The Robotics Revolution: Response

by Matthew Schroyer
“Drones for Schools” developer for EnLiST, a grant from the National Science Foundation

Even a cursory search reveals that “drone” is generally considered a pejorative term. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which compiled news stories about overseas drone attacks, concluded that between 472 and 885 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes between 2004 and 2012. Given these numbers, it is no surprise those in the business of developing and building drones insist on the politically anaesthetized term “Unmanned Aerial System.”

If we’re being dictionary-accurate, though, “drone” merely means an airplane or boat guided remotely. The first drone was invented by Nikola Tesla, who wowed audiences in New York City’s Madison Square Garden with a radio-controlled boat in 1898. His audience, baffled and scared by the demonstration, likely had little or no previous exposure to radio technology. It would be nearly a decade until the first public radio broadcast, a live transmission from the Metropolitan Opera House.

A New York Times reporter asked the question that would dog the technology from that day on: What of the military applications for the tiny electric boat? “You do not see there a wireless torpedo,” Tesla replied, offended by the reporter’s suggestion. “You see there the first of a race of robots, mechanical men who will do the laborious work of the human race.”

Tesla was not the first, nor certainly the last, to find fault with the fourth estate. Between the phone hacking and bribery scandal at News Corporation, and the nude photographs of Kate Middleton taken by French paparazzi, the public opinion of journalists is at an all-time low.

A poll taken this summer by the Pew Research Center showed that news organizations had reached their lowest credibility rating since polling began in 2002. A recent Gallup poll shows just 24 per cent of Americans give journalists a favourable rating for honesty and ethical standards (the public has a higher opinion of bankers). It’s gotten so bad that members of the British Parliament are openly talking about regulating the news industry.

It would seem, then, that combining those two things – the media and drones – wouldn’t be the wisest of choices. Given the current media climate, many citizens are understandably concerned about paparazzi being handed flying robots that could peek over fences and spy from on high.

But even so, the public would be missing out on an enormous opportunity to expand its collective knowledge if legislation were to prevent journalists from obtaining drones.

A clear example came from Dallas, Texas, earlier this year. In January, a drone enthusiast was testing his home-built remote-controlled aircraft when he snapped an aerial photo of a creek dyed red. The enthusiast called the U.S. Coast Guard. Forty minutes later, state environmental officials reached the creek and began an investigation. That investigation uncovered that a nearby meat packing plant was dumping pig blood into the stream. The City of Dallas shut down the plant, and nearby residents breathed easy, as they no longer had to live with the plant’s stench.

Drones have appeared over protests in Russia, Poland, and Estonia. In Argentina, news outlets were grounded from sending news helicopters to cover the “8N” protests, but hacktivists cobbled together an unmanned aerial vehicle in short time and captured the protests from the sky. The video was broadcast over YouTube, and, as a result, so far, a quarter of a million people have witnessed the scope of Argentina’s political unrest.

Using much more basic technology, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science deployed balloons to map the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The organization’s aerial photos have been integrated into Google Earth, opening their data to millions of users.

Last year, in Thailand, the government used drones to monitor flooding daily. The information obtained from those drones helped the city of Bangkok avoid the worst of the disaster.

In the past several years, drones have measured the health of orangutan and sea-mammal populations, helped tankers navigate through ice and reach port safely, and monitored a nuclear power plant during a meltdown.

These are efforts led by DIY hackers, activists, and researchers. But journalists can, and should, use the same drones and techniques to keep the public informed about important events.

Drones aren’t just for aerial photos or videos, either. With the right equipment and software, drones can obtain map-accurate photos, which are useful for measuring changes on the ground. These flying robots can carry all manner of useful sensors, from pollution detectors to radiation monitors. All of these technologies can help journalists accurately report on natural and man-made disasters.

Technology already exists that networks drones together, allowing them to act as a team, or a swarm. They can be integrated into an “internet of things,” and form the backbone of an early detection system that keeps journalists – and, in turn, the public – informed of a potential crisis around the corner.

A small, basic drone costs less than $1,000, putting this technology within reach of even independent and citizen journalists. What before could only be accomplished with expensive news helicopters or airborne imaging systems can now be done by a backpack-sized drone. These surveillance platforms, previously the exclusive privilege of governments and intelligence agencies, are now free to expand public knowledge.

Journalists will have to use this technology wisely. Adopting and abiding by a rigorous code of ethics will give drone journalists credibility. But ultimately, journalists will have to reach an agreement with the public: Give us latitude to use the drones, and we’ll make sure we use them for good.

Let’s not be as baffled and suspicious as Tesla’s audience. Let’s use this technology to make our lives better. Let’s embrace the drone.

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