People peer up at a drone in Alexandra Park (All photos by Henry Wilkins)
The below is a short piece of speculative fiction inspired by Henry Wilkins' photography project "Look Up: Reacting to Drones in the Urban Environment", which you can read about in more depth here.
When the first one hit, George Chard kept driving. “I drive twenty, thirty-thousand miles a year – strikes happen; you get a chip and an oil stain on your windshield but life goes on.” Then came another, and another. “It was like driving through a hailstorm, just plastic and paper pounding away on the roof, like they were trying to get inside, to get at me. I was doing 90 and they was still keeping up. One actually got a pizza through the window. I remember looking at it and thinking, 'That’s handy, I don’t have to bother getting lunch at the next juice stop.'”
That’s when the fridge appeared. “I can still see it now, floating over the motorway like a fucking UFO or something, except it wasn’t a UFO, it was a fridge. Then it came at the Tesla and I just thought: 'Fuck, I’m going to be killed. By a fridge.'”
Chard is the latest victim of cluster-bombing, one of the more terrifying and bewildering phenomena of the drone era. “The attacks look like something out of the old Hitchcock movie, The Birds,” psychologist Professor Maya Taylor, head of Cambridge’s Emergent Psychology group, tells me. “They date back to the late 2050s, when the first drone delivery networks were established, but back then they only carried letters and they only dropped at fixed addresses. Some farmer would open their door in the morning and find a six-foot stack of junk mail on the driveway.”
Things escalated when the drones began tracking people. “So I’m on the motorway now, and there’s a fridge in the windscreen and they’re still coming,” Chard tells me. “I thought if I got off the road they’d stop, but it was like they were attracted to the vehicle – they didn’t need a map or nothing. And I’m ploughing through all this wheat, and they’re after me like locusts.” That’s when it struck him. “I saw my phone in the passenger seat, buzzing away, and I just grabbed it and threw it out of the window. They dived on it like pigeons on breadcrumbs, just landing on each other and smashing into each other and the ground.”
We still don’t know why it happens. “You have 30 million drones now, a third of them airborne at any one time, all communicating with each other to coordinate deliveries and movements,” explains Professor Taylor. “It’s a complex network, like a power grid, and each of these devices has its own brain, learning and adapting the whole time. Most of the time it works fine, but when an error happens it can cascade through the network and start affecting their behaviour in completely unpredictable ways." Like suddenly flocking to one target? “Exactly. And if you’re that target – well…”
The Professor pulls a face and crosses one hand across her throat.
New technologies can take a while to catch on. When Caesar first visited Alexandria in 48BC, he was impressed not just by the charms of Cleopatra but by an automatic door, powered by a rudimentary steam engine. It would be almost 2,000 years before either technology came to fruition. The first automobile dates back as far as the 17th century, but it took 100 years to scale to full size, and 200 years to create the first practical, modern motor car.
Similarly, drones seemed doomed to remain toys for a long time. Photos from the early part of the century – such as those by Henry Wilkins, scattered through this piece – show how people viewed them as objects of curiosity. A popular pastime involved mounting a lightweight camera to the underside of a quadcopter and recording aerial photographs or video. Great art often comes from novel perspectives, and early adopters became the first generation with the ability to cheaply and easily raise their eyes into the sky and look back down again. Sadly, their use was limited once the puny batteries failed and the novelty wore off.
Military use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles was well established by the 2020s, but these were more like robotic aircraft than the agile, interactive creatures we live with today. When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos talked about using drones to deliver parcels, most people simply laughed. And for a few decades, they were right to.
Energy was the key. Once it became possible for drones to replenish their own energy mid-flight, restrictions on size, weight and flight duration were radically changed. By the 50s, drones could fly all day with a kilo of cargo. In the years that followed, carrying capacities boomed and advances in control systems allowed collaborative drone swarms to tackle large-scale problems together.
Since then, the drone economy has revolutionised almost every aspect of our lives. In major cities like London, commuters can simply raise their arms to summon a drone that will whisk them away to some other part of the city, like Mary Poppins dangling from an umbrella (although Mary Poppins wasn’t protected by a £2,000 smart harness). Deliveries can arrive at wherever you happen to be. Whole fleets of drones have been sent into war. But new technologies bring new problems.
"'Gutterballs' are a really big issue for us.”
I’m in the office of Ted Jackson, a former NYPD officer brought in by the Metropolitan Police to lead a cross-service inquiry into the growing problem of corpses on rooftops. “You need a license to drive a car, but you can hitch a ride on a drone and fly around at 2,000 feet without so much as a safety briefing. Then they run out of battery, or the drone has a wobble and they don’t know how to deal with it.” And then? “And then, blam,” he smacks his palm on the desk, “Pizza.”
Cars kill plenty of people, too, I point out. Is this any different? “The thing about cars is, they’re a contained problem. They follow roads, and now we’ve removed a lot of the human element they’re a lot safer, especially in cities. And if something does go wrong, we can see them, we can find and treat them. If you fall out of the sky, you could be literally anywhere. Back alleys, rooftops, allotments. And each one coming down causes collateral damage to property, trauma to people.
“Then there’s the drain on resources of trying to find all these people. There are probably 50 or 60 bodies out there right now, waiting to be found. A lot of them are just missing people cases. Some of them could have dropped hours ago, but they’re on a rooftop with no battery and no way of getting help. I mean, when is the last time you checked the roof of your house?”
“Exactly. You could go to bed tonight ten feet under a horror movie – blood, gore, shit everywhere – and you wouldn’t have a clue. The first thing most people notice is the smell, or fluids running down the windows, or too much blood in the flies they were swatting. It’s freaky, but I guess it is what it is.”
Not everyone is willing to accept the new reality. The "Earther" movement started ten years ago and has been gathering pace ever since, helped by a long series of public relations disasters. While some on the fringes seek the eradication of all drones, most congregate around two aims: “We want weapons off drones,” spokesman Bob Santos tells me, “and we want proper regulation of the cloud-based control systems that manage them.”
When Martin Jackson was shot and killed near Troy, Alabama almost 20 years ago, he wasn’t the first man executed by a drone on US soil. He was, however, the first to be killed by a civilian, and to make matters worse that civilian was a "Breeder". His death was the first of many fatalities in an American civil war that’s raged ever since.
In the 2040s whites ceased to be a majority in the United States, and the Breeder movement was born – an unholy rump of racists, extremist Christians and fragments of the old Tea Party, obsessed with the idea of restoring the old order. Weaponised drones – supposedly protected under the constitution – became the Breeders’ weapon of choice, and Jackson’s death revealed the chilling reason why.
“With drone-mounted guns you had the first programmable weaponry in civilian hands,” Santos explains. “And that was hugely important in terms of who takes responsibility for firing the shot. You could hack a drone to protect your property, to fire on trespassers under certain parameters, and that was perfectly legal under the law. If something goes wrong – well, you didn’t pull the trigger.”
With the Breeder movement, that programmability was key. “You couldn't programme the drone to target black people, except they got around it by coding it to protect white people. They’d have it make a decision, so if the image contains clearly pink skin it wouldn’t shoot. If you’re white, that’s great. If you’re black, sayonara. If anyone challenged it, 'Well hey,’ they’d say, ‘we have the right to shoot people on our property. This isn’t perfect, but at least we’re saving some people.’ In other words, it’s not racism, it’s just a really convenient bug.”
In the last year for which figures are publicly available, drones killed 473 people; 402 of them were from ethnic minorities. “It’s straight-out racism, but there’s no law against it. You can build a racist drone that only shoots black people, and that’s completely OK.”
Weaponised drones were first used in substantial numbers by the military 50 years ago, in the third Gulf war.
“In hindsight, they were pretty much a disaster.” Jack Boronoff jabs his finger at a map of Iraq spread out across his desk. “The problem is you have all these units that are basically disposable. A quadcopter is a million times cheaper than a fighter jet, and nobody back home gives a shit if you lose one. So the Army’s philosophy was, well, let’s have thousands of them, and just swarm these rebel strongholds like a plague of locusts.”
What went wrong? “Well, you’ve taken 10,000 guns, stocked with ammo, and sent them on an unsustainable suicide mission. We programmed them to shoot at people with guns, but the rebels learned pretty quickly how to fool the image recognition. At that point we’ve got two options – stop giving a shit and kill everyone, or sit there like a big damned flock of clay pigeons. And when you shoot one, you get a free drone gun just falling from the sky. They must have thought it was Christmas.” Two days later, the drone army retreated to base… having being reprogrammed by the rebels. Anti-aircraft guns tore through the swarm, but some still got through, inflicting over 30 casualties.
Couldn’t they have used human operators? “Sure, but then you’ve got to train a thousand people to sit there watching a fuzzy, unreliable video feed, trying to shoot the right people. It’s more expensive, no more reliable and soldiers get sued at the end of it. And, at the end of the day, you can’t take a town with drones – you gotta get boots on the ground and talk to people.”
Police forces in the West have arrived at much the same conclusion. Drones aren’t useless by any means – they play a huge role in the surveillance of crowds or specific targets, but when it comes to interacting with the population, nothing replaces a human being. “Crowd control is about people, it’s about psychology,” Boronoff tells me. “Drones simply can’t make the kinds of decisions or gather the same kind of information about mood or threat levels that experienced officers on the ground do."
Borough skate park
It’s impossible to look up to the sky now without seeing "the cloud", the faint black swarm of drones floating high over London City. Some see possibilities, while others see those very possibilities as a threat – people dodging parcel deliveries, or cleaning the remnants of gutterballs off their rooftops. Often, that attitude reflects where you are in society.
For the predominantly white male rulers of Silicon Valley, the sky really is the limit. For minorities and women, the technology has had more sinister impacts. In Britain, hundreds of sunbathing women have fallen victim to perverts running live cam shows from hovering drones. Unmarked and untraceable, catching the culprits is almost impossible, but the powerful drone lobby have so far resisted calls for tighter regulation.
“Of course there are problems, as with any new technology. You can look at the early days of aircraft, automobiles or the internet, and they were full of dire warnings about the radical changes," says Caroline Andrews, head of the UK’s leading drone manufacturer, the imaginatively-named Drone Systems Limited. “But sooner or later, people realise that the huge benefits outweigh any costs. At the end of the day, it’s progress, and sometimes progress means…”
A body landing on your roof?
She smiles, fixing my gaze like a shark fixes a meal. “Exactly.”
More about drones:
WATCH – Drone On