Digital Culture

Drones – Friend or Foe?

By Lea Meyer & Sophia Munding

The first attempts to develop unmanned aircrafts were already made in 1783. The term „drone“ has only been used since 1932, when the Queen Bee was built, which became known as the „Mother of Drones“. It was the first unmanned aeroplane to be produced in large quantities and thus a major milestone in the history of drones. In 1999, shortly after GPS was introduced, a small company in the USA developed a mini-drone to make the work of fishermen easier. It was equipped with a small camera to locate schools of tuna. Nobody showed any interest in this invention until President Bush became aware of it and bought a large number. This lead to the revolution of drones. Today there is a wide variety of drones. They exist in all sizes from 30 centimetres to 40 metres. Their areas of operation range from hobby drone to killing machine.

Drones revolutionize warfare

I guess i‘m good at killing.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama once joked about his drone war.

In the military, drones are used to monitor crisis areas. Ground forces are thus supported and immediate action and decisions can be taken in the event of an attack. However, the drone is not only used on the defensive, but is also deployed offensively. On the third of January 2020, Iran‘s most powerful General Soleimani fell victim to the MQ9 Reaper. It is not called the „Flying Reaper“ for nothing and is also known as the „Queen of the UAVs“. The drone, after identifying and following Ghassem Soleimani, fired three guided missiles at him and his companions. The use of drones in this area is highly problematic, but for the military they simplify many things. Not only because you can observe someone for hours or days to make sure that the right person is hit, but also because killing is possible with the click of a mouse. Face-to-face combat is completely lost and you no longer have to risk the lives of your troops. How is that compatible with your own conscience? When you consider that American drone pilots are not allowed to seek psychological help, the whole thing gets a bitter aftertaste. Are you sure you only hit „bad“ people? On September 7, 2013, Aisha has lost everything a child can lose. After a US drone targeted Aisha‘s family pick-up truck in Kunar, eastern Afghanistan, the fire of a Hellfire missile came down on her. Fourteen people, mostly women and children, were killed. Aisha, then four years old, survived, but lost her entire family – and her face – in the attack. The drone attack had torn it to shreds, disfigured it beyond recognition. Without question, the drone is revolutionizing many areas of operation, but to what extent can its use be justified? In order to get to the bottom of this question, we must look at drones in the context of their areas of operation.

Drones revolutionize our hobbies

A strong contrast to the military drone is the hobby drone, which is mainly used for photography and films. Although it is now widely used in our society, most people do not know what to look out for. Hobby pilots must abide by the following laws:

  1. A drone up to 5 kg may only be piloted within visual range.
  2. Permission is required for photos and videos of people or private property.
  3. Only trained pilots with a drone driving licence and an exceptional permission are allowed to fly higher than 100 m.
  4. Drones over 250 g must be marked with a fireproof sign with the name and address of the owner. Above 2 kg a theory test is necessary and more than 5 kg requires a flight permit from the aviation authority.
  5. There are no-fly zones, e.g. above other people‘s homes, in crowded areas, over motorways, at airports, prisons, military installations, embassies, parliament buildings, railway installations and hospitals.
  6. Liability insurance is required by law.

If these laws are not respected it may result in a fine of up to 50,000 Euros.

Drones revolutionize our entertainment

Drones are also used in the film industry. Compared to a helicopter, they can manoeuvre around obstacles much more precisely and thus cut film costs in half. This results in breathtaking video material with little effort. Especially filmmakers of documentaries about nature use this for example during volcanic eruptions, as recordings in such inaccessible places would normally not be possible.

However, drones can also provide amazing entertainment without a camera - in from of fascinating light shows, such as the Intel formation flight for the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympics. For this purpose, a spectacular light show was created through time-code-accurate light programming of the to drones attached LEDs. Designers visualize these shows previously in three-dimensional programs such as Cinema 4D. Therefore it is quite possible to come into contact with drones as a communication designer.

Drones revolutionize our safety

Another important field of application is rescue operations. There, drones are used when human observation is no longer sufficient. This is because in emergency situations, the command and control center needs information as quickly as possible for optimal coordination. With the help of the cameras, they can obtain a quick overview of the situation and immediately send photos to the main control center, where they are immediately evaluated. For example, a thermal imaging camera enables them to detect people who are not even visible in pictures. Product designers in particular are challenged here, as the effective design of the drone is neccessary so that it can float in the air for as long as possible. But how is the video material handled? Are there enough laws in place to ensure that the videos are secured? These questions are particularly relevant to police drones.

The police use drones mainly for surveillance and reconnaissance. Such a drone can cost up to 50.000 Euros. Various projects are underway worldwide to develop partially autonomously operating microdrones. They are intended to remain in the air permanently and act as a „swarm“. This would mean that hundreds of microcameras would constantly monitor the environment. Is the loss of privacy through constant surveillance worth the seemingly increased security? You don‘t have to travel so far back in time to know what dangers a surveillance state entails. There is also the risk that drones could be hacked and criminals could use the technology to their own ends.
Criminals are already using drones for illegal purposes. There have been cases where drones were used to smuggle drugs and smartphones into prisons. Burglars also use drones to search houses for entry points and escape routes from all angles.

One area where drones bring many advantages is sending parcels. Amazon is currently developing a drone that is designed to deliver parcels from a warehouse directly to the customer. This delivery method is not yet permitted in Germany. On the campus of Virginia State University, students are already being supplied with burritos by drones. In addition to food and parcels, drones can also deliver supply packages to inaccessible crisis areas. In Rwanda, drones are already supplying people with medicines. Water and food can also be sent. This enables people in areas that are destroyed by natural disasters or wars to access aid materials more quickly and easily. In this case, drones become lifesavers.

Drones revolutionize our advertisment

The Madison drone is especially interesting for designers. It is a flying display platform that is used for advertising purposes. Using face recognition, it‘s able to scan the faces of advertisment consumers. Like this, it‘s possible to collect feedback on the effectiveness of advertisments. This information can then be used to tailor the advertising to bypassers. In the future data collections from such drones could be a breakthrough for ad designers and the analysis of target groups.

Dronse will revolutionize our future

Despite all these dangers that drones bring with them, they are definitely an enrichment to society. By optimizing processes, their benefits cover a vast range, from saving time to saving lives. So it should definitely continue to have a place in our society in selected areas. But unfortunately, as with almost everything, there is a dark side. Apart from a dark figure of civilian casualties from military operations, there is also a concern about surveillance and the restriction of privacy. When do drone operations go too far?

Mankind already has the knowledge and technical possibilities to create AI drones. Imagine a drone the size of the palm of your hand, which can independently pursue a given target and even eliminate the target on its own. This could soon be reality. But what if the wrong people get hold of such devices? Who can be blamed if mistakes are made?

The Netflix show „Black Mirror“ paints a dystopian future, in which bees have died out. The solution to the problem is to use swarms of bee-like drones to do their work. What begins as a great innovation, however, comes to a terrible end. The drones are hacked and used to eliminate humans. What sounds like a science fiction scenario is no longer an impossibility. The only thing standing between such inventions and their implementation is us. We, as a society, should always be critical of any new technology, despite its wow factor. We must also insist that governments create clear laws and transparency around the use of drones. Not only for the user, who should always know what is happening with their data. But also for third parties who are influenced by the collection and publication of the data. The topic is incredibly wide-ranging and is developing so fast that regulations are absolutely necessary. But as soon as they are in place, nothing stands in the way of a successful future with drones.

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Digital Culture

Critical reflections on current developments in digital technologies and our role as designers to shape and sketch the future. With free choice of the topic, these texts have been written by students at HfG Schwäbisch Gmünd in the course "Digital Culture" under the supervision of Prof. Andreas Pollok.