Sunday, January 27, 2019

Drones and Human Choice at the Frontiers of Innovation

Not long ago, a drone sighting shut down Gatwick Airport, the second busiest airport in the U.K., for 36 hours. In what officials described as an “unprecedented” event, multiple sightings within the airport’s secured perimeter affected 1000 departures, upending the Christmas travel plans of over 100,000 travelers. In response, Gatwick officials and their counterparts are pursuing countermeasures like the secretive, military-grade anti-drone technology. Whether intentional or not, the incident has brought to light a real potential downside of a burgeoning personal drone industry, and has put pressure on politicians and regulators everywhere to figure out how to address it.

It is fair to say that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about drones and their societal role. I’ve just come off spending the better part of the last several months pinging back and forth between South Africa, Rwanda, and Tanzania interviewing drone companies, pilots, regulators, and funders to better understand civilian drone development. This work, part of a broader ongoing study of robotics and society conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute and South Africa’s University of Cape Town, seeks to understand how and why drone experimentation is taking place in these countries. Policymakers in these global hotbeds for drone innovation are at the forefront of wrestling with how this new technology is woven into, or disrupts, existing institutions, communities, commercial markets and governance structures. The idea in researching this process is to provide guidance on how governments might develop drone policies.

The research topic raises a number of interesting considerations revolving around the choices made, explicitly or implicitly, in the process of innovation: Do individuals, or corporations, or the government, have a right to use the space above our heads, and for what reasons and on what terms? Are drones best controlled through embedded technologies or laws and regulations? Is it justifiable to promote an industry for its own sake, or should we ask first where it is headed? The answers to these questions affect the process of innovation itself, and ultimately how we perceive and engage with the resulting technology. The cycle is iterative and continuous, but the inputs may radically alter where we end up.

Technological innovation in many ways defines modernity. It enables our lifestyles and shapes our identity. And like identity-shapers of the past, its impact becomes naturalized and invisible to us. We take for granted both the benefits and costs that our technologies present, and forget that the consequences are, to a great degree, choices we have made and continue to make. This complacency can, in my opinion, bring us to places where we can assume carelessness and unkindness through technology that might otherwise horrify us.

The potential to wake up, to remember technology’s role, is what I find captivating about some of the most profound technologist thinkers of the past century. People like Lewis Mumford, Bruno Latour, and Ivan Illich have in their own ways sought out means of showing the dynamic relationship between society and technology. I think there is a lot to be learned from these thinkers, and to be applied to drone development, which is still in its infancy. We have the chance to be thoughtful about how drone innovation can be valuable and beneficial, before its infrastructural composition ossifies. A prerequisite, however, is for us to recognize that we have the choice to dictate the terms in the first place.

Over the next few months I plan on following up on this stream of thought, to provide a more complete picture of how choices being made today in Africa are driving drone innovation, and how those choices may well become embedded in the drone infrastructure of tomorrow, and along with it our modern identity.

Looking forward to it!

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