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.


Why does the Internet of Things look so… crap?

Interesting article on the Guardian website this weekend, which highlights what seems to me not so much either the genuinely socially revolutionary or the threatening aspects of the ‘Internet of Things’ and smart everything, but the general lack of inspiration in so much of what developers are presenting as visions. But why does the Internet of Things frequently look so banal and so… crap?

There seems to be a pervasive failure of the imagination in many popular portrayals of the future, as if imagining the future is always an exercise in nostalgia. The future really ain’t what it used to be, back in the day when energy was going to be too cheap to meter, when we wouldn’t need to work and everything menial would be done by robots, when we’d all have our own personal helicopter (or even spaceship) and, of course, when there would be an end to war. The breakdown of that post-WW2 optimism and with it the faith in either (actually existing) capitalism or communism to deliver, hasn’t been replaced by revolutionary fervour or a brave new visions, but pathetic ideas like toothbrushes that tell us how well we’ve cleaned our teeth. The future is being created by an unholy combination of committees of marketing hacks and security wonks and we need to take it back…

Augmented Reality or alternate (un)realities?

There’s an amusing article with a serious point to it by the ever-acerbic Charlie Brooker on The Guardian website, on the potential social transformations of so-called ‘augmented reality’ technologies. The idea that ‘augmented reality’ inevitably will diminish or dehumanise as much as it adds or extends is one that has been made many times before, but usually in regard to the ‘subject’, i.e: the person experiencing the augmented reality. What Brooker’s satirical article is saying is that the humanity that is potenitally diminished in these systems is that of ‘others’ who may be effectively hidden by the information that the person using AR desires, and perhaps even deliberately so. I can see this. I think it’s actually a real possibility and the humour of Brooker’s approach shoudn’t disguise the fact that he’s an incredibly perceptive commentator.