A few weeks ago, after I read the Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama had built his own drone, I called him up to talk about their national security implications. Fukuyama, who describes himself as a techie and hobbyist, told me he finds drones incredibly exciting. “It’s a really neat idea that ordinary people can own and operate and make this level of technology,” he said.
He went on to describe a variety of ways that drones could alter warfare. Unmanned drones have allowed the American military to use fewer and fewer ground forces during combat. But today’s military drones have many shortcomings—they can only operate from very high up, they can only spy or kill, and they frequently kill civilians. You can imagine swarming nano drones allowing for much better performance: They could take the place of on-the-ground Special Forces troops, and even of covert operatives. In an article in the Financial Times—under the headline “Why we all need a drone of our own”—Fukuyama wrote:
The technology is not standing still. Down the road are insect-sized drones that could be mistaken for a housefly or spider, which could slip in under a door-sill to record conversations, take photos or even inject a lethal toxin into an unsuspecting victim. Systems such as these are under development by the Army’s Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (Mast) programme, in partnership with a variety of corporations and university labs. Further into the future are nanobots, particle-sized robots that could enter people’s blood streams or lungs.
And, of course, we can’t count on being the only ones to use this technology, Fukuyama points out. At the moment, the United States enjoys asymmetric access to drones, but as the technology gets easier to put together by amateurs, every country and a horde of non-state combatants—criminals, drug cartels—will be able to do scary stuff with drones. “There could also be an anonymity to their use that doesn’t exist now with other technologies,” Fukuyama says. That could make it a perfect weapon for terrorists. “Someone is going to connect the dots sooner or later.”
The implications of these drones—for good and for ill—haven’t yet been puzzled out. That’s why it’s hard not to be filled with wonder and dread when I watch these machines do some amazing new thing. There’s no doubt about it: Drones will rule our future. We ought to start talking about how we’ll deal with them.
Thank goodness, though, they're not perfect yet. For now, take some solace in this video of the UPenn drones' bloopers. Laugh until you weep.