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The mundane costs of independent drones

June 26, 2014

It’s been an aim of developers for quite a while to develop more independently functioning surveillance drones that can fly around and recharge themselves in some way – whether it’s solar gliders in the stratosphere or, at street level, biomimetic bird-like micro-UAVs that can ‘perch’ and draw power from electricity cables. This was one of the original aims of the DARPA call that led to the creation of that beautiful marvel of engineering / dystopian nightmare surveillance tool, the Nano Hummingbird. If you are an engineer, this is certainly convenient and probably looks a lot like a ‘free lunch’ – there is certainly no mention of any possible costs or downsides in this piece on engineering.com. But as we all should know, there is no such thing as free lunch.

Firstly and most importantly, there’s the question of whether societies want either identifiable or camouflaged surveillance devices flying around us at all times. A mobile surveillance device essentially becomes even more independent and less limited by its construction if it can ‘feed’ itself. And while the US Federal Aviation Authority in particular has just recently put a bar on commercial drone delivery services (PDF), it certainly hasn’t prohibited other kinds of drone use, and many other national regulatory bodies are yet to decide on what to do, while drone manufacturers are pushing hard for less ‘bureaucratic’ licensing and fewer controls.

The second objection is less fundamental but perhaps more effective at igniting opposition to such devices. It might be that any single device would draw minute amounts of power from cables, but what happens if (or when) there are thousands, even millions, of these devices – flying, crawling, creeping, rolling, slithering – and all hungry for electricity? I would suggest that, just like the cumulative effect of millions of computers and mobile phones, this would be substantial and unlike the claims made for smartphones, this would be additional rather than replacing less efficient devices. And this is not including the energy use of the huge server farms that provide the big data infrastructure for all of these things. So, who pays for this? Essentially we do: increased energy demand means higher bills and especially when the power is being drawn in an unaccountable way as with a biomimetic bird on a wire. And unlike the more voluntary decision to use a phone because of its benefits to us, paying for our own surveillance in this way would seem to be less obviously ‘for our own good’ and certainly has the potential to incite the ire of ‘ordinary middle-class homeowners’ (that holy grail of political marketing) and not just the usual small-government libertarian right or pro-privacy and anti-surveillance left.

 

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