Unmanned Officers on the Beat

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Mercury Press Agency

Big Brother already has access to our permanent records, and soon he might literally be capable of looking over our shoulders.

The T-Hawk is a flying robot small enough to fit in your backpack and able to hover deftly, observe its surroundings, and pursue a target. The Draganflyer X6 is an ultraquiet miniature helicopter that weighs less than three pounds and can stealthily photograph subjects wherever they are–indoors or out. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like these have transformed the way we wage war on foreign soil. Soon they may change how we police our streets at home.

Supporters of UAVs in the military claim that these soldierless drones are lifesavers, writes Joseph Nevins for the Boston Review(Jan.-Feb. 2011). They can seek out bombs, secure perimeters, and execute precise attacks that proponents say are safer for civilians.

To Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at England’s University of Sheffield, there is nothing lifesaving about UAVs. With them, our leaders are able to wage attacks that would otherwise be impossible, and critical nuances–like enemy surrender and due process–are not an option. By Sharkey’s way of thinking, Nevins observes, “robots lead to such asymmetry that war becomes increasingly like terrorism.”

Regardless of these implications, the UAV tech industry is booming. Conservative estimates anticipate that it will be worth $4.5 billion to $11.5 billion by 2015. And there are new robots in the works: a robo-snake, a grenade-launching bot, a flying Humvee.

As UAV technology advances, interest in domestic applications grows. At their most helpful, the unmanned vehicles could serve as inanimate police officers, video-recording crime scenes, assisting in arrests, and helping search for missing persons. With these uses in mind, some law enforcers happily predict that UAVs will someday be as ubiquitous as tasers.

The United Kingdom plans to use military-style UAVs to enforce order at the 2012 Olympics. Already U.K. police have employed micro UAVs to monitor public protests and other “antisocial” behavior.

As is often the case with trendy technologies, our regulation of them will need to catch up. If robot police are the wave of the future, there must be safeguards to prevent law enforcement agencies from abusing their new, far-reaching powers of surveillance and documentation.

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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