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 engineering.com. 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.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been consistently generating some of the most creepy projects for surveillance and security systems from biomimetic nano-humingbirds to cyborg super-soldiers.
One of the latest is entitled ‘Upward Falling Payloads’ (UFP) and is a call for proposals to develop distributed robotic systems that will ‘hibernate’ at the bottom of the sea potentially for periods of years, and then, when called for, ‘fall upwards’ to the surface to release whatever surveillance or weapons platform they contained. They are particularly interested in merging this kind of platform with UAVs or drones, as the press release says, “an example class of systems might be small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that launch to the surface in capsules, take off and provide aerial situational awareness, networking or decoy functions.” The language used in the press release is also particularly interesting for its use of post-Fordist supply chain management terms like ‘just-in-time’, a perfect example perhaps of the increasingly hybrid nature of security and neoliberalism in US military policy discourse.
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…
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?
The Huffington Post has a really interesting article on the current and future use of drones (whether they be UAVs, MAVs or other things) by the US military. Judging from the early comments, it seems there are some people also think these things are great because ‘they keep US soldiers safe’ – unfortunately they don’t seem to do the same for the villagers of the impoverished countries where they are deployed. As the International Campiagn for Robotic Arms Control (ICRAC) is arguing, there needs to be an international treaty or convention to regulate the use of such machines when they are used as or part of weapons systems, but beyond that, these systems, out of theline of vision of the general public, in terms of their policy development and often their physical deployment, are seen as ‘the future of surveillance’ within many nations too – as was revealed in Britain just the other day. The military-industrial complex is now the security-industrial complex and there is a decreasing gap between military tech and its civilian counterparts…