Whether you view them as model aeroplanes for grown-ups or the handmaidens of the killer robot, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are taking off in earnest.
In the 1930s and 1940s the UK developed an unmanned, radio-controlled "Queen Bee" drone, a variant of the Tiger Moth, for target practice. But the United States and Israel have pioneered the use of drones on the battlefield, with the first operational armed strike by a drone taking place in Afghanistan in 2001. Since then, the use of drones in the military arena for surveillance and targeting has risen at a startling pace, and in 2012 we will see drones appearing closer to home. It is widely anticipated that they will be used as a security measure during the London Olympics, and pressure is mounting on the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to re-examine regulations governing UAVs in order to open up what military companies believe will be a valuable civilian market.
Philosophers and lawyers, encouraged and occasionally funded by the military-industrial complex, are swarming around the issue. The questions raised are manifold. Do drones lower the threshold of war, encouraging those who deploy them to be more bellicose? Can they or their operators sufficiently discriminate combatants from civilians in order to comply with international law? Are they proportionate, or so horrifically cruel as to qualify, along with anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs, for prohibition? Does their cybernetic nature make them a biological weapon? What effect does their deployment have on the "hearts and minds" of civilians, or the morale of soldiers? Should we worry that Iran appears to have assumed control of a US drone, having kidnapped it out of the sky? And who is to blame when drones go wrong? The question of responsibility becomes even more central as scholars consider the implications of a future featuring autonomous drones.
Semi-autonomous weapons systems are already deployed in some contexts – such as in the demilitarised zone between South and North Korea – and the UK and US are both currently investing in the development of autonomous drones. In 1977 Michael Walzer wrote "If there are recognisable war crimes, there must be recognisable criminals", an argument that Australian bioethicist Robert Sparrow, co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, suggests presents the ethics of autonomous killer robots with an unsolvable problem.
Skirting over this problem in a recent paper commissioned by the US Army Research Office, Ronald C Arkin of Georgia Tech's Mobile Robot Laboratory argues that robots could be programmed to behave in line with international law, creating "systems that can perform better ethically than human soldiers do in the battlefield". This haunting idea – that autonomous robots, deaf to the fog of war or the need for self-defence, can behave more ethically than human beings – was recently repeated in a briefing on drone ethics to In-Q-Tel, the CIA's venture capital arm, by CalTech's Director of Ethics and Emerging Sciences, Dr Patrick Lin. The current debate appears to neglect Hannah Arendt's 1969 argumentthat only robot soldiers have the potential to reverse the ascendency of power over violence in the nuclear age, that is, that they "permit one man with a pushbutton at his disposal to destroy whomever he pleases".
The most pressing of the ethical and legal concerns surrounding drones lie in their use by the CIA for targeted killings in countries with which the US is not at war, such as Pakistan and Yemen. This practice, the subject of extensive reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last year , has led the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial Killing to foretell "a global war without borders, in which no one is safe". The American Civil Liberties Union, the US Centre for Constitutional Rights and Reprievehave all made attempts, some of which are ongoing, to legally challenge the CIA over this activity.
Meanwhile, the widespread domestic use of drones is on the horizon. In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the US aviation regulator for information about the deployment of drones by law enforcement and other public agencies in the US. Drone Wars UKpublished the results of their Freedom of Information request to the CAA on the same issue at the end of 2011.
While we might get excited by the potential for the use of commercial drones by citizen journalists to live-stream powerful footage from protests, we are likely to be less thrilled once drones are in the hands of the paparazzi. M Ryan Calo of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society wrote recently of his hopes for drones acting as a "privacy catalyst", explaining that while we might be able to overlook the inability of current privacy law to protect us from technologies we cannot see, like the blanket retention of our communications data by internet companies for law enforcement, once the issue is buzzing overhead it will be harder to ignore.