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Critical views of science in the news

Why Drones Should Make You Afraid. Very Afraid.

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"Switchblade" drone developed by AeroVironment delivers a lethal explosive charge and can fit in a backpack.

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.

*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.

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

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