How pandemic responses are helping to sanitise the public image of drones

Still from DraganFly video on using drones to detect Covid

On May 29 2020 , an MQ-9 Reaper drone, the “true hunter-killer” of drones, flies over American citizens on US soil. The George Floyd Protests in the US have only just begun after Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin killed Floyd 4 days before. As footage of the Reaper circulates on social media, more video of drones arrives: “Pandemic drones.” Canadian drone manufacturer Draganfly announces that its drones can use infrared vision to detect social distancing, heart rate, body temperature, and even coughing. Cities in the US and Canada are being encouraged to purchase and use these drones in public spaces as a health measure.”. In the Reaper scene, the drone is targeting the public as a safety threat. In the Draganfly scene, the drone is protecting the public from a health threat. These seemingly contradictory scenes have been popping up everywhere, especially in the US and UK, who are both poorly managing the pandemic. How do these two scenes work together? What public image of drones are they producing? And where is drone warfare?

These two stories are indicators of two integrated phenomena: the intensifying use of drones for domestic policing and surveillance, and attempts to sanitize the image of drones, rebranding them as neutral tools that simply make everyday life easier and safer. This transforming image may well drastically affect how drones are understood by the public in domestic and international spheres.

Public opinion on drones for commercial, policing, and military use are mixed at best. But drone use is expanding across sectors nonetheless. US and UK officials want to increase public approval of drones, and the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to normalize state and commercial use. Capitalizing on public fear of the coronavirus can further allow for invasive drone technology uses. Pandemic responses have included spending billions on new health technologies in general, many of which raise privacy concerns, such as fever detecting “smart goggles.” But drones hold a special appeal in the age of social distancing and viral spread by providing remote, action-at-a-distance services.

Recent front page of BBC Science Focus website

The issue here is not analysing the effectiveness of the pandemic drone uses – although that is of course important – but rather how the projecting the image of drones as a public safety tool limits awareness of government’s domestic and international activity. Pandemic drones provide governments with an ideal rationale for increased drone use in public space; it is more difficult to argue with measures taken to protect public health because the coronavirus is a common threat to us all, even though some face more dire risks.

Since March 2020, across the world drones have been utilized as tools for cleaning, delivering medical supplies and food, monitoring population movement, disseminating health information, and even identifying the ill through visual and thermal sensing. In turn, a flood of recent news headlines have celebrated drones.  As the New York Times put it,

“Robots are designed to solve problems that are dull, dirty and dangerous, and now we have a sudden global emergency in which the machines we’re used to fearing are uniquely well suited to swoop in and save the day.”

Some of these drone applications indeed have benefits, such as delivering medical supplies to remote regions or allowing easier access to testing. While drones appear to “save the day” for some, they continue to threaten the lives of many in varying degrees of intensity within and beyond domestic borders.

These headlines applauding drones help to shape a media image of a humanitarian drone, a drone that supports human welfare. This image prevents fuller awareness of the violence and ongoing use of drones abroad and even the potential privacy loss that comes with commercial and police drones. Some police forces in the US and UK have been deploying drones since as early as 2005 and expanding usage during the pandemic in disquieting ways. Derbyshire Police is one of the many UK police forces using drones to surveil and enforce social distancing by monitoring pedestrians. In the US, Westport Police in Connecticut tested a pandemic drone that could detect when a person has a fever, or they are coughing from a distance of 190m away.

Drones have capacities far beyond the average CCTV video camera, as demonstrated by the pandemic drone models. Along with facial recognition technology and data-driven predictive policing, drones are part of a new form of policing, one that might be hard for the public to immediately detect due to semantics as well as media representation of drones that frame them as necessary technologies of human welfare. Although policing measures are for “public safety,” the policing view of public safety is double-edged: viewing the public as an always potential threat to protect said public.

Operated by the US Border Control and Customs, the Predator drone flying over the George Floyd protest was one of the clearest signs of how the rhetoric of “public safety” doubles as “the public is a threat.” The US Customs and Border Control Agency did not provide the reasoning behind the purpose of the predator drone that circled around Minneapolis multiple times before returning back to its base. Presumably, the drone was used for protest surveillance, but using a military drone model designed to kill for citizen surveillance is alarming.

Using military drones on domestic soil for civilian surveillance brings drone warfare “home”. In the US and UK, among other privileged Western military powers, drone warfare is not “fought” on their domestic soil. But, the line between overseas war-zone and domestic civilian space is blurring, as is the line between protecting the public and policing the public. Even more, the pandemic and government responses have largely fixated the media and the public’s attention, thereby shifting attention away from overseas warfare. While one might think countries would focus on their own people’s needs during the pandemic or support international aid, military drone operations have not ceased or even slowed down during the pandemic.

“You must stay at home!”  Neath Port Talbot Council in Wales flies a drone telling residents
to follow government rules and stay home.

The pandemic and humanitarian drone stories provide a useful distraction from overseas and even domestic operations just as getting accurate data on military drone activity is becoming increasingly more difficult  and armed forces brand drones not as ‘Predators’ but ‘Protectors’.

In the US, The Atlantic described L.A. County Sheriff Department’s drone as non-threatening, before going even further:

“the drone looked sleek—cute, even. The Sheriff’s Department made the choice deliberately, to give the potentially threatening technology a Pixar-like approachability.”

After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests in response to anti-Black police brutality, which resulted in even more police violence and drone usage, it is reasonable to be wary of “cute” police drones stories.

As the pandemic continues and more drones fill the domestic skies as neutral “safety devices” or humanitarian aid, it is necessary to stay attentive to how this framing shapes public opinion of drones, distracting from the now normalized drone warfare. Privacy is a crucial issue here, but there is more than privacy at stake. Military drones allow for governments to wage warfare without public knowledge and thus face less public criticism. Drone warfare erodes democracy ‘at home’ as it erodes communities overseas. A sanitized image of drones as ‘cute’ humanitarian servants, further distance the public away from drone warfare.

  • Amy Gaeta (@GaetaAmy ) is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies and Visual Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Amy arranges aspects of disability studies and feminist technoscience studies to explore 21stcentury human-technology relations. Her dissertation, Drone Life: A Feminist Crip Analysis of the Human, theorizes how drones are altering the human condition against the backdrop of AI, automation, and mass surveillance.

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