I have a toy, radio-controlled helicopter. It is very difficult to fly. You are in control of everything and for those of us with limited manual dexterity, the result is always a side-slip and crash into the nearest solid object.

Modern quadcopters, generally considered to be drones these days, are easy to fly. They have four spinning blades, one at each corner, and are computer controlled so the drone flies level and straight with no input from you. They have gyroscopes to stabilize flight, accelerometers to sense movement and GPS to know exactly where they are. You talk to the on-board computer via radio and tell it exactly what you want it to do and it does it.

Drones have been mostly used as flying camera mounts and we are ignoring the big drones that shoot missiles here. There is nothing so informative as a bird’s eye view of the ground. I remember a time when I was a passenger on a Twin Otter that went from LaGuardia Airport to Poughkeepsie. As we took off, we flew past the Statue of Liberty at torch height and turned to fly directly over the twin World Trade towers (This was awhile back). I could have touched the radio antennas on top. I saw people’s gardens on apartment roof tops. We flew directly up Central Park, over Harlem and out into the country. I never would have gotten that same understanding of the layout of New York City by wandering the streets.

Drones can deliver that same detailed view but at a vastly lower cost and with greater simplicity. Drones can also carry more than cameras. For scientific uses, they can carry instruments of any sort so long as they are fairly light as we are talking about small aircraft here. Military drones are huge, full-sized airplanes that cost millions of dollars. There are large, experimental drones for scientific purposes that have huge government support. Drones that one might, on a smaller scale, adapt for scientific use are quadcopters that cost from a few hundred to a few thousand and will fit in the trunk of one’s car. You can use a drone to carry an ultraviolet radiometer or infrared camera. Drones have been adapted to collect samples from the air or even from a whale’s plume. To fly a drone one must comply with FAA regulations.

In today’s news, is the small helicopter that we put on Mars. It is specially designed to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere. Take a look at it with the interactive frame.

I asked Matthew Burr (Beragon Betts in SL) to tell us about some of the ethical questions that drones raise.

“Ingenuity is a partially autonomous helicopter delivered by the Perseverance rover to the surface of Mars. The success of Ingenuity with its first flights on Mars is a reminder of how routine is it becoming for us to have smart machines in our lives.

Drones have cameras. The cameras record video data to a server. Accordingly, drones [and other autonomous objects, robots] are accelerating the emergence of the surveillance society. Much public space and a lot of commercial space in the west is surveilled by CCTV cameras and even at home doorbell cams stare remorselessly at the street by our front door. Many societies seem to have made their peace with mass surveillance, in part because CCTV feeds are not monitored by anyone. No one is watching you in real time. Drones [and robots] bring surveillance into our private spaces. And they do watch us in real time. Unlike CCTV, robots have the potential to act on what they see. This brings a new wrinkle into the public debate about surveillance and societies will soon have to discuss it.

For a robot to be autonomous, it must have intelligence. As we work to make robots more and more autonomous, we will enhance the capabilities of AI. Robots will accelerate the advancement of AI. It may not be long before conflicts between humans and robots emerge as robots act autonomously sometimes inappropriately. The combination of surveillance and intelligence raises the question of whether we will have to employ something like Asimov’s laws of robotics to rein in the behavior of autonomous robots.

Drones, while less autonomous than robots, are another type of machine that is becoming common to our experience. Household hobby drones equipped with a Gopro camera have the potential, in the wrong hands, to stalk and harass. Commercial drones offer the promise of convenient package delivery, but also bring a concern about the potential for surveillance in the hands of private corporations. Commercial drones may also become autonomous to the extent that they can find a location all by themselves – making them flying robots. Military drones are remote controlled machines driven by an operator at a base. They offer the promise of military operations with no risk of injury or death to the country using them, but drones have come under heavy criticism for killing civilians, such as the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Military drones have sparked an arms race as countries work to enhance their drone capabilities.

Our machines on Mars are a testament to human achievement of which we are all proud. They should also prompt us to think more about how we as individuals, and us as a society, will adapt to living with smart machines daily and how that coexistence will change us.”

OK… here is a quiz. Deepy is in an airship high above a SL sim. Is the airship a drone? It has no plot except an avatar and it is controlled remotely by an actual human.


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About Author

Deepy (Deepthinker Oh) is an educational psychologist with a long standing love of journalism and previous experience as the editor of MANIERA magazine. Deepthinker Oh's use of the SLBN logo does not constitute approval by or a representation or endorsement from Linden Lab.

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