The Science Fiction of Drone Hype

The FBI is inves­ti­gat­ing a “drone” sup­pos­edly spot­ted near JFK Air­port in New York City. An Ali­talia pilot claims he saw, com­ing in to land, a small quadro­tor “drone” fly­ing within 200ft of his air­plane. The real ques­tion is why such a thing would be fly­ing 1,700 ft high near an air­port, as the pilot alleges, when they’re sup­posed to be kept below 400ft. How he saw a small black air­craft “hov­er­ing” next to him while his 777 was going 160 miles an hour is… mysterious.

Such “drones” are really just widely avail­able radio-controlled heli­copters (like this one, of a sim­i­lar size to what the pilot reported). Call­ing them drones the same way you’d call, say, a Preda­tor a drone, is stretch­ing the term a bit.

Regard­less, the dis­cus­sion about this inci­dent reflects much of the sci­ence fic­tional aspect of the drones debate writ large… and how it’s noth­ing new. Brett Hol­man, an Aus­tralian his­to­rian who wrote his dis­ser­ta­tion on the hype and panic over diri­gi­bles and air­ships in pre-war Eng­land, has been track­ing British media cov­er­age of the new prac­tice of air power over at his blog, Airminded. In a recent post, he pub­lishes the fol­low­ing image and headline:

WILL IT EVER BE SO IN THE EASTERN SKY OVER ENGLAND? THE COMING OF THE BATTLE-DIRIGIBLES AND WAR-PLANES

WILL IT EVER BE SO IN THE EASTERN SKY OVER ENGLAND? THE COMING OF THE BATTLE-DIRIGIBLES AND WAR-PLANES

As Dr. Hol­man recounts, the Brits were ter­ri­fied of their vul­ner­a­bil­ity to these new fly­ing weapons.

But the impor­tant point, says Flight, is that ‘if Ger­many wants to send air­ships to cruise over these islands there is no one to say her nay’, since Britain is so far behind in the air. ‘One of these days we may wake up.’

Of course, Britain did have some­thing to fear from Ger­man air power. It just wasn’t the diri­gi­ble, which (like today’s drone) was slow and rel­a­tively easy to shoot down. Rather, Ger­many was work­ing on the strate­gic bomb­ing cam­paign, which is even­tu­ally exe­cuted in the Lon­don Blitz. In fact, the V-1 “Fly­ing Bomb” was in many ways a drone, just not a very pre­cise one.

But just because drones are old tech­nol­ogy that doesn’t mean sci­ence fic­tion doesn’t per­vade their dis­course. Wired’s Dan­ger Room blog, for exam­ple, is fond of call­ing Pen­ta­gon researchers “mad sci­en­tists” and drones “killer robots” in its cov­er­age of these sys­tems. Spec­u­la­tive arti­cles about improved arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence drones are framed with imagery from a James Cameron film. PhDs at promi­nent think tanks have even com­pared them to the inven­tion of the automobile.

The thing is, drones aren’t sci­ence fic­tion, and the real­ity of what they rep­re­sent presents more than enough to worry about with­out the hype and sci-fi. But drones rep­re­sent a polit­i­cal deci­sion, not a sexy-seeming robotic night­mare sce­nario. It’s the pol­icy, not the plat­form, that should be wor­ry­ing every­one: the pol­icy to kill with­out warn­ing or hope for reprieve. That is the real issue we should be debat­ing, not imag­i­na­tions of the future.