This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Tuesday, May 7, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the use of drones in the United States. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website.
You don’t see many stealth passenger jets flying from JFK to LAX. Stealth technology, though useful to the military, is irrelevant to Delta or United. This is rather obvious. But the advantages of piloting an aircraft from the ground are less clear-cut. You can make a smaller airframe; it might also be able to stay in the air longer. If you are inclined to fly over hostile territory (as militaries sometimes are but airlines aren’t), remote control gives you additional margins of both safety and political latitude.
But there are also drawbacks. You still need to pay a pilot on the ground, and that person won’t be able to perceive the environment around the airplane nearly as well. You need to either set up a costly satellite data link or have a mobile command station for the pilot within the rough vicinity of the drone being controlled. Getting rid of the pilot can be a surprisingly expensive proposition.
As the charged debate over the role of drones in American airspace unfolds, it is a mistake to overlook the simple fact that the trade-offs that have made drones so appealing to American military and intelligence agencies overseas are substantially different than those at hand domestically. Drones are not better than other, older means of gathering information, or of flying. They are different—better in some ways and worse in others.
There is a peculiar alignment of intellectual motivation among drones’ most ardent proponents—the people who are selling them—and their ardent foes in the civil libertarian and pacifist communities. Both believe that a sky crowded with drones is a realistic possibility, either to be desired or feared, and both overstate the significance of drones. One hears little about the danger of government officials, eager to get ahold of the latest gadgets, carelessly spending money on drones that actually aren’t as useful as they claim to be.
In some ways the current fever over drones resembles discussions of the helicopter in the middle of World War II. Early helicopters had been built before the war, but the technology came of age when Igor Sikorsky began building large numbers of them for the American military during the war. As Samuel Solomon, the president of Northeast Airlines, told the Associated Press in 1943, “The helicopter has tremendous possibilities.” Solomon prophesied air taxi services in which helicopters picked up businessmen on a rooftop in Boston and dropped them off “on the roof of an office in downtown New York.” Helicopters would also be used for express air-mail services, he said.
Of course, none of this came to pass, for one simple reason: Helicopters could do all of these things, but they could not do them cheaply or efficiently enough to displace other technologies. In war zones, where getting from place to place is dangerous and moving quickly is necessary, helicopters have become ubiquitous. Similarly, drones are widely used on battlefields (overt and covert) because of the unique capabilities they bring. But these capabilities are not cheap.
The analogy to helicopters appears to break down at one crucial point: It is possible, today and in the near future, to make small, cheap drones. But these small drones have more in common with model aircraft, which have thrived as a niche hobby for years, than they do with the Predators of Afghanistan and Yemen.
Endurance is a crucial question here. Small, cheap drones’ ability to remain in the air for long periods of time will not dramatically improve in the near future. This is because their endurance is limited by the ability to store energy, an area in which technological leaps are unlikely. Larger drones are large for a reason—they can carry enough fuel to stay aloft for long periods, and the complicated sensor packages they carry can be minimized only so much. Because few see them up close, we tend to mentally underestimate the difference between a Global Hawk, which weighs as much as a tractor-trailer; a Predator, which weighs as much as a small car; and the hobbyist-sized drones that are widely available.
Take the Draganflyer X6 drone. The Seattle Police Department recently purchased two of them, but after public outcry, it returned them to the manufacturer, unused. The X6 can loiter in the air for just 20 minutes or so. This is enough to be useful to police in, say, searching for a suspect fleeing a crime scene. (Which, it hardly need be said, is a legitimate police function.) The Draganflyer’s endurance is not long enough to fundamentally change the nature of privacy, in the way that Predators, Reapers, and Global Hawks equipped with sophisticated military sensors are capable of doing. Small drones like the Draganflyer can invade privacy, but they do not threaten its very existence.