How Drones Could Enrich Society

By Brandon Engel: However useful they may be as idea fodder for science fiction writers, there’s little disputing the fact that drones, particularly those employed for military purposes, have done a tremendous amount of damage all over the world. But what about the potential good these devices could bring humanity, if used towards a more constructive end?

Contemporary science fiction writer Daniel Suarez wrote a novel a few years ago entitled Killing Decision, which poses the question: “should unmanned vehicles be equipped with the ability to — autonomously — carry out murder?” It invites speculation about how this could corrode representative government, and it generates all sorts of other interesting questions about notions of choice and moral agency, particularly as they relate to nationalism and warfare. All of the atrocities committed with drones are, at the very least, still being committed with drones and not by drones. But what happens when the machines are capable of functioning as both as judge and executioner, without a live person actually making executive decisions?

But, for all of the atrocities committed with drones, and for all of the moral ambiguities that arise from their use in carrying out military assignments, there are several potential applications of this technology which could enrich society.

For example, drones are very useful when it comes to land surveying. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been using them for everything from responding to natural disasters (forest-fires especially) to general environmental research and monitoring the effects of climate change.

In the private sector, several colleges throughout the United States, including Kansas State, Penn State, and Cornell, are also using drones for research purposes. The University of Florida houses its own drone research group, which has been developing drones for hurricane tracking, and also for capturing high-resolution photographs for wildlife researchers. One advantage of using drones to take aerial photographs is that avoids the leading cause of work-related deaths among wildlife biologists – plane crashes while flying in private aircraft to and from sites of interest.

Drones also have medical applications. Height Tech, a German based company, has been working with medical supplier Schiller on a drone system that communicates with smartphone apps. If someone is having a heart related emergency, all they have to do is activate the app and the smartphone sends GPS coordinates to a drone, which can then fly in and parachute defibrillators down to the patient. The drones can fly in practically any weather at 44 miles per hour, and are therefore potentially a safer bet than ambulances for people living in remote areas.

And now, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is talking about using drones as a means of transmitting the internet to rural communities all over the world. While this may be yet another one of Zuckerberg’s exuberant marketing maneuvers, (and also likely a reflection of his desire to compete with both Google’s hot air-balloon program and HughesNet packages) who is to say that, if Facebook is successful at transmitting world wide internet to everyone, that the public at large won’t benefit?

Suarez himself had conceded during a public talk a few years ago that he recognized the potential societal benefits of drones, but that he chose to focus on darker speculations in the interest of producing a more dramatic story. And anyone who gravitates towards science fiction is perhaps inclined towards morbid fantasies. Nevertheless, whatever stigma there might be surrounding drones, it’s clear that, if used towards the right end, they can really improve life on this planet for a lot of people.