The Ascent of Drones

We’ve probably all seen this image, which purports to show how knuckle-dragging chimpanzees turned inexorably into fully-evolved men who look just like Buff Abraham Lincoln. I suspect that a lot of people assume that the history of all drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle) technology follows the same simple, linear pattern as the “March of Progress” illustration does.

If you drew an analogous picture of drone history, like I’ve done in the middle row above, you’d probably start with the Wright Brother’s wobbly contraption flip-flopping around the beaches of Kitty Hawk, move to a little red biplane piloted by the Red Baron, jump to some sort of badass zippy fighter jet with Tom Hanks in it, drop in a grim grey Predator drone, and finish up with a tiny white camera-carrying quadcopter. You’d end up with something aesthetically pleasing, easy to understand, and also — just like the “March of Progress” — massively, ridiculously oversimplified.

The chimp-to-man progression you see above represents the old-fashioned hypothesis of orthogenesis, which states that all organisms are imbued with an innate tendency to evolve in a certain direction, towards some sort of final complex goal. Today, the orthogenesis hypothesis is totally obsolete. We now realize that the evolutionary pattern of living things looks much more like a spindly branching tree than it looks like an inevitable march in a single direction. A more accurate visual representation of human evolution looks something like this:

A reasonably accurate visual representation of drone evolution would also look a lot more like an badly-pruned tree than like a line.While drones obviously aren’t biological, there are quite a few resemblances between how organisms evolve into different stuff, and how technologies evolve into different stuff. Just as human beings didn’t actually descend directly in an unbroken line from chimpanzees, that DJI Phantom drone you bought at the camera store did not actually descend directly from the General Atomics Predator drone that is used by militaries.

It is in fact much more closely related to your iPhone. And to that weird remote controlled helicopter your dad keeps in the garage but never actually flies (because he can’t).

The 2007 release of the Apple iPhone launched a glorious new era of competition for the production of extremely small computers and sensors, meant to be jammed into ever-teenier mobile devices. These small computers and sensors also proved appealing to the sort of people who are so incredibly into remote controlled aircraft that they can actually fly them (unlike your dad). They realized that they could use them to make their RC airplanes and helicopters less stupid: with the addition of a flight controller “brain,” an RC airplane could be programmed to fly an automated path, or a four-armed quadcopter could stabilize itself without explicit human input.

It was also in 2007 that Chris Anderson, the current CEO of 3D Robotics and the then-editor of Wired Magazine, launched DIY Drones, a web community devoted to the newborn drone hobby. He describes this as “accidentally kickstarting the consumer drone movement,” and I don’t exactly disagree with him. He pretty much did do that.

The early DIY Drones community, and the culture of Drone Nerds in general, was largely dominated by people I would characterize as part of the “Maker” subculture: eccentric electronics and tech aficionados with a very diverse range of motivations and interests. Insofar as I can determine—and I know quite a few of these people—it was also a group that was not notably influenced by or motivated by the technical demands of militaries.

There was no stealthily-military funded Skunkworks-style effort to develop camera-carrying quadcopters that could be used explicitly by both militaries and by the average person. It was mostly just people sitting in their garages who had a truly remarkable amount of personal interest in putting little tiny bits of wire onto other little tiny bits of wire to make something fly wonkily for five minutes before it crashed.

While some people did build miniature airframes that looked like Predators in the early days of the drone hobby, just as some remote controlled airplane enthusiasts like to build models that look exactly like F-22 fighter jets, the vast majority did not. Their drones looked like everything from a bog-standard remote controlled airplane made with balsa wood to a worrisome three-armed weirdo called a “tricopter.” They used open-source software, 3D-printed components, and an inordinate amount of hot glue and duct tape to hold their drones together. To continue the evolution metaphor, the DIY Drones community was host to a veritable Cambrian Explosion of weird and experimental designs and technologies: the DIY helicopter version of all those weird squiggly things with multiple ill-fitting eyeballs that once dominated Planet Earth.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the drone hobby percolated quietly along, and people built ever more sophisticated home-built devices. They developed better methods of attaching stabilized cameras to their drones, and drone video started to trickle onto YouTube platforms. In 2010, Parrot released the Parrot A.R. drone, which could be controlled from an iPhone and was capable of shooting (grainy) pictures. Yet the existence of small home-built remote controlled aircraft with little computer brains largely escaped truly global notice.

Until 2013. That was the year that China’s Dajiang Enterprises (DJI) released ver first Phantom, a consumer drone designed for aerial filming that was also capable of carrying a stabilized and half-decent GoPro camera. It could fly right out of the box, with no assembly or nasty soldering-iron burns required, and it had an iconically rounded, futuristic design: it simply looked more serious, more like an object that might be used for something of more consequence, than the flimsier, gadget-like Parrot A.R. drones that preceded it. People who weren’t avid homebuilt tech hobbyists began buying them, and then they filmed themselves doing sick snowboard jumps, and then they put those videos on YouTube where people were duly impressed by them. Hell, I bought a Phantom in 2013 (though I do not and will never do sick snowboard jumps).

It was also the year that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made his very first drone delivery announcement, captivating and horrifying millions of people around the world. The consumer drone era had begun, and so had an era of intense confusion that has lasted until today over what kind of object a “drone” actually is, or where they came from in the first place.

Well, there’s a few reasons. They boil down to “we should be sure we’re looking at an accurate history of this technology before we decide if they are appropriate or inappropriate to use in humanitarian aid.”

As I mentioned above, civilian drones are still a relatively new concept in the minds of most people around the world. What’s more, their hobbyist history has never really made it into popular narratives about them. Tech writing often cheerfully conflates military and consumer drones — how many times have you read an article titled something along the lines of “Drones CAN Be Used in Peaceful Ways!”?

Even scholarly writing on civilian drones often seems to either be ignorant of or outright ignores this hobbyist history: most of the academic papers I read on civilian drone technology and its origins (and God knows I read a lot of those) fail to mention it at all. If your first encounter with drone technology was in the context of military drones, you probably aren’t going to encounter too many counter-narratives.

We can also blame semantics for the confusion. The word “drone” is used to refer to both Predators and to Phantoms, and we don’t actually have a commonly-used modifier to the word “drone” that might clear up the confusion. “Drones,” in the sense of an aircraft that doesn’t have a human pilot on board, have been around since World War One, and people started referring to them as such quite early on in their history. Interestingly, the word “drone” as applied to non-toy aircraft without a pilot began to disappear after the mid 1960s, becoming supplanted by the less viscerally exciting “unmanned aerial vehicle,” or “UAV.” Meanwhile, “toy” unmanned aircraft were referred to with a very familiar and boring term: remote controlled aircraft.

Brian Benchoff claims here that we can blame the reintroduction of the word “drone” on none other than Bob Woodward himself, who first applied the term to the Predator UAVs deployed by the second Bush Administration in 2001. (Thanks, Bob). It’s less clear to me exactly when the word “drone” started to be applied to the things that hobbyists were building, although 2007, when DIY Drones first began, strikes me as an obvious latest-possible date.

“Dual use” technology is a common term in humanitarian writing and scholarship. It is notoriously indistinctly defined when it is used outside of the explicit context of export and import controls, although most would agree that it broadly refers to items that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. Importantly, there is no internationally legally binding definition of what “dual use” means. The European Parliament defines them generally as “goods, software and technology that can be used for both civilian and military application,” while this EU document adds that they are “born as spin-offs of military projects” (though it is undefined exactly what ‘spin-off’ means)

I think that many people in the humanitarian sector—who are understandably unaware of the civilian origins of small hobby drones—probably just assume that they’re simply some kind of military spin-off, and thus qualify as an obviously ethically problematic “dual use” technology. But as I’ve argued above, civilian, consumer drones just aren’t a clear spin-off of a previous military technology, and they don’t fit into the same category as unmanned aerial vehicles that are designed for explicit military purposes. Notably, most import-export regimes also make this distinction as well, putting different, much more onerous restrictions on the movement military-intended drone technology versus technology intended for civilian uses.

I should mention here that I intensely dislike the term “dual use” technology. I find it be very arbitrary and poorly defined, and drones elegantly illustrate the problem with it. Yes, a consumer drone absolutely is in a broad sense a dual-use technology, as both ISIS and the U.S military have recently and nastily proven. But in this broad sense, so is my iPhone (and the GPS receiver that both it and my drone contain), and so is your Jeep, and so is the whole entire Internet.

The truth is that it’s really, really difficult to make a clear distinction between “military” and “non-military” technology, and it is only getting harder to do this. I still have yet to come across a persuasive argument that civilian drones made by consumer companies are intrinsically more problematic for humanitarians from a dual-use perspective than an iPhone or a Jeep.

I am acutely aware that I can point to history and figures and charts that show that civilian drones aren’t directly descended from military drones, and it will not matter, not even a little bit, if the average person goes on thinking that all drones are descended from military drones. The predominant public perception of how neutral or civilian drones are matters most, in the end, to humanitarians. As humanitarians, we are very much concerned with maintaining our neutrality, which is dependent on how our actions and the tools we use are perceived. It is both an ethical imperative and an important means of ensuring our safety in extreme situations and places.

Here’s a real-world example of how this problem of neutrality and perception has played out in a real humanitarian example. In 2015, Medicines Sans Frontiers ended a collaboration with MOAS (Migrant Offshore Assistance Station)because it was using a Schiebel Camcopter UAV to search for refugees in the Mediterranean. MSF objected to MOAS’s willingness to share information with Italian authorities, but it also objected to the fact that the Shicebel UAV was produced by a company that primarily caters to military clients, and that intentionally designed it in such a way that it can be mounted with missiles. MSF was concerned that their neutrality would be compromised by this collaboration.

I think MSF made the right choice in this instance. This incident also highlights a couple of recurring themes in the “humanitarian drones” dialogue. One: humanitarians are understandably cautious, because it’s hard to determine which drones are appropriately non-military enough to be used without risking compromising your neutrality. That’s the problem I’ve highlighted above, related to our ongoing confusion over what the word “drone” actually means. We still lack a hard-and-fast sense of what a “civilian” drone and a “military” drone actually are, or ought to be.

This also means that humanitarians often have to guess what the people who might be judging their neutrality might potentially think about the drones they’re using. I think most humanitarians agree that the people doing the perceiving of neutrality matter most when we discuss the “militariness” of drones, and the overall topic of the ethical use of drone technology in humanitarian aid. It’s their opinions should make or break the entire humanitarian drone experiment. Unfortunately, we have very little sense of what those opinions are.

We do have a little bit of data on how people generally perceive drones, and a bit on what people associate with them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this public perception research comes from the U.S and from Europe.There is almost no available data on what everyone else in the world thinks about drones: nor have I come across many (or any) serious attempts to compare and contrast the drone-related views of people from different nations and from different cultures. If we want an answer to “is it appropriate to use drones in international humanitarian aid work,” then we desperately need to fix this research gap.

Ultimately, I believe that it is important that we look at civilian drones with full knowledge of where they came from. That’s why I’ve written this post. But make no mistake: there isn’t a single, unequivocal answer to the “are drones inherently military or civilian” question, just as there isn’t a single answer to this question for other technologies. We are still going to have to figure out where civilian drones fit into humanitarian aid as we go along.

The Ascent of Drones

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