The drone-ification of the western world

Enraptured by the technology, Fukuyama worries about what a world full of the things will feel like. “A world in which people can be routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies,” he writes, “is not pleasant to contemplate.” For all the technological refinements, the device in Fukuyama’s video, hovering uncertainly over Hoover Park’s balding turf and eyeing speculatively both the senior Stanford fellow with the joystick, gazing skywards, and the odd dog-walker, does not seem a million miles from the sort of thing you used to be able to buy in a box at the local toy shop and stick together with UHU. And it’s that – the conceptual simplicity yoked to ever-increasing technological refinement – that has propelled the drone into headlines across the world in the past year. It is at once a fiendishly efficient killing machine, the ultimate spy weapon, and a tool of potentially vast utility to police forces, farmers, estate agents and journalists.

Needless to say, it is in the US that the possibilities are being most energetically explored. Rural Louisiana has a problem with feral pigs, which breed rapidly and root up farmers’ crops: new state rules are planned to permit their year-round hunting. Last year an electrical engineer called Cy Brown, in the Louisiana town of Bunkie, devised a labour-saving approach to the problem. Equipping a model plane with a heat-sensing camera, he sends the “Dehogaflier”, as he calls it, up over his brother’s rice farm and the craft sends images of the pigs back to a computer on the ground, enabling hunters to locate them and head to the spot to shoot them. “In 15 minutes you know if it’s worth going out or not,” Brown said…

This is the latest and perhaps most hair-raising development: “They’re built,” Manjoo writes, “to automatically, instantly collaborate in the air. The behaviour is modelled after insects like ants – it happens without a central coordinator, via the drones’ ability to sense their distance from one another as they fly. By the time you’ve stopped staring [at the video],” Manjoo comments, “you’ve opened another browser tab to look for good deals on bomb shelters.”

Orwell’s black vision of total surveillance – “It was even conceivable,” he wrote in 1984, “that [the Thought Police] watched everybody all the time” – is finally achieving its technological apotheosis. In a few weeks, the US Army is expected to deploy in Afghanistan its latest helicopter-style drone, the A160 Hummingbird, equipped with 1.8 gigapixel colour cameras. Able to hover, unlike current drones, it will have “unprecedented capability to track and monitor activity on the ground”, the Army says. Able to track people and vehicles from above 20,000ft, and with a 65sq-mile field of view, it will have 65 steerable “windows” able to follow separate targets. More modest surveillance drones may be used to enhance police monitoring of London’s Olympics.