The mundane costs of independent drones

It’s been an aim of developers for quite a while to develop more independently functioning surveillance drones that can fly around and recharge themselves in some way – whether it’s solar gliders in the stratosphere or, at street level, biomimetic bird-like micro-UAVs that can ‘perch’ and draw power from electricity cables. This was one of the original aims of the DARPA call that led to the creation of that beautiful marvel of engineering / dystopian nightmare surveillance tool, the Nano Hummingbird. If you are an engineer, this is certainly convenient and probably looks a lot like a ‘free lunch’ – there is certainly no mention of any possible costs or downsides in this piece on But as we all should know, there is no such thing as free lunch.

Firstly and most importantly, there’s the question of whether societies want either identifiable or camouflaged surveillance devices flying around us at all times. A mobile surveillance device essentially becomes even more independent and less limited by its construction if it can ‘feed’ itself. And while the US Federal Aviation Authority in particular has just recently put a bar on commercial drone delivery services (PDF), it certainly hasn’t prohibited other kinds of drone use, and many other national regulatory bodies are yet to decide on what to do, while drone manufacturers are pushing hard for less ‘bureaucratic’ licensing and fewer controls.

The second objection is less fundamental but perhaps more effective at igniting opposition to such devices. It might be that any single device would draw minute amounts of power from cables, but what happens if (or when) there are thousands, even millions, of these devices – flying, crawling, creeping, rolling, slithering – and all hungry for electricity? I would suggest that, just like the cumulative effect of millions of computers and mobile phones, this would be substantial and unlike the claims made for smartphones, this would be additional rather than replacing less efficient devices. And this is not including the energy use of the huge server farms that provide the big data infrastructure for all of these things. So, who pays for this? Essentially we do: increased energy demand means higher bills and especially when the power is being drawn in an unaccountable way as with a biomimetic bird on a wire. And unlike the more voluntary decision to use a phone because of its benefits to us, paying for our own surveillance in this way would seem to be less obviously ‘for our own good’ and certainly has the potential to incite the ire of ‘ordinary middle-class homeowners’ (that holy grail of political marketing) and not just the usual small-government libertarian right or pro-privacy and anti-surveillance left.


Surveillant Landscapes

There is a fascinating little piece on Bldg Blog about ‘security geotextiles’ and other actual and speculative surveillance systems that are built in to, underlie or encompass whole landscapes. The argument seems to support what I have been writing and speaking about recently on ‘vanishing surveillance’ (I’ll be speaking about it again in Copenhagen a the first Negotiating (In)visibilities conference in February): the way in which, as surveillance spreads and becomes more intense, moving towards ubiquitous, pervasive or ambient surveillance, that its material manifestations have a tendency to disappear.

There is a standards kind of alarmism that the piece starts with and the assumption that such things are malevolent does strike one as an initial impression, perhaps not surprising given that the piece is inspired by yet another security tech developement – this time a concealed perimeter surveillance system from Israeli firm, GMax. Perhaps if it had begun with urban ubiquitous sensory systems in a universal design context, it might have taken a very different direction. However, what’s particularly interesting about the piece is that it doesn’t stop there, but highlights the possibilities for resistance and subversion using the very same ubiquitous technologies.

But whether hegemonic or subversive, the overall trajectory that post outlines of a move towards a machine-readable world, indeed a world reconfigured for machines, is pretty much indisputable…

A buried and ultimately invisible magnetic passive perimeter security system, from Israeli security company, G-Max.

(Thanks to Torin Monahan for alerting me to this)

Helping robots find their way in the city

Many approaches to developing cities as automated environments, whether this be for robotics, for augmented reality or ubiquitous computing tend to take as their premise the addition of items, generally computing devices, to the environment. Thus, for example, RFID chips can be embedded in buildings and objects which could (and indeed in some cases, already do) communicate with each other and with mobile devices to form networks to enable all kinds of location-based services, mobile commerce and of course, surveillance.

But for robots in the city, such a complex network of communication is not strictly necessary. Cities already contain many relatively stable points by which such artificial entities can orient themselves, however not all of them are obvious. One recent Japanese paper, mentioned in Boing Boing, advocates the use of manhole covers, which tend to be static, metallic, quite distinctive and relatively long-lasting – all useful qualities in establishing location. The shape of manhole covers could be recorded and used as location-finding data with no need for embedded chips and the like.

It isn’t mentioned in the article, but I wonder whether such data could also be used for other inhabitants of the city with limited sensory capabilities: impaired humans? Could one equip people with devices that read the same data and use this to help sensorially-impaired people to navigate the city more effectively? On the less positive side, I also wonder whether such data would prove to be highly desirable information for use in urban warfare…

Robot Warfare

MAARS ground robot (NYT)

The New York Times recently had a good article on the development of robot warfare, covering surveillance drones, and actual warfighting machines, inspired, it seems, by a visit to the annual ‘Robotics Rodeo‘ held by the US military at Fort Benning in Georgia every October. These things are only going to get more common and more sophisticated… never mind that they kill plenty of civilians, they keep ‘our boys’ out of harm’s way, eh?

US military crowdsourcing communications

Marketing site, Brandchannel, reports on a US Army program, the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS or ‘Jitters’), which they say is going to crowdsource video surveillance on the battlefield. Actually, if you watch the embedded video piece from the US Army itself, you’ll see that the program is much more fundamental than this, it is about integrating different radio systems and trying to make the best use of scarce EM bandwidth in order to allow all kinds of more efficient communications – which would of course include video surveillance data or any other kind of data sent over wireless.

However, all is not what Brandchannel thinks. According to Global Security, the JTRS program was already in trouble back in 2005 and rumours of its demise continued to circulate – Wired’s Danger Room reported on this back in 2007. It is still in existence but has been scaled back, the contractors have switched and the costs have risen to more than $1Bn.

The latest bit of boosterism, and claims from the JTRS people that the system will include the ability for troops to access surveillance images from military UAVs and could be in place by 2014, comes therefore in this context, and also in the context of the hacking of US military surveillance drones by insurgents using cheap Russian TV downloading software. One of the really interesting things about this is how the context of military expertise is changing: one of the key justifications for all this is the concept that US troops will already be familiar with handheld devices and streaming video etc. Network-centric warfare turns out to be no different from kids using their iPhones  to watch movies… if, of course, it ever actually works.