The skies are alive with the sound of pilotless aircraftSunday, June 1, 2014
Game of drones
For The Herald
I can explain. There has been more and more talk about drones in recent years, for the obvious reason that their numbers and diversity have been — how shall I put it? — climbing sky high. But that talk seemed to come mainly under three headings alone: a debate on whether their military uses were right or wrong; the airing of privacy preoccupations regarding their use by police, and praise for their civilian uses in such areas as agriculture.
All this appeared to be overlooking some hugely important concerns, so I jumped at the chance to interview one of the world’s savviest people on the subject. Not being at liberty to disclose his name, or even where our meeting took place, I shall be referring to him simply as a Foremost Expert on Drones, or Fed for short.
“So, please tell me, Fed,” was my opening shot, no sooner had we said hello and sat down, “what will happen when the bad guys use drones in a big way too, and also when drones themselves rain down from the sky? Although I hope I’m wrong.”
Fed scrutinized me a bit more carefully than before. “Do you have paranoid tendencies?”
“Of course,” I answered. “I came of age in the 20th century. And I am an Argentine. If I weren’t paranoid, it could only mean I have never read the papers properly.”
Fed smiled. “But in this matter, you can relax. The only ones who have something to fear from drones are terrorists and criminals. Aren’t you glad that a tool has been developed against people who set off bombs and hide in inaccessible places?”
“I thought I was interviewing you, not the other way around,” I sulked. “But yes, I’m very glad. In fact, I have written articles arguing just that point. The problems arise when you look beyond that issue. First: nasty people could be equally crafty in the use of drones.”
“We’re a step ahead of them,” Fed replied, with a confident wave of the hand.
“The use of drones by police forces and firefighters,” I persisted, “is coming under regulation. Even their use by military forces is ultimately under civilian government supervision. But the use of drones by the public is quite free. All you need is the money to buy or build one, and the cost is coming down fast. So my question to you, as an expert in this field, is: what’s to keep crooks from using drones to unobtrusively case banks, to give just one example?”
Fed smiled broadly. “They won’t.”
“Are you sure?”
Fed had spoken. My fears soothed on that account, I turned to another subject. “Look at the trend. Civilian drones, of all sizes, may one day be as common as personal computers are now. I don’t see people rushing to mention this, but what happens if a drone is sucked into an airliner engine?”
“Airliners fly much higher than drones.”
“Well, a small plane, then, could hit a drone, with ugly consequences. And besides, drones are flying higher — and airliners themselves fly low, too, when taking off or landing. So, what does happen if they suck in a drone?”
Fed smiled more expansively yet. “It’ll never happen, I can assure you.”
“Can you guarantee that?”
One-hundred percent! That set me at ease. Still, I had one major worry left. “With a high density of drones, what if they crash into one another — or run into overhead cables — and fall to the ground and hit something?”
“They have cameras to see where they’re going.”
“The cameras may point down, or in another direction than what’s straight ahead. When they’re rising, they may not be looking up. I see a future in which guys send drones ahead of their cars to scout for traffic jams. The real traffic jam may form in the sky above them.”
I could see Fed’s eyes dance at the notion. Maybe he hadn’t thought of that market segment? Impossible — he was the one of the world’s top savants in drone affairs.
Nevertheless, I pressed the point. “I can imagine, let’s see... spectators in a stadium, sending drones to show them the action from other angles.” (Fed nodded, in ecstasy). “Two of their drones could collide. Even if they are small — say, the size of watches — wouldn’t something like a watch, if falling on a person’s head from a height of a hundred metres or so, be extremely uncomfortable?”
Fed’s smile had by now grown so wide I had to send out a drone to find the end of it. “No, no, no,” he calmed me. “Such a thing will never come to pass. Take it from me.”
Well, that settled it, coming from Fed. Fully reassured at last, I thanked him, and left. In the air above, as I walked the street, the engines of little darting and hovering gadgets were keeping up a — dare I say it? — steady drone.
Nicolás Meyer, who welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, is a Spanish-English-German translator.