Friend or Foe? The Drone Within A Technological System

Technology plays a crucial role when tracing the evolution of warfare throughout history. From swords to rifles to atomic bombs and horses to railroads to airplanes, technological advancement transforms the way in which wars are conceived, fought, and remembered. As we continue into the 21st century, however, military technologies are becoming increasingly radical from the weapons of the past. Image

Recently, ‘drone’ has transitioned into a buzzword when discussing military technology. Although sometimes equated to a toy airplane with a lawn mower engine, the drone is considered an exceptional surveillance and targeting technology. The impact of drone usage in the military is evident; the significance of advancing drone machinery and availability in the private sphere, however, has just begun.

John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist and director of defense research and engineering at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, conceptualized the first drone in 1971. Two years later, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) built two prototypes, Praeire and Calere, which could remain aloft for two hours with twenty-eight pound loads. By the mid 1990s, a process expedited by the US’ Cold War with Russia, DARPA built Predator, a drone that could loiter for twenty-four hours at 25,000 feet with a 450-pound load. By 2001, the Predator was outfitted with a laser guided missile and a camera, and by 2009, the US Air Force was training more drone-joystick pilots than airplane-cockpit pilots. Drones continue to advance; the Boeing’s Solar Eagle’s flight is scheduled for a five year flight in 2014 while the University of Pennsylvania drones are learning to think for themselves and have succeeded in plotting personal trajectories for flying through hoops thrown in the air. Zephyr, a British drone, recently broke the world record for flying 336 hours straight and reaching an altitude of 21,562 meters.


While originally designed to impede Russian attacks during the Cold War, drones have transitioned into a favored technology for surveillance and targeted assassinations in the Global War on Terror. Drones are capable of overlooking two and a half mile wide areas from twelve angles simultaneously and surveying entire cities in a line of vision, making them an exceptionally formidable and versatile military technology.

Attempts have been made to understand the unintended consequences of the drone. As a military technology, drones have been predominately used for reconnaissance and surveillance measures or armed to drop missiles and bombs. However, Lev Grossman, senior writer and book critic for Time, argues that “having transformed war, drones are getting ready to transform peace.” Under the Federal Aviation Administration, Obama has ordered to expedite the process of integrating drones into civilian airspace.  Beyond using drones to assist in operations such as surveying construction sites or overlooking agriculture fields, some see the potential of drones to inspire true social change. Helen Greiner, the CEO and founder of Cyphy Works, expects drones to become commercialized by 2015. She envisions drones filling a variety of roles in civilian life ranging from a pet figure in normal households to a police accomplice in crime investigations. Grossman concludes, “It appears that drones are evolving faster than Americans’ ability to understand how, legally and ethically, to use them,” a concern that gains relevance when considering David Collingridge’s argument regarding the ‘dilemma of control.’


The notion of drones intervening in our daily lives may seem far-fetched at present, but as Collingridge claims, technologies cause unanticipated and often times, unwelcome, social repercussions. In The Social Control of Technology, Collingridge implores the need to govern technologies before they are too deeply entrenched in our lives yet recognizes the difficulty of predicting the social consequences of technologies before they are fully developed. Collingridge’s dilemma of control encompasses two parts. First, our poor understanding of the interactions between technology and society makes us unable to confidently predict the greater social consequences of a technology in its infancy. Second, by the time a technology is sufficiently developed and its greater ramifications have become evident, control is very difficult, costly, and slow. While Dave Guston acknowledges both our inability to predict the results of certain technologies and that we will experience lock in regardless of whether they are advantageous or harmful, he differs slightly in insisting that by explicitly considering a technology, we can shape its future progression with “anticipatory governance.” Bill Joy, however, describes technology as autonomous, meaning that science and technology follow an inevitable progression with which we must cope with and accept. He encourages us, however, to reconsider this fatalist perspective and find ways to challenge technological progression.

When considering drone technology within the context of Collingridge, Guston, and Joy’s arguments, one realizes that opportunities abound for drones to assert themselves in the private sphere with deep social consequences in unexpected yet irreversible ways. Fred Kaplan, a national security columnist for Slate, voices his concerns for the unintended consequences of drone warfare within the military. Since drones can kill targets from far away, anonymously, and without a risk of retaliation, Kaplan argues that drones may make fighting too easy. Army chaplain and ethics instructor Keith Shurleff expands on this sentiment in noting that “as war becomes safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide.”

Steps toward drone intervention in the private sphere may exemplify more potent threats to civilian life. Currently, military drone manufacturers are seeking to introduce remote sensing drones into private markets, such as domestic surveillance. This dramatic expansion of surveillance capacity, alongside developments in machine recognition of faces and monitoring of personal conversations, would allow for our private lives to become under intense scrutiny.  Drones are low level and anonymous, yet present. While the information gathered from drone surveillance may hold deep consequences for those watched, drones themselves remain entirely unaffected given that they are machines without identities, secrets, or fears. Ultimately, an asymmetrical dynamic emerges in which drones are responsible for inspiring a new form of anxiety amongst the public yet prove unable to feel a reciprocal fear of retaliation. 1984 may turn into a reality by 2084.

The nature of a drone raises further questions regarding information ownership. Drones are physically present yet lack human senses of attachment, loyalty, or morality. As inanimate objects, they do not fear for their own lives nor sympathize with those whose lives they may take. While a drone may oversee a construction site, inspect for bridge damage, and equate to a household pet in the future, it will not possess a true identity. Provided that drones can and will work for anyone as they become easier to obtain and use, we ultimately must ask the questions: Who owns the information collected from drone surveillance? Who stores it? Who shares it?


Advancements in drone technology progress within an accompanying technological system. Drones are no longer a contained military surveillance and reconnaissance technology. In the coming years, we must grapple with the role of this weapon as it expands beyond the military domain and extends into private spheres of influence.

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