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Are We Happy Moving Towards A Future With Permanent ‘Eyes in the Sky’?

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Companies that manufacture drones are constantly striving towards developing better battery technology.

If batteries hold their charge for longer and deliver more power in smaller packages, it enables the development of UAVs with greater flight range, manoeuvrability and so forth.

But batteries only matter if you need them, right?

French company Elistair (and others) envision a future where drones stay in the sky permanently. They specialize in developing tethered stations for civilian drones (see main image) which dramatically increase the time a drone can stay in flight. Currently their tethered drones have a flight time of  “up to 10 hours and more” but they are eventually aiming for drones that never come down to land.

According to the company, applications for their technology include: “Persistent aerial surveillance, continuous aerial broadcasting, complex industrial inspection or traffic monitoring.”

A recent Elistair press releases states:

“Here at Elistair we believe that the ability to deploy a fully automated tethered drone system as a permanent eye in the sky is invaluable and a huge advantage over bulky and expensive traditional solutions.”

They go on to say that some of their main clients are law enforcement, national security, emergency communications and crisis management teams.

Elistair are not the only company working in this space and there are other methods for keeping drones permanently aloft such as covering them in solar panels. While one can see why permanent eyes in the sky is advantageous for a number of authorities, particularly during natural disasters or emergencies, a network of all-seeing eyes in the sky is not a desirable future societies should be comfortable pursuing.

I  preface the reasoning behind my objection with an acknowledgement of a major theme that underlies the brilliant show Black Mirror; it is not technology itself we should be afraid of but rather the way in which technology reflects, amplifies or exacerbates dark aspects of human behaviour.

A logical progression

Technological innovations spanning the last few decades have, on the one hand, granted us amazing new possibilities but simultaneously eroded our privacy and mined into our personal data. It therefore not remotely surprising that among all the awesome stuff drones do, they are also becoming a part of a wide surveillance infrastructure.

“So what”, one might say. “We are already being filmed most of the time anyway.”

That’s true.

In most major cities in the developed world (with a few exception), CCTV cameras are an ever present feature of public spaces. They also in most taxis, public transport, bars, restaurants, shops and…you get the idea.

My objection to us heading in this direction is not so much with the technology itself but how, without the proper protections in place, it will be used. If there are powerful drones either patrolling or monitoring the air that can zoom in on any one of us walking down any street at any time, that sounds like a pretty friggin scary future to me. That is not necessarily a vision of the future that anyone is proposing but given the track record of US authorities such as the NSA when it comes to surveillance – it would hardly be shocking if they took things to the next level with drones.

One hopes that there will be at least some areas of life that remain relatively surveillance free. After all, do we really want to be a society that is watched everywhere, all the time?

This technology will definitely be used for nefarious purposes

My biggest concern with this technology is that it will be abused by those in power. To some extent, networks of CCTV cameras can already achieve a lot of what a high-flying drone can. Unlike CCTV cameras however, drones have a much greater ability to move around.

We already know some of the negative implications of too much surveillance. Simply look at an authoritarian regime like China which has whole-heartedly embraced CCTV cameras and facial recognition software. Pairing mass surveillance with some of the worst human rights in the world is a terrible mix – particularly when you are a dissident who might disagree with the policies of the rulers of the day. When it comes to mass surveillance, we must always ask – who is watching, why are they watching and what oversights are they beholden to?

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