Contemplating the coming of the drones

Eva EmersonBiologist Ty Hedrick films the aerial gymnastics of cliff swallows and other acrobatic fliers. His studies, as freelance writer Nsikan Akpan describes in “Flying animals can teach drones a thing or two,” reveal the wonders that some avian standouts are capable of — from handling more than 7 g’s on a sharp turn to soaring at speeds up to 56.2 kilometers per hour. Interesting in its own right, this research also has a practical side. As Akpan reports, studies of animals aloft inform the effort to design next-generation drones capable of doing as birds do — landing on a wire without stalling or navigating a tree-filled forest without crashing. These smart drones would be autonomous flying robots, equipped with sophisticated computers, able to sense and analyze information independent of their human controllers.

Perhaps most startling is the statement that by 2030 the Federal Aviation Administration expects as many as 30,000 drones to regularly cruise U.S. skies. In January, the New York Times announced it was working with other media outlets and scientists at Virginia Tech to look into the use of drones for journalism. You can imagine the paparazzi co-opting them next, flying into celebrities’ backyard barbecues (if they haven’t already). A colleague of mine said that he would like to buy a drone to check if the gutters on his house need cleaning.

It seems that these mechanical fliers, and not an army of humanoid machines, may represent the robotic future. And it’s close by. Tiny spy planes and backyard toy fliers are already here. Package-carrying mini-copters are in development. But some of the uses are not so benign. Smart missiles that can select and kill targets raise serious ethical concerns. Key to the debut of these sophisticated drones are advances in artificial intelligence, which is already used in medical diagnostics, high-speed stock trading, Google’s driverless car and, as Andrew Grant reports in “Computer algorithm masters poker,” to “solve” poker, besting any human at Texas Hold’em.

The science behind the development of better fliers, or smarter ones, is fascinating stuff. But it’s also important sometimes to stop and consider the implications of the technologies that science begets. I can’t help but find the prospect of a sky full of drones a bit unsettling, however beautiful their flight. 

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