Drone Country

That drone that fell into Lake Conroe? Authorities are tight-lipped about what may have malfunctioned.  Not the first time Vanguard Defense Industries has had a drone go haywire.  As they’ve said, “The beautify of having something unmanned is you’re not putting any humans in harm’s way.”  There’s something perplexing about that sentence (besides the bizarre use of the word “beautify”), as drones falling from mid-air don’t give me a lot of confidence that humans are not in harm’s way.

Anyway, I’m sure everything will be resolved soon–once Vanguard can “put hands” on the drone, ”we can have a real good understanding of what occurred.”  We look forward to it.

On P.W. Singer on the Robotics Revolution

There’s lots to appreciate and mull over in P.W. Singer’s piece on drones, “The Robotics Revolution,” particularly the parts about new technologies at seminal moments and how societies adapt to them.  “I drive a car with more than 100 computers in it. No one calls it a ‘computerized car,’” Singer writes. “I have a number of computers in my kitchen. I call them things like ‘microwave’ or ‘coffee maker.’”  And if computer technology has come this far in the last twenty years, we can only imagine what the next twenty years will bring in terms of unmanned technology (hopefully something more exciting, at least, than the Roomba robotic mop…).

Where Singer might be wrong is (ironically) in what he deems “The Biggest Impact”–the ways that drones are shaping warfare.  Is it true, as he states, that unmanned systems “remove[] the last political barriers to war”?  Arguably much of that work has been done already, by an executive branch that uses its Commander-in-Chief power to wage war without authorization, and by a Congress that hasn’t declared war since World War II.  Is it true that using drones to conduct targeted killing operations “short-circuit[s] the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make”?  Well, no–because (at least since President Reagan made it official in Executive Order 12,333) assassinations are illegal, and targeted killings (and other forms of “special activity”) arguably don’t require congressional authorization, depending on who is carrying them out.  And can we tie an unauthorized “air war” in Libya to the emergence of drone technologies?  Probably not–but we can tie it to a long history of executive overreach in foreign conflicts, from Steel Seizure during Korea, through the secret war in Cambodia, the Iran-Contra affair, unauthorized interventions in Haiti and Kosovo, and claims that threats of “terror” obviated the need for congressional authorization for military force (see, e.g., John Yoo’s arguments that the AUMF was superfluous because the President had sufficient authority to conduct war in Article II).

The absence of a draft and the limited deployment of boots on the ground means there’s always less pressure to “bring the boys home.”  That’s particularly the case with regard to Congress, as opposed to a second-term president (who might never have cared much to begin with).  But as much as technology minimizes public pressure to end wars, the problem is that the U.S. lacks a firm legal architecture to keep us from getting into them in the first place.  That’s a path dependency issue that likely wouldn’t be solved even if we still fought wars with muskets and cannons.

Domestic Drones

Today’s Privacy Research Group presentation brought my attention to a bunch of promo videos for drone manufacturers that I hadn’t seen before.

Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Microdrones, Aerovironment, and Northrop Grumman all have ads for their UAVs publicly available.  That’s not to say that other companies aren’t making these types of promo videos–these are just the first few that I found (and the Aerovironment and Lockheed vids were featured in today’s presentation).

What’s fascinating is the publicity aspect of this.  That the companies themselves are using a public platform (Youtube) to market their products seems to indicate that they see a commercial future for drones beyond pure law enforcement and military applications.  And the videos themselves bear this out as well–Northrop Grumman’s video showcases a lot of different types of drones, all meant for different applications.  So there’s more to think about, from a privacy perspective, than the government-side applications.  And it might raise some interesting state action and private search doctrine questions as well.