A Few Drones Might Be a Good Idea

What’s wrong with military drones is the same thing that’s wrong with B-52 bombers, namely, that the people who kill are isolated from their innocent victims. They don’t have to hear the screams of burning children, don’t have to confront the mother whose son they have blown to bits. For me, that is enough reason to banish them forever.

There is always a danger that someone will misuse any new technology. We have an endless supply of crooks who look at anything new as a fresh way to take someone else’s money. (Consider the internet!) Domestic drones are no exception. But there are some potentially benign and useful ways to use drones. Here are a few.

B-52 and drone pilots
don’t have to confront the mother
whose son they have blown to bits.

Poachers of protected animals are among the scum of the earth, in my opinion. Recently, African poachers poisoned over 300 elephants to get their tusks for the black market. They get away with it because of the vast scale of the African wilderness. But what if a (solar powered?) drone on a routine reconnaissance flight saw and tracked them undetected as they went about their ugly business. Law enforcement forces could go directly to them, no matter where they were. What if the drone could launch a paint bomb that would explode over their heads and mark them indelibly so they could be seen even at night? Photograph them and their vehicles? Few would object to the use of drones for such uses.

Law enforcement drones have similar potential worldwide. Take a known criminal on the run. Today we call out the SWAT team and the police helicopter or two, creating a major disruption and dangerous panic. Suppose instead that two or three small, virtually silent drones locked on to the crook, without creating all the disturbance. Chances are greatly increased that he could be more easily captured with less danger to others.

Few would object to the use of drones
to catch African poachers.

The trouble is that the police and the army simply cannot be trusted to use drones responsibly. Take the misuse of drones to “protect” us from the invasion of dangerous low-wage workers from the south. Never mind that the direction of immigration is southward, not northward, and that the US needs protection from the white hordes of Europe more than the field workers from Mexico—if, in fact, we need any protection at all. Basically, all this southern border protection is boys playing with guns, more like an annual rattlesnake hunt than anything else.

Nor can the police, the FBI, the CIA, or any other government agency be trusted to use drones in a way that protects democracy, privacy, and freedom. Their record is pretty bad, as Mr. Snowden and Mr. Assange showed us. The evidence that these agencies often act in ways that threaten everyone’s privacy and constitutional rights has become a roaring avalanche. And there’s the inconsequential factor of killing several thousands of innocents.

A drone might find lost people
who might otherwise soon die.

Still, there are numerous ways drones could be used that do not violate our rights. Consider the search for persons lost in the wilderness. A drone equipped with infrared detectors, which sense heat, might find people who have tramped for days through snow, and might otherwise soon die. The same for children who have strayed off and become lost, and even livestock, pets, or wildlife.

Drones should be singularly adept at biological surveys. Trees and other plants have distinguishing visual and infrared signatures that would allow an accurate census of them, as well as far better estimates of damage from fire, insect infestation, and disease. The national park service could use them continuously, if they aren’t already. Drones have already proven useful in surveying forest fires.

Agricultural use could be similarly beneficial. The major disaster in agriculture over the past half century or so is the massive indiscriminate use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. These dangerous chemicals are the reason arsenic is showing up in domestic rice crops, the reason being that arsenic products were used on cotton crops decades ago, leaving an arsenic residue in the soil that rice plants pick up. Ever see pink seed corn? The pink is mercury.

Agricultural drones could sharply diminish
the use of powerful chemicals that pollute.

Agricultural runoff of the chemicals farmers use fills our waterways every time it rains. This stuff was put on the ground to encourage crop growth, and to kill pests and weeds. It doesn’t stop doing these jobs just because the rain carried it away. In the bays and oceans it creates huge areas that kill all aquatic life, including seafood and plants. It creates the red tide, which can be seen from space, and is itself frequently toxic enough itself to kill.

But suppose farmers were able to use the services of drones—probably small helicopter drones—to survey their crops. The drones would measure the health of their crops, show them where problems exist, and deliver things like pesticides directly at the point of infestation, and nowhere else, and with no danger to workers. The current practice of routine massive use of such chemicals is virtually never necessary, because problems only develop in specific spots. It’s just difficult to find these spots, so farmers drench everything in poisons (often including their workers), strongly encouraged by highly profitable chemical companies. Since these chemicals are one of the major expenses farmers pay, drones have the potential for significant cost avoidance, not to mention markedly reducing the disastrous scourge that agricultural chemicals have become. Chemical companies would object to spoiling their multi-billion-dollar party, of course.

I believe it’s not drones per se that are the problem. It’s their inevitable misuse. We don’t have very good ways to control this yet, but we’d better start thinking seriously about it.

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