ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

Drone Makers Gather to Defend Their Much-Maligned Machines

At a recent conference on drones, manufacturers argue that drones don’t kill; the people ordering them around do.

Phantom, a drone designed to take photographs from the air, is demonstrated at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC), held at New York University, on Oct. 12, 2013. (Kike Calvo via AP Images)

“I have some d-word difficulty,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group for makers and enthusiasts of robots of air, land and sea.

The d-word, of course, is drones.

“Just when I say that word, ‘drrrrone,’” he intoned, waving his hands, “it has a negative connotation. Drone bees: they’re not smart, they just follow orders, they do things autonomously, and they die. When you think of a drone it’s just that, it does one thing and it blasts things out of the air.”

Toscano and I spoke over lunch at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference at New York University last weekend. Why was “drones” in the name? For one, it’s an attention grabber. For another, DARC is a “cool acronym,” said an organizer, even if it doesn’t help dispel the spooky associations that give Toscano a headache.

The conference was one part industry showcase, one part academic gathering, and one part workshop, reflecting the various camps of drone defenders and disparagers. Machines whirred around a stage in a demonstration, and their makers showed off a stream of videos of mountaintops, biking stunts, and cityscapes set to thumping music.

Far beyond their military uses, drones could pollinate crops, help firefighters – even accompany “a family on vacation in Hawaii,” said Colin Guinn, CEO of a company that makes drones for photography.

“There’s a reason we make the Phantom white, and not black. It’s not creepy. Look how cute it is!” said Guinn, referring to the small drone hovering at his side, flashing lights to charm its audience. (A researcher from Harvard arguably failed the creepy test, explaining to the audience what to consider “if you want to build a swarm of robotic bees.”)

The tech geeks, though, were almost outnumbered by those of another stripe: philosophers, lawyers, and critics who propose that drones are “a different ontological category,” of “social machines,” as Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, put it.

I asked Patrick Egan, President of the Silicon Valley chapter of Toscano’s group and editor at an industry blog, if drone manufacturers lay awake at night contemplating the ethics of technology, the brave new world that their products represent?

“The hyperbole is out of control,” he said. “It is transformative technology, but not in the way people think.”

The conference brought out some “different perspectives,” said Egan, who also does consulting for the military. “I’m on this panel with a women’s studies professor. She wants to say I’m a Randian. I don’t even get that. Hey, I’ve read a little Ayn Rand; right now I’m reading Naked Lunch! It wasn’t the industry that inspired me to do that.”

The U.S. has virtually no commercial civilian drone market, as the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to approve the widespread use of drones. In the past year, the public has increasingly pushed back against the drone war overseas and surveillance at home. ProPublica has covered the secrecy that surrounds the administration’s drone war, from signature strikes to civilian casualties. The lack of transparency (the government still won’t release documents related to its targeted killing program) has helped contribute to wariness about the pilotless craft.

But industry line at the conference was that drones are merely a technological platform, with a range of possibilities. They don’t spy, or kill; the people ordering them around do.

A panel on “life under drones” in Pakistan and Afghanistan turned tense when the presenters said they couldn't show images of drone victims. (The organizers said it was a technical issue.)

“I don’t understand the hostility,” one young engineer said in reaction.

Toscano hates that critiques of U.S. airstrikes zero in on drones. “It’s not a drone strike unless they physically fly the aircraft into whatever the target is. It is an airstrike because it launches a Hellfire missile or a weapon.”

Journalists in Yemen have made the same point about media using “drone” as a shorthand for U.S. military action in that country. But Toscano – who spent years involved in research and development at the Pentagon – also defends the use of military drones: “If they fly manned systems, some of them could be shot down. Would you want those pilots to be shot down?”

Domestic, unarmed drones were also scapegoats for the public’s concerns about privacy, he said. Other, more common technologies have already eroded privacy. The public lost privacy via “cellphones, they lost it on GPS, they lost it on the Internet. They can’t get that genie back in the bottle.” The difference with drones is that “we don’t have these systems flying.”

John Kaag, a philosopher at University of Massachusetts Lowell, had asked the audience at his lecture to stare into the eyes of the person next to them while he counted out five awkward seconds, to feel “the human” concern with surveillance. He advised the drone industry, “Make people know that you feel that.” Humans “are responsible, drones are not responsible.”

Toscano said he was fine with staring at the man beside him. “I’m an extrovert! The only thing I said to the guy is, ‘I don’t mind this at all but if you were a woman I’d probably enjoy it more.’”

And what about the concerns – both ethical and practical -- that autonomous machines take humans out of the equation in novel and dangerous ways?

Cars already do a lot of things autonomously, Toscano offered. Car crashes kill thousands every year, but we consider the technology indispensable to modern life.

“If Martians came down to earth and said we will cure all of cancer on the globe, and for doing it, you have to give me 100,000 of your people for me to cannibalize, to eat, would we do the deal? Most people would say no. Our society does not believe that cannibalism is acceptable.”

“Right now, in human nature, it’s unacceptable for a machine to kill a human being,” he said.

That’s why people are uncomfortable with driverless cars or drones, Toscano said. He’s confident the “risk acceptance” will change, and that fears about the technology will become as quaint as 19th-century concerns about elevators.

Sadly, many people are afraid. Very afraid. On a Canadian news website recently, I sifted through about 150 comments, the vast majority threatening to shoot down any drone visible in the sky above their heads that they suspected could be watching them. Of probably forty or fifty such comments only one made any reference to the fact that firing a rifle into the air would not be an especially safe thing to do. He (presumably a male) suggested using a shotgun (vs. the many “magnums” that the others proposed using) would be the better tool for the job.

But back to reality, there are many proposed positive uses for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) including for first responders, search and rescue and firefighting among the most useful.

I fly one and use it for viewing solar panel installations to check alignment, etc. such as the one here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXUggO6Jt5k&feature=youtu.be

When the FAA gets their act together to regulate and protect the national air space and allow commercial application of the UAVs, let’s hope that the hype and hysteria will be supplanted by rationality and that the positive use of this new technology can be implemented for good.

David Solomonoff

Oct. 18, 2013, 1:52 p.m.

While there are many useful, peacetime applications of drone tech the use of weaponized drones has frightening implications. This was discussed extensively at the conference and the best talk was by scifi novelist Daniel Suarez. Not online yet but he covers the same ground in this TEDtalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMYYx_im5QI He sees weaponized drones as an existential threat to the modern democratic nation-state as they can be used anonymously by organized crime and repressive governments alike. He proposed that robots should have no expectation of privacy and have a unique cryptographic signature burned into their hardware upon manufacture so they can always be located and identified.

There may be productive uses for drones but until a private citizen can use them to watch over government they should not be used to spy on the public without judicial oversight (warrent)!

There may be many good uses for drones….BUT when it comes to spying on the American Public, there needs to be PROTECTION for the public against ABUSE of the drones. We all know and have seen the potential abuse of law enforcement. There needs to be warrants, and accountability for the (accidental) death or as it has been referred to as collateral damage from those drones. If it is not safe for the public then keep them out of the hands of law enforcement.  There also needs to be strict and harsh punishment for those that choose to abuse the drones.

Luther Summers

Oct. 18, 2013, 7:18 p.m.

Following this logic, nor do land mines kill.

Marguerite Bouvard PH.D

Oct. 18, 2013, 9:56 p.m.

The use of drones in Pakistan in particular is regarded as an affront on national sovereignty. We may find one terrorist over a period of time, but killing so many civilians is neither humane nor wise, and it’s bad for our diplomatic relations. Further, many of our soldiers return from Afghanistan and Africa with combat stress…AND not many people realize that those who are involved in drone strikes do as well.

Debt Suspension Rights for Consumers, where are th

Oct. 18, 2013, 11:27 p.m.

The positive applications for drones far outweigh the bad. However, the use of bad applications for drones appear to far outweigh the good.

Mr. SHAHISLAM

Oct. 19, 2013, 1:35 a.m.

The humanitarian values have not yet been taught by Human races in all corners of the world; therefore, the criminals with killer’s mindset has not been cornered yet in some uncivilized or ‘Old dominion of royal Bengal tiger’ -type jungles or mountains.
Until then, we won’t have any real good use of these wonderful toys called Drones!

Rene Blanchard

Oct. 19, 2013, 6:28 a.m.

Michael Toscano really comes across as pretty crazy in this interview. Very ironic since his side likes to characterize anybody with any concerns about UAVs as paranoid and possibly delusional. Take everything he says with a huge grain of salt though considering he has everything to gain by convincing the masses that this is an inevitable reality, one that is only being held back by irrational morons. He is president and CEO of AUVSI, he worked at the Pentagon - he wants a drone-filled future for his own financial needs. He needs to be a bully to shame you into thinking he knows what’s best for you.

“It’s not a drone strike unless they physically fly the aircraft into whatever the target is. It is an airstrike because it launches a Hellfire missile or a weapon.”

Wow, total doublespeak. He feels the need to mince it that way because he doesn’t want people going around giving drones a bad name. He’s in total denial. And he wants you to be the same way. Drones don’t kill people…

“Right now, in human nature, it’s unacceptable for a machine to kill a human being,” he said.
That’s why people are uncomfortable with driverless cars or drones, Toscano said. He’s confident the “risk acceptance” will change, and that fears about the technology will become as quaint as 19th-century concerns about elevators.

Drones aren’t elevators, you sick, twisted old fruit. You’re asking us to accept your dystopian vision or be labeled a Luddite.
And yeah, right now it’s completely acceptable for unmanned machines to kill people, even innocent ones sometimes. Pakistan ring a bell? The UN just received a report that at least 200 non-combatant civilians have been killed by US drone strikes.

So if you want to believe this guy, yeah, let’s go full steam ahead. Bring out the little drones too. Hes right; privacy died a long time ago. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy, even way up in the mountains. And who cares about safety? Let’s get these things in the air ASAP! That guy who almost got hit by a falling drone in New York? A fluke. You’ll get use to the annoying buzz - besides your rights don’t matter, only the rights of the enthusiasts matter. Hell, let’s legalize RC planes flying around our neighborhoods as well while we’re at it!

It is astounding and shows an astonishing lack of empathy on the part of the CEOs and Drone producers that they wish to profit on a product that has killed so many innocent children, babies, mothers, fathers and innocent people.  Greed by these CEOs and their employees who would eat their lunch on the dead bodies and illegal acts their drones commit daily and no blink an eye. I have heard it said: “the worst thing you can be called today is a human being”.  Toscano and his ilk are definitely ‘human beings’. May the Force strike them down through a drone attack on them and theirs.

Rene:

Uh, basically drones are RC planes.

And there’s nothing intrinsicly bad about drone aircraft. They don’t necessarily need to be spying on anything. They could be used for monitoring air quality, watching real-time traffic flow, inspecting pipelines, doing scientific research.

A drone aircraft is just a tool.

A few years ago I worked with a fellow doing research on air-sea interaction to understand how tiny droplets of spray called aerosols propagate.

To do this he had to fly in a light plane at very low altitude (like 20 feet!) over the ocean surface. One small mistake by the pilot and they would have been fish food.

A drone would have been a much better, safer device.

See? No guns. No spying. Just science.

You do like science, don’t you?

“Right now, in human nature, it’s unacceptable for a machine to kill a human being,” he said…

... just before David met Goliath. From then on, Onward and Upward.

Just the other day I was explaining to someone what a hexacopter was. In the process of trying to describe the uses to which they could be put, I found myself becoming acutely aware of the not so positive possibilities.

Swarms of these (i.e. hundreds) could be dispatched by organized groups (name them what you will) deep into forested areas during the fire risk season, carrying payloads of incendiary devices and setting off massive wildfires that could have a tremendous impact in a variety of ways (economic loss, lost realty, degraded air quality, human displacement and so on).

A firearm could replace a camera and be employed to shoot at a variety of high impact targets, such as politicians, celebrities, or even softer targets such as children in school playgrounds. The same kind of technology that can center a field of view on a person’s head and shoulders for a camera shot can also be employed to do the same for a head shot (and not the Hollywood kind).

Other payloads could include radioactive materials in the form of dust, scattered over swathes of populated areas or even fields of produce, causing long term impacts in obvious ways.

The low cost of entry into these activities virtually guarantees their use in the near future. After all, if I can imagine these uses (and I have no ax to grind) imagine the uses that an especially motivated group could devise and implement in a very short space of time and for very little outlay.

I don’t know how anyone could protect themselves against such a threat. If the targets of legitimately launched weaponized drones can be taken out with no warning, what chance do the rest of us stand?

Yep. Just an RC plane, Rene. _Do_ you like science??

And… rope can be used to strangle people. Let’s ban rope.
  How about a reality check, people! Geeze.

Peter B:

There are all sorts of threat out there in the world. Sure, some nutcase could go to the effort of building some sort of lethal radiation-spreading drone.

Or they could just go to their local gun shop and buy a Bushmaster.

Which do you think is more likely?

I’m betting on good old fashioned bullets, myself.

Steve: it would be nutcases - plural. And on a bang for the buck basis (bad pun - sorry :)) the drone could cause far more damage. Since the numbers of governments that have access to radioactive waste is going up, the opportunities for obtaining those materials and creating not so much a dirty bomb, but a dirty crop spreader, is increasing.

Today’s groups have both short term and long term goals. The short term stuff is obvious - bomb a Fun Run. The long term stuff involves creating serious financial impacts to a nation’s economy - and it’s the small groups that have that aim, rather than the big guys.

Buying a Bushmaster exposes you to examination. Building a drone doesn’t.

The problem is that all the good uses of UAVs (so we’re not using “drone”) are currently illegal.  You can’t get a license to deliver food to people at local parks.  You can’t get a license to take aerial pictures of property lines.  Commercial drone use isn’t happening.

Cops want them to follow people around, and they get them.  The military wants to bomb people without any human intervention.  Eventually, that technology will end up in the hands of cops.

Oh, and if you want to peep into your neighbor’s window, that’s cool, as long as you don’t try to make money off the pictures.

So, they’re right.  UAVs get a bad rap.  But they don’t understand that the reputation is because of what they are and are not permitting people to do.  If they were more restrictive on the dangerous stuff and less dangerous on the fun and interesting, maybe they wouldn’t have an image problem…

But hey, that’s like Congress wondering why their approval rating is so low, I guess.  It has to be our fault, not theirs.

Peter B:

Every new technology can be misused.

Cell phones can be used as remote triggering devices for bombs. Should we ban them?

Automobiles carry drive by shooters. Should we ban them?

Computers can be misused in all sorts of ways, from stealing credit card information to spying on the public. Should we ban them?

You can concot all sorts of what security smart person Bruce Schneier calls “movie plot scenarios” and some of them might even be realizable (did you know Dick Cheney was afraid someone would “hack” his pacemaker, by the way?) but seriously, do we constrain ourselves because of what some screenwriter can come up with for the latest Die Hard potboiler?

Your last paragraph made me laugh: “Buying a Bushmaster exposes you to examination.”

It might but given the carnage we’ve seen as the result of someone buying a Bushmaster or its ilk, it may expose one to “examination” but apparently not all that much.

Steve:

Everything and anything can be misused - that’s a given. But I don’t think I advocated banning anything in my post. Maybe you read that into it but it wasn’t there, I assure you.

What I did say was: How do you protect yourself against a threat such as a UAV?

If there’s a way to be warned of the presence of a UAV (Personal radar, maybe? Community microphones linked to citizen-manned listening centers?) then that also benefits criminals who might be surveilled by law enforcement, or targets of government controlled UAVs/drones operating in other countries.

So it’s quite a quandary, but also an issue that needs to be aired and examined since a failure to do so creates a vulnerability. Raising awareness is never a bad thing.

Laws often seem to play into the hands of criminals. For example, ordinary citizens are not allowed to own bulletproof vests (though I’m sure some do). But who would want to have to wear one every time they went to school, the movie theater or the mall anyway?

Such legal bans are in place not because they have any real preventative effect at the time, but so that when the laws are broken there is a justification to take the perpetrator to court and stand some chance of taking them out of the general population by incarcerating them if they are found guilty. It doesn’t for example stop people being shot, but it does go some way to preventing it happening again and again (even if the public perception is that it happens all the time).

No system that involves human action is perfect. In the last few days two criminals managed to inveigle their way out of prison well ahead of time by creating and somehow inserting forged documents into the release process. They didn’t do this in isolation. The investigation will uncover the vulnerabilities in the system that allowed this to happen and will plug them. And that’s all you can do - constantly plug the holes.

Ridiculing attempts to prevent catastrophic events is not constructive. If you know there’s a better solution that is workable, propose it and let it be subject to the same review process as every other proposed solution.

But don’t just scoff and dismiss all attempts you dislike with “That’ll never work.” We’ve already got enough members of the Party of No.

a major flaw in Toscano’s argument at the end of the article is the concept of accountability. in a car crash/war or other injury/killing, the driver can be held accountable for his or her error. if decisions are being made by a computer, no one will be held accountable if something goes wrong. at least not according to the current “corporate shield” legal protections.

also, i’m pretty sure we could find 100,000 guilty of capital crimes in the world if martians were really going to cure cancer.

John: Apparently the FAA will be issuing licenses in 2015.

Personal UAVs are constrained to a flight ceiling of 400ft; commercial uses are forbidden (such as aerial photography) but only if money changes hands for the actual filming.

It seems the commercial ventures are sidestepping that restriction by filming for free and charging for subsequent editing.

Some of these hobbyist beasts are quite beefy - I watched a Youtube video of one unit lifting 50lbs weight (put in the Youtube URL and add a slash and “watch?v=8F0Q0v7H_9Q” to the end.)

Peter, you’re right that there are dodges and the government will allegedly revise the plan soon-ish.  But that’s also part of my point, which is that we, the citizens of this country, need to take baby steps and be watched to make sure we’re not doing anything bad (unless you’re devious enough to dodge the licensing requirements), while they, the officials who worry that we’re not putting enough faith in their use of drones, can use them to blow up third-world towns, monitor the population, and do pretty much whatever they like, including occasionally debate whether it’d be OK to drone-bomb an American civilian on U.S. soil.

In other words, folks like Toscano want us to believe that we’re the problem.  We have all these weird conspiracy theories about drone use, and it’s their job to run a propaganda campaign to clean up the image.

It’s not.  It’s the fault of whoever decided what should and should not be permitted with a UAV today.

The easy parallel is to the NSA.  Washington keeps complaining that the outrage is because of the whistle-blowers, rather than the fact that the surveillance program is inappropriate and/or ineffective.

John:

Agreed. The thing that occurs to me though is that UAVs are a kind of leveler (in that they level the playing field, but in a scary way).

In the past it was reported that hackers had managed to bring down drones in the Middle East. The fear there was that such hijacks would result in disgruntled groups gaining access to superior technology. But they were too far away to be a direct threat to people in the US.

However, the real threat IMHO is that individuals or groups resident in the US (of all stripes) will give vent to their frustrations using home-grown UAVs and in a variety of ways. There’s been little or no discussion of that issue - it far outweighs the threat posed by ready access to firearms, and potentially could impact the average US citizen in ways that are orders of magnitude greater than the nutjob with a semi-automatic ever could.

Debt Suspension Rights for Consumers, Where Are Th

Oct. 22, 2013, 2:56 p.m.

I guess what makes Drones a danger is the speed and elevation at which they operate.

If the Drone speed was limited to say, 15 miles an hour, and the distance above ground at which they traveled was no more than a hundred feet, then their purpose would have to be peaceful otherwise they could more easily be shot out of the sky.

Could we just say no to military and surveillance uses of drones?  Period.  Could the US govt. stop funding drone research and development? Could we ban the export of drones for any reason?

If drones have beneficial uses in firefighting, monitoring weather conditions, mapping the world, and other non-military ventures, developers and manufacturers of drones should be able to produce them and fund research without subsidies from US taxpayers and without sales to military organizations throughout the world.

People who control armed drones kill people.  People who control drones designed for surveillance spy on people.  Drones don’t reproduce themselves or have ethical concerns.  People do.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.

optional

Our Hottest Stories

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •