Drone On

One of my favourite articles is Tim Wu’s piece, The Tyranny of Convenience, published earlier this year on the New York Times’ website – a long-ish read, highly captivating, which means something coming from someone known for her inability to finish what she starts. Wu paints a picture of a world with one foot constantly on the accelerator, with no maximum speed in sight. With increased speed should come the luxury of free time, which today quickly becomes cluttered with more bite-sized speed-tasks. In this state of self-induced time poverty, we yearn for ease – next day delivery, ‘freelance’ task-based labour, flat-packed furniture and flat-packed dinner kits, overnight transportation and other ways of working around the standard human needs of food, water and sleep. Technology weaves its way in, facilitating the food-water-sleep cycle at a million miles an hour, and yet promising the utopia of having everything available at the touch of a button. Private interests in keeping this cycle alive and kicking, adding an extra module of ‘consume’ to keep themselves alive and kicking too.

A recent manifestation of consumption on (airborne) wheels came in the form of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – UAV, more commonly known as a drone – making Amazon deliveries and even more bizarrely, pizza deliveries (perhaps if you’re going to delve into airborne food delivery, a more nutritious product would make more sense, but alas, a discussion for another day). The business benefits of the drone are obvious: eliminating people from the equation means deliveries can be made outside the food-water-sleep-consume cycle that humans are still weak for, not to mention their outrageous demands of pay. Next-day delivery is no longer cutting it for a world with one foot constantly on the accelerator – we want whatever we want by yesterday. We want our needs to be anticipated and exceeded, not just met. And of course, if we can do all of the above without having to interact with another human, even better.

It’s too easy to hold the inanimate object, in this case the drone, responsible for our current state: socially challenged, deliberate isolation, and unrealistic expectations being some of the maladies that we have inflicted upon ourselves. Drones are a great example of technology as a tool rather than a fixed solution, with a single mandate and outcome. Technology is just there to be employed in whatever way the user sees fit, and ultimately the technology becomes a reflection of the user. This realisation makes it all the more ironic that we have begun policing drone usage in order to ensure that other airborne technologies are protected. The drone, therefore, embodies our new culture of extreme impatience, but only in the use-case that is most familiar to us.

In a Positive-News-esque fashion, the hope is to prove that drones, and other scarifying technology, is just as good, bad, productive or destructive as we want it to be. Technology by itself is not the threat, but rather conflicting motives, goals and definitions of success, an age-old struggle of humanity which is even more pronounced in a globalised context.

 

Emergency Aid

Climate deniers will no doubt find a ludicrous explanation for the recent increase in natural disasters (as I’m writing this, I’m remembering the BBC Breakfast segment I watched this morning which covered severe natural disasters in India, Florida, Majorca and Indonesia in one breath), but those of us who have faith in hard science have resigned ourselves to the fact that our planet is crumbling at an exponential rate. Recognising the fragility and insignificance of human beings in the face of large-scale natural disasters, drones are being used to provide aerial views of disaster-stricken areas, where the terrain may have become inaccessible or dangerous to other humans. Organisations like Drones for Disasters and Consortiq are both actively campaigning for, and simultaneously building, cost-effective drone solutions that, like an Amazon package or a pizza, also allow for the delivery of essentials, food and water to those stuck in remote, disaster-prone conditions.

Widely in the theme of emergency aid, Australia is piloting an everyday emergency response solution to deploy drones in case of crime, fire or medical emergency, eliminating the life-threatening need for emergency services vehicles to awkwardly speed their way through civilian traffic. Before you rush to tell me that drones cannot actually carry out any of the important work that firefighters, police and paramedics do, yes, you’re right – but the drones have been programmed and fed algorithms to be able to conduct situational judgements, which in turn allow the skilled humans to get on with solving the problem upon arrival.

Pairing human emergency and technology always has an eerie dynamic, and the conversation subsequently turns to the topic of ‘trust’: do we trust this technology enough to put our lives in its hands? Seems in itself a redundant question to ask; the political, cultural, religious, social, racial, and gendered distrust between humans is probably at its highest ever as we hurtle towards individualist utopia. Our personal devices are probably more likely to know snippets of information that we would only entrust to the closest friends and family, and we didn’t even explicitly have to tell it. We already trust technology.

 

Nature Surveillance

As more humans become part of the food-water-sleep-consume cycle, the facilities, infrastructure and resources required to keep up with our strength in numbers are stretched to their limits. Just over a tenth of the world’s surface is busy churning out the bare bones of our food intake today – while this may not sound like a lot, in context of the 71% ocean that we have to contend with, this is an awful lot of the 29% we are fit to live on. Agriculture is an empowering industry, both for small, family-owned business, and for trade in developing economies. But insatiable demand for food and crops means ever more land is needed, more hectares than a single, or even group of, humans, can manage without the help of superhuman strengths.

Enter drones. LiDAR technology facilitates remote monitoring of crops, measuring crop height, density and harvest readiness by using the one equation we all remember from GCSE Physics: distance= speed multiplied by time. And despite almost half of the planet’s land surface being dedicated to crop growth, there is, or could be, room for more. So LiDAR also finds the sweet spots for crop expansion, making its judgements by measuring not only for presence of water, but also for water quality and temperature.

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Humans can’t keep up with human demands anymore, which should be the first red flag to slow down. But we are smart or stupid enough to fashion machines that can mimic human activity at the pace at which the world now needs humans to function. The malleability of technology is what makes it simultaneously cool and terrifying. On one side of the world, drone-racing might be a hobby, while on the other, drones bring fresh hope and economic prosperity.

I’ll close with another ‘favourite’ of mine: the final episode of Season Three of Black Mirror, in which, without giving too much away, a near-future London depends on AI swarm technology – in other words, a self-teaching network of drones – to facilitate the pollination process after the bee population reaches a critical low. What an imaginative way to avert a potential crisis (ignoring for now that humans were most likely the primary cause for the near-extinction). The tech is already here, whether that is drones, interconnected devices, or RaspberryPis, but it’s all redundant until we find problems to creatively solve. So, nothing to be afraid of, but ourselves.