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The Buzz on Drones

Sivi Sekula

In the last few years, drones have become the thing. But are all drones quite so harmless? Like most modern technology, there’s the good, the bad, and yes — the ugly

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

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A fter a fun-filled day at the lake, we sat down to enjoy a BBQ. Suddenly, we heard the strangest buzzing noise. It took us a couple of moments to figure out that the noise was coming from above us. Looking up, we caught sight of a small white drone hovering right over our heads. A glance around showed that the owner was sitting on his dock nearby, watching real-time footage of us from the drone on his tablet. We waved to the drone and it moved on.

Just a harmless neighbor taking nosy to a whole new level.

In the last few years, drones have become the thing. But are all drones quite so harmless? Like most modern technology, there’s the good, the bad, and yes — the ugly.

What are Drones?

Drones are small, unmanned aircraft, meaning there’s no pilot aboard. Most drones are operated via remote control, but some receive instructions from onboard computers. Drones come in all shapes and sizes, and can fly at various altitudes. They’re often fitted with cameras, so people on the ground can see what the drone is flying over. Some drones can even be fitted with missiles, guns, and other weapons. (You’re starting to see the ugly now, aren’t you?)

Military Drones

This is where drones were born. You might have heard of drones only recently, but air-force engineers have actually been developing drones since World War I (1914-1918)! In fact, the idea of drones has been around practically since militaries started using planes in combat. A major advantage of using drones (or UAVs — Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — in military lingo) instead of airplanes is that, without a pilot, the risk of pilots getting hurt is reduced. Also, military drones can stay up for hours at a time, providing round-the-clock surveillance.

 

During both world wars, a small number of top secret operations involving drones were carried out, but they all ended in disaster. After World War II, drones fell out of favor. Out with the drones, in with missile-carrying rockets. For the next few decades, drones were all but forgotten.

The Great Comeback

It was only in the 1990s, when computing technology suddenly improved drastically, that air-force engineers starting thinking about drones again. Now there was enough technology to make them fully remote-controlled, and they could be armed with missiles. Since 2002, the CIA has been using armed drones in strikes against enemy targets. Britain, Israel, and China also use drones for military purposes.

How exactly does the military use drones? Well, if you think just anyone can operate one of those armed drones, think again. It’s true the pilots aren’t actually on board. They sit in a control room on the ground, which can be in an entirely different country from where the drone actually is. But still, drone operators have to go through intense training before they can sit in front of those controls.

So, military drones — good, bad, or ugly? Probably a combination of all three. They’re good because fewer pilots are put at risk. But critics say that killing targets with drones, instead of soldiers getting up close and personal with their victims makes it seem like the drone is the killer, and that the person behind the controls holds no responsibility.

Drones to the Rescue

Let’s move on to something less depressing, shall we? This one is definitely a good use for drones!

Abu Dhabi, November 2014. A window washer is happily going about his job washing the windows of one of the city’s many skyscrapers. He’s standing on a platform ten stories high. All in a day’s work. Suddenly, BOOM! Something malfunctions and the platform is now hanging on a dangerous tilt. People below immediately call the police, who arrive with a drone. Sending up the drone, they use the attached microphone to calm the terrified window washer. Then, using the drone’s camera, they examine the platform and explain to the poor guy how to fix it. All’s well that ends well, and the window washer goes back to washing his windows.

This is just one example of how drones can be used to help people who need rescuing.

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