend is for these huge aircraft to shrink into smaller forms. The US Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047 describes sought-after future scenarios in which insect-sized unmanned aerial vehicles infiltrate buildings and either spy on the occupants or deliver lethal payloads directly to individual targets. Current drones are the size of small buildings and they typically kill one civilian for every five combatants using flagrant missile attacks, thereby creating an ongoing international relations nightmare. It isn’t hard to see why smaller, more subtle, and better-targeted drones are in development.
The most worrisome aspect of the plunging cost and climbing sophistication of drone technology is to consider its domestic use in the United States. Although I don’t expect to see armed Predator drones cruising American cities, it is obviously very tempting to employ smaller versions for domestic law enforcement applications (e.g., surveillance during hostage negotiations). How long until similar devices are sent to hover over high-crime areas? We are already confronting novel privacy issues with the advent of Google Glass, increasingly invasive social networks, and sensor-laden smart phones. As drones of all shapes and sizes proliferate abroad, I won’t be surprised when we start to see their appropriate use join the ongoing privacy discussion in the US.