The Launch Tomorrow Of The Ingenuity Drone By The Mars Rover Perseverance Is One More Reminder That We Are Now Living In The Drone Age.

By Roger J. Cochetti

The Launch Tomorrow Of The Ingenuity Drone By The Mars Rover Perseverance Is One More Reminder That We Are Now Living In The Drone Age. Officially “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles UAV’s” (or Unmanned Aerial Systems UAS’s, including ground systems), drones have actually been around for a long time. They have already come to redefine some sectors and — as artificial intelligence (AI) merges with drone technology — drones will re-shape other sectors, raising important policy issues.

Nowhere is this more the case than with drones in the military and in aerial photography, two sectors in which the use of drones raises important policy issues. No one knows for sure how many drones exist in the U.S., since drones that weigh less than 0.55 pounds generally fall below the level of FAA registration and many drones that should be registered have not been. Current estimates of registered U.S. drones are slightly under 2 million and as many as 29 million more are projected to be sold worldwide this year alone.    

The use of (balloon) drones on the battlefield goes back well over a century, although modern drone technology probably began during World War I and developed in preparation for and during World War II; first as pilotless targets and then as pilotless bombers. Pilotless, often radio-controlled, spy planes developed during the Cold War.  

All of which led to the emergence of radio-controlled ariel attack drones, including such highly-publicized models as the Predator and the Reaper. Combat drones like these were used during the Gulf Wars and have been the weapon of choice during the War on Terror. They have evolved into a wide range of battlefield radio-controlled drones, many very small, that use helicopter, rocket, jet or propeller technology and incorporate autonomous features.

AI has gradually been integrated into radio-controlled military drone technology for such features as stabilization, pointing, etc. Most recent military drones have been a hybrid of radio-controlled and automated, however, fully autonomous AI military drones with no active pilot have evolved more recently, raising entirely new ethical, military, legal and policy issues.

Many ethicists and some strategists object to the introduction of fully autonomous, unsupervised, artificially intelligent attack drones, normally arguing for active and immediate human supervision over autonomous combat drones. Since combat drones will have as much impact on the battlefield as their military cousins land mines, there is an important global debate underway to develop standards and rules for human combat drone supervision and restraints on drone use and autonomy.

A main dilemma is that there is little doubt that if your only goal is to preserve the lives of your own side’s soldiers/civilians — regardless of the loss to the other side’s — (one justification for the use of the atomic bomb in Japan), then autonomous AI military drones will probably do just that. Fully autonomous AI combat drones have multiple advantages for an attacker: They risk few of the lives of the attacker, the drone doesn’t get sick, disobey orders, take vacation or care about its own life; and it can maneuver in ways that no human body could withstand.

Importantly, it’s not at all clear in future aerial combat, whether a human pilot —regardless of how much technological support the human pilot has — could keep up with a fully AI-automated combat drone. And human oversight may actually weaken the drone’s combat effectiveness. The second part of this dilemma is that in warfare, one must always anticipate what one’s adversary will do and be prepared for it.

The prospect of widespread international arrangements to restrain fully autonomous AI combat drones is difficult. The history of land mines, millions of which have been laid only to kill innocent civilians decades after combat ended, is only partly offset by a few international agreements to restrain germ warfare and chemical warfare. (Many argue that the risk of blowback from germ warfare is enough to incentivize limits on it, while nuclear weapons virtually made chemical warfare obsolete.)

Fully automated, AI-equipped, attack drones have created an important set of international, ethical and military policy issues only now being understood. Just as military drones have revolutionized the battlefield, photography by aerial drones has already revolutionized such sectors as the movie industry, agriculture, policing, environmental monitoring, land planning and more, sometimes raising important new policy issues of their own.

Once, aerial photography was conducted by licensed airplane or helicopter pilots using licensed aircraft typically flying thousands of feet in the air. This photography lent itself only to rare civil or governmental invasion of privacy issues. Although the Constitution primarily protects citizens against invasion of their privacy by governments, legislation, courts, and regulators have developed protections against the invasion of consumer privacy by individuals, organizations and businesses. For example, the invasion of consumer privacy by businesses on the Internet is a major arena of debate today.

But around the next corner waits the issue of the invasion of privacy by governments, businesses, organizations and individuals using partially or fully autonomous drones. A very small, partly or fully automated aerial drone could just as easily hover two feet above the ground as 2,000 feet — and effortlessly photograph and sound record one’s balcony, back yard, or living room window, raising vastly different issues than a photo-taking airplane flying overhead.

As drone technologies improve and miniaturize — and as licensing (and unlicensed) legal structures are implemented — there’s little doubt that government surveillance drones and non-governmental photo-taking/sound-recording drones will challenge our existing understandings of when we can expect to be photographed or recorded.

Whether walking down a street, sitting in one’s own back yard or standing near one’s living room window, we may all face photographic drones operated by individuals, governments or businesses. They will have the ability to observe us in ways that street-bound humans or airplanes overhead could not. As photographic drone technology evolves, consumer privacy will be forever changed. How regulations, courts and laws address this redefinition remains to be seen.

This news was originally published at The Hill.