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Why Drones Should Make You Afraid. Very Afraid

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Are drones far down on your list of anxieties? Do lethal flying robots seem like something Pakistanis, Afghans and other inhabitants of faraway lands need to fear but not Americans? Let me give you a few reasons why Americans should be worried. Most of this material–plus much more–can be found in “The Drones Come Home,” my article for the March issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Lethal "Switchblade" drone can fit in a backpack.

*The Obama administration has pledged to relax Federal Aviation Administration restrictions by 2015 to make it easier for the 18,000 U.S. law-enforcement agencies to deploy drones for surveillance and other uses. According to a report in today’s New York Times, the Department of Homeland Security has also offered grants to help police departments purchase drones, which are “becoming a darling of law-enforcement authorities across the country.”

*The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding research on “micro-drones” that resemble moths, hummingbirds and other small flying creatures and hence can “hide in plain sight,” as one Air Force researcher told me. The Air Force is now testing micro-drones at facilities such as the “micro-aviary” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

*These micro-drones could be armed. The Air Force has produced an extrordinarily creepy animated video extolling possible applications of “Micro Air Vehicles,” which a narrator extols as “unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal.”  The video shows winged drones swarming out of the belly of a plane and descending on a city, where the drones stalk and kill a suspect.

*The U.S. military has already deployed a drone, called “Switchblade” (see photo), that has foldable wings and can be packed into a tube not much bigger than a loaf of Italian bread. Switchblade packs a grenade-size charge.

*The Obama regime has quietly compiled legal arguments for assassinations of American citizens without a trial, as reported recently by NBC News. The administration has already carried out extrajudicial drone assassinations of at least two American citizens, the alleged Muslim militants Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who were killed in Yemen in 2011.

*The enthusiasm of the U.S. for drones has triggered an international arms race. More than 50 other nations now possess drones, as well as non-governmental militant groups such as Hezbollah. U.S. security officials are so worried about the threat of drone terrorism that they have carried out mock attacks in a program named “Black Dart.” Defense contractors such as Procerus Technologies are now developing software that will enable drones to track and destroy other drones.

Please read my National Geographic article for more details about drones. We are on the verge of a technological speciation event that could cause more harm than good. We must stay informed to make sure that drones are deployed for beneficial rather than insidious ends.

Photo: AeroVironment.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. kienhua68 6:21 pm 02/16/2013

    Drones are here to stay. They are not scary UNLESS your up to something.
    As technology gets more intrusive, one must operate with
    that in mind.

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  2. 2. Mark656515 7:45 pm 02/16/2013

    What, you think no one else will figure out the large armed remote-controlled toy thing?

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  3. 3. Equibbly 8:04 pm 02/16/2013

    And someone said, ‘the truth is stranger than fiction..’ and you thought you’d only seen it in the movies. We had talks about the use of drones against suspected terrorists and it’s intriguing how using it against Americans raises an alarm – when the truth is, no matter what your nationality is, it’s wrong to get a death sentence without due process. Does the end justify the means? This is the question.

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  4. 4. x_rotorhead 8:44 pm 02/16/2013

    Why is it that so many people seem to be incapable of grasping the concept that because the police/military/government THINK/CLAIM that someone is a criminal/terrorist/other threat that this information is 100 percent infallible? How many instances are there where the policie arrest the wrong person, for a variety of reasons, some of them perfectly well-intended? The answer: LOTS. I, for one, a law-abiding average citizen, prefer not to take the government’s word for it that drones will be used with my rights in mind. It’s a capability that they do not need which has vast privacy implications. Best to keep it out of their hands.

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  5. 5. Chryses 10:48 pm 02/16/2013

    We are on the verge of a technological speciation event that could cause more harm than good.
    That is true of all technologies, as they are only tools in the hands of very fallible humans.

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  6. 6. zsingerb 11:23 pm 02/16/2013

    Remember this? Now imagine they have a grenade loaded drone instead to help “keep the police safe”.

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  7. 7. Tue Sorensen 11:27 pm 02/16/2013

    These are the times when it would be really nice if we lived in a real democracy. Then we could just ask the population if they think drone assassinations carried out by the army and federal intelligence agencies are a good idea. I think the majority would vote “nay”.

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  8. 8. sjfone 4:45 am 02/17/2013

    And I was just getting used to the Africanized honey bee.

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  9. 9. RDH 10:53 am 02/17/2013

    Frank Herbert’s hunter killers have finally become a reality.

    I wonder what the reaction would be if Bush were President and targeting Americans with a secret hit list and secret memos justifying the abrogation of fundamental constitutional rights.

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  10. 10. The Ethical Skeptic 11:42 am 02/17/2013

    So, we hid under our desks as nuclear drills in the 1950′s in response to the social anxiety of Nuclear War. Then War became a holocaust, which in itself struck terror into the hearts of the participants, no longer controllable.

    Then schools became terrified of the mentally deranged with guns.

    Now, we will have Drone Drills. What do schools do when an unidentified drone interlopes into the schoolyard? And what resource do educators use to make sure that a drone is safe/familiar? Being SSkeptical on these playground first hand observers, telling them they misinterpreted aircraft, would not be wise or parsimonious. I will direct my IT firm to begin work on a system similar to IFF. This system would deploy IP and flight numbers automatically upon launch via the 4G web, and an app would allow you to see all drones in the immediate vicinity, the owner, and purpose/role.

    Ravi! Let’s get programming.

    – TES

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  11. 11. The Ethical Skeptic 11:51 am 02/17/2013

    By the way, this brings up a point. If our Neural Infrastructures are not free, then we are not free. SSkeptics need heed this, the effort to kill off little offenses, which then squelches our freedom, is a NET LOSS.

    At all costs we need to keep our communications and webs free from social constraint by those pretending to do good or represent correctness.

    Do not let the deception of ‘little terrors’ send you running for safety into the arms of ‘gigantic terror.’

    – TES

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  12. 12. abolitionist 1:39 pm 02/17/2013

    Tue Sorensen @7

    “… we could just ask the population if they think drone assassinations carried out by the army and federal intelligence agencies are a good idea. I think the majority would vote “nay”.”

    Possibly, but quite possibly not. A 2012 Washington Post poll showed that 83% of Americans approved of the current of unmanned drones against suspected terrorists overseas — with a 59% strongly approving of the practice.

    And yes, I know that a year is a long time in politics, but it is unlikely that the percentages will have changed that much ( > 33% ) in 12 months.

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  13. 13. alan6302 1:53 pm 02/17/2013

    just be a good sheeple and they might let u live. If u don’t take the flu shot u r a terrorist .

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  14. 14. centromere 2:53 pm 02/17/2013

    Equibbly @3

    “… no matter what your nationality is, it’s wrong to get a death sentence without due process …”

    Whose “due process”? What criteria would satisfy “due process”?

    To illustrate some of the complexities involved, here is an all-to-possible scenario: A Saudi national, wanted on terrorism charges in Riyadh, is located, identified, and targeted by American forces in the Tribal Areas in Pakistan. A phone call is placed to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. Would an affirmative response to a “request to kill” be satisfactory? If not, why not?

    Clearly the response from the Saudi Embassy would satisfy the requirement that the case had been reviewed by the Saudi Arabian government through their designated representative in the U.S. in regards to one of their citizens. As the individual is not an American citizen, and is an enemy combatant, and as the chance of successfully extraditing the individual is zero, would you argue that letting the enemy combatant remain at large would be preferable? What would be your reasoning for doing so?

    “… Does the end justify the means? This is the question.”

    Circumstances alter cases

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  15. 15. George Smith 8:28 pm 02/17/2013

    The local police department “needs” drones. After all there are “bad people” out there. But you don’t “need” an “assault” rifle. You’re afraid of criminals and terrorists? Racist!

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  16. 16. Outtanames999 8:38 pm 02/17/2013

    LOL Like drones are the answer to anything except an ailing defense budget. When science fiction becomes science fact, beware because if you can imagine it, you can do it. Well imagine this. All of my airspace are belong to me. What’s good for the Drone is good for the Drander. You have your drone. But if I am a homeowner and you fly over my home, I have my shotgun to shoot down your drone, I have my laser pointer (since there is no pilot there can be no loss of pilot life or pilot endangerment from using lasers), my infrared blaster and my false gps signal blaster to daze and confuse your drone, I have my patented carbon fiber net entanglement device that will shoot up into the air to ensnare and entrap your drone and render it useless as it wears down its battery or expends its fuel to exhaustion struggling to free itself like a butterfly in a net at which point I will own your drone and all of your drone are belong to us. If all of that fails, I will have my own drone for drone to drone combat. And everyone in the neighborhood will have a drone and we will fly them in a dragnet surrounding our neighborhood to attack incoming drones. We’ll have another set of drones that hover over the police station to keep an eye on what they are doing. If I am a terrorist, I will have a shoulder fired missile launcher that will deploy any number of possible methods designed to defeat your drone. If I am an army I will deploy my own army of drones half of which match your drones in fire power and the other half of which will have lasers that will disable the communications of your drone, or simply melt your drones, heat signature payloads that can be dropped to confuse your heat seeking drones, and the list goes on and on and on. So much for drones. Next!

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  17. 17. Outtanames999 8:44 pm 02/17/2013

    On the other hand, for military uses only, drones make perfect sense. Nothing short of a robot army, navy and air force is the clear and obvious goal for warfare. Bot to bot combat and drone to drone combat are tomorrow’s armed forces. This is inevitable. Victory will go to the drone that can fly the farthest the fastest and the longest or to the army with the most drones.

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  18. 18. Mythusmage 10:34 pm 02/17/2013

    Armed drones? Here are four words; uniquitous bugsized surviellence drones. The day will come when you’ll be able to watch your neighbors taking showers, and you’ll be online during your prostrate exam.

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  19. 19. Epke-Oranda 2:24 am 02/18/2013

    If the police will use them so will criminal and terrorist organisations

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  20. 20. VelocitySquared 3:09 pm 02/18/2013

    What’s scarier?
    1. Something that lies dormant for decades waiting for someone to step on it or pick it up.
    2. Something you can launch at someone then walk away knowing that the target will be tracked autonomously and destroyed.
    3. Something that requires active control, has a limited range, moves fairly slow but can kill a single person.
    4. A flying platform that can track and spot multiple targets from miles away.

    The answers are mines, latest generation missiles, the Switchblade drone and a helicopter with some half-decent sensor optics.

    Personally I’m terrified of mines. Visit a country where someone has dumped lots of mines on it then try doing some hiking. Not much difference between the switchblade drone and some more modern anti-tank guided missiles. Missiles with some impressive tracking abilities (cruise missiles for example) have been around for a long time. Expect none of these to be in police use anytime soon. Police helicopters with a good sensor suite? Oh I’m sure some police forces have had that already for years. Cheaper to have a drone. Expect criminals and paranoid people to get worried really soon. If not, I’m sure the paranoid will find something else to be crazy about. “Your all sheep! sheep! SHEEP!!!”


    Put the tinfoil away. The only reason drones are not in the air today is because the FAA is very, very worried about some idiot with a Predator smacking into passenger jet by accident. This is a huge deal. Drones buzzing this way and that are big problems for piloted planes. Be worried about that–not some flying bug with a couple of minutes of flight endurance and the explosive payload of a cap gun (nice bit of paranoid fantasy, nano drones are pretty cool but that video was a flight of Air force fantasy).

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  21. 21. drafter 3:31 pm 02/18/2013

    will drone become the new equalizer between countries.

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  22. 22. gesimsek 5:34 pm 02/18/2013

    A government working outside the Legal system is called gang. People may be scared by a gang but they don’t respect.

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  23. 23. kildevlin 5:24 pm 02/20/2013

    “Drones are here to stay. They are not scary UNLESS your up to something.”
    You may be fine with abrogating your Fourth Amendment rights but I’ll be happy to enforce mine against government tyranny with MY Second Amendment rights.

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  24. 24. kildevlin 5:29 pm 02/20/2013

    “The day will come when you’ll be able to watch your neighbors taking showers, and you’ll be online during your *prostrate* exam.”
    If all of didn’t already know that your an idiot fucktard, you’ve just confirmed it for us. Thanks.

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  25. 25. bucketofsquid 1:57 pm 02/21/2013

    @VelocitySquared – Arizona cops broke into a house and killed a two tour Iraq war vet in front of his wife and son. The department changed stories several times and then simply blacked out all of the information after it came to light that they had lied repeatedly and murdered an innocent man. The Indiana state supreme court handed down a decision that police can kill without warning or justification and citizens are not allowed to expect their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

    This has nothing to do with tin foil hats. This has everything to being a patriotic American. If you hate the constitution you are an enemy of the state and all patriots are obligated to kill you. This is very similar to how the Nazis and Italian Fascists got started. We need to stop it now or when I and mine take over you will be eliminated. That has been my campaign platform for more than a decade – vote for me so I can round your kind up and kill them all. I never get any votes because I’d never vote for that kind of looney.

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