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Benefits, Risks And Ethical Concerns Of Drones

August 7, 2013 1:27 p.m.

GUESTS:

Larry Hinman, Professor of Philosophy, USD, co-director, Center for Ethics in Science & Technology

Lucien Miller, CEO Innov8tive Designs

Related Story: Benefits, Risks And Ethical Concerns Of Drones

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: A pair of suspected U.S. drone strikes killed four Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen on Tuesday. That news story points to the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs by the military and intelligence agencies. Drones are not only being used in warfare. They are starting to play an essential part in border, law enforcement, and helping firefighters track wildfires, even in agriculture and crop dusting. But there do continue to be concerned about the use of drones, concerns about being spied on by an eye in the sky, and questions about who takes responsibility for the actions of an unmanned vehicle. The topic of drones will be explored tonight in a discussion sponsored by the center for ethics in science and technology. It will take place at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center, where there's an exhibit of unmanned vehicles called On the Fly. Larry Hinman is Professor of Philosophy at USD, and co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science & Technology.

HINMAN: It's a pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Lucien Miller is CEO of Innov8tive Designs, the company involved in the design of small UAVs. Welcome to the program.

MILLER: Thanks for having me today.

CAVANAUGH: There's a lot of excitement about the development of drone technology. We've heard stories about San Diego wanting to become the drone capital of the world. Can you synthesize for us why people are so enthusiastic, at least some people, about the use of drones?

MILLER: Well, the technology that's available today allows people to use this new tool in a way to get a job done that's currently being done with either full-scale helicopters or airport at about 3-5% of the acquisition cost, and 3-5% of the ongoing hourly operational costs. So for organizations like the coast guard. If they're trying to search somebody like a crab boat that toppled, and the guys are in the water, and they're searching for them, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to go find somebody. With this new technology, for $20 an hour in fuel, you can search all day along and find people. And fire departments and search and rescue departments are finding the technology useful because they're relatively small, they can fit in the trunk of a squad car and be deployed immediately for a perspective that would normally require bringing in a helicopter.

CAVANAUGH: Larry, do you find there's a love/hate attitude toward drones? People are fascinated by the technology but wary about how they'll be used.

MILLER: That's true that there's a love/hate relationship. In terms of my own personal feelings, I'm on the love side. I have restrained myself from going out and buying my own for the sake of our marriage. But this is fascinating technology. And what I really like to see is what Lucien is talking about, ways in which an emerging technology can be used to further the public good. And in things such as forest fires, lots of monitoring things for crops, and other situations, it seems like they are not only cost-effective but almost the obvious choice. The ambivalence I think that we encounter is that we've seen some instances where these have been put to use in ways that have certainly generated a lot of animosity toward the United States and raised some serious ethical problems.

CAVANAUGH: One of the controversial uses of drones is that we often hear them being used in military strikes like the one that reportedly killed the Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen yesterday. What ethical issues do the use of armed drones pose?

MILLER: Well, there are several that come up immediately. One is that when you hear these reports, I listen to them with a bit of skepticism. Because we've seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere that when we've looked more closely, some of the targets have turned out to be civilian in ways that are disturbing. The second issue that arises for me is a procedure, and this has nothing to do intrinsically with drones at all, is what we call double-tap, you send in a hellfire missile, and five minutes later, you let loose another on the same target, so anyone coming to help these injured who might be civilians are caught by the second. That has not won the hearts and minds of many people for the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Well, since this discussion will be about ethic, let me also ask this question: If a wealthy country can wage war by using unmanned aerial vehicles and other new unmanned technology so that its soldiers don't risk harm, doesn't that heighten the ethical stakes when it comes to waging war in the first place?

HINMAN: It my make it easier -- as Lucien has well pointed out, this technology is very cost-effective. What that means in the long run is that countries with far fewer resources than the United States will be able to turn and use this kind of technology. And we haven't yet worked out what the guidelines are going to be in this regard. And that work remains to be done.

CAVANAUGH: Lucien, what do you find is the biggest misconception about drones and their use?

MILLER: Right now the biggest is the word drone itself. It brings back connotations of some of the early drones used in the first world war, the second world war, are the V1 buzz bombs that indiscriminately dropped into towns. So that term drone has a negative connotation associated with it. That's why we're so strongly trying to educate the public about the fact that what we're doing now with these small unmanned aerial systems is not drones. We're not doing any military type of actions with them. They're actually saving lives. There was a case of May in this year in Canada where a gentleman had run his car off the road in the snow, and he was ejected from the vehicle. And it was freezing weather. He calls the Canadian equivalent of 911, and they send the royal mountees out because they got a GPS fix from his cellphone. And when they got to his car, they found he wasn't there. Fortunately, that unit was one of the first ones to receive one of the new dragon fly X4 drones with infrared vision. And they were immediately able to deploy that, do a circular pattern, and they found a hot spot in a snow bank about 600†feet away. And they sent the mountainees over there, and they found the guy curled up in a ball suffering from middle stages of hypothermia. They were able to rush him to a hospital, and he made a full recovery. Had they not had that technology, the man would have froze to death. So that's the type of stuff we're promoting with the types of aircraft that my company is manufacturing.

CAVANAUGH: Right, are right. I don't think anyone would have a problem with that kind of a rescue. And I would try to use the term UAVs as much as I use drones.

[ LAUGHTER ]

CAVANAUGH: But I do want to mention that there are lingering -- enough concern at the ACLU to draw up some guidelines about the use of UAVs in the U.S.

MILLER: Right.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, they recommend that domestic drones should not be equipped with weapons. I'm wondering if I can ask you both, do you agree with that? I know there are law enforcement agencies that would like to put weapons on drones, at least nonlethal weapons.

MILLER: Right. We have had some requests from some college students that were studying criminal justice, and they were wanting to explore the possibilities of putting a teargas canister on a drone on a small UAV for crowd dispersal purposes. Personally, when you start talking about weapons, it's a gray area. My philosophy is I don't want any of our particular aircraft that we manufacture with lethal weaponry on them. Things for crowd control or something like that, used properly, that's all right. But a lot of people are afraid of people mounting a machine gun on one of these things and flying through streets and indiscriminately shooting people like the Robocop and Terminator stuff they've seen in the past. And these are legitimate fears because the technology can be used for that. But that's not what we're trying to do with it. You have a Phillips screwdriver, you can use it to put a shelf together with or you can stab somebody with it. Are we going to ban screwdrivers because the potential exists for them to cause harm to people? That's how I look at it. Of

CAVANAUGH: Larry, what's your take? Let's concentrate on nonlethal weapons. Teargas, and rubber bullets or things of that nature.

HINMAN: Well, I think we ought to proceed with a lot of caution down that path because this is largely unexplored. One of the things about nonlethal weapons is it's easier to deploy them because you feel that they're not going to kill anybody. And I've looked at some of that in the use of stun guns. And what's come out of that discussion is you really need very careful training on the part of those who are going to operate them. And like stun guns, you look at those, they offer the possibility of disabling someone without killing them and protecting everyone in the -- if you have a criminal brought in to an emergency room where a surgeon has to start doing a procedure that involves a scalpel, you want to be sure that you can immobilize the criminal if he tries to grab that scalpel. Stun technology allows you to do that. That's the kind of distinction we want.

CAVANAUGH: And also while we're on the subject of the ACLU's concerns, the ACLU is rather concerned, it would appear, that law enforcement will be using these unmanned vehicles to spy on people. And so what they want is if it's not an emergency, that police should be required to get a warrant just as they would if they wanted to physically search your property. What do you think about that?

HINMAN: Well, it's not clear how much they respect the warrant mandate in regard to other searches right now. But I think that's a reasonable restriction. And what we've seen -- part of what -- I love technology. And I ask myself, where is this going? What's the natural flow of the technology? And if you look at the surveillance stuff that's come out with the NSA and the like, it's clear the natural flow is vacuum it all up and then look! And if you don't have any hurdles before then, that's going to be the natural step because it's so easy. So I think it's reasonable to move slowly. And I think the warrant is a reasonable thing to ask for.

CAVANAUGH: Lucien, part of the concern that keeps popping up about the UAVs is the way they operate. You don't necessarily hear them overhead like you would a helicopter, right?

MILLER: They are relatively quiet. Once one is up 50 or 60†feet above you, if you don't look up to see it, you may not notice it's there. And when people talk about the deployment of these things, most of the police departments that are using these things carry them in the trunk of the car locked up. And the only time they deploy them is if they have a car chase, and they want to see where somebody is in someone's backyard. They could use the technology to find where the guy is hiding in the backyard. So when they jump a fence, they know exactly where the guy is and are not jumping blind into harm's way and getting injured in the process. But like you said, I would like to see just for doing surveillance of stuff, yes, there's laws on the books that you have to have warrants for doing that kind of stuff. And this technology is not going to undermine any of the voyeurism or peeping Tom laws or warrant laws or anything like that currently on the books.

CAVANAUGH: Are drones always operated by a human on the ground or are some capable or becoming capable of executing like an automated flight plan?

MILLER: They always have a pilot in the loop. But the new ones that are available now, you can get what's called flight to way points where you can pull out a laptop, pick coordinators and say fly here at 300†feet, and go here and hover at 200†feet, and when you're done, come back and automatically land. That technology exists now. And that is really great for when your doing, like, perimeter security. Like the San Onofre nuclear power plant. If you wanted to do a persistent perimeter patrol of that, you could program way points around the base and turn the machine at certain angles to get certain camera shots and have it repeat that over and over again. There would always be a pilot in the loop ready to take over if anyone should happen, but the machine has the capability to operate on its own in a preprogrammed set of maneuvers.

CAVANAUGH: And for the sakes of -- Larry, I really do want to ask this question, a growing number of people are using drones for fun.

MILLER: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Your company makes model drones for people to fly like kites.

MILLER: Right now it is the fastest growing segment of the radio-controlled airplane hobby. The multirotors are really taking off. In March, my company sponsored the first annual multirotor challenge which was a meeting of all kinds of people to share their technology and what they're doing with the systems. And we just had an absolute blast. We did an obstacle course event and antonymous spot landing events where the craft had to land itself. So from a recreational standpoint, it's a huge part of the RC hobby industry right now.

CAVANAUGH: And Larry, since you have this secret desire to own your own --

HINMAN: No longer secret, I guess.

[ LAUGHTER ]

CAVANAUGH: What do you see yourself doing with that?

HINMAN: Well, that's the thing. I just one, you know? The story I told myself was it would be really nice to have a good aerial shot of all the sprinklers on our property. But I can figure that out without a drone. It's just intriguing and appealing to me. So I've been looking for about the last year and have prevented myself from buying one.

CAVANAUGH: The exploring ethics panel which sounds like it's going to be a really good talk on drones and other UAVs takes place tonight at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center at 5:30 and lasts till 7:00.