A daily bulletin of news & opinion

27 February 2015

What is a drone? Up until a few years ago the thing to which the word “drone” referred was a “continuous, low humming sound”. One could hear a drone or something could drone. The word is oddly perfect, acting as a noun and a verb. Another definition of the word references male bees that don’t actually work in a colony; whose only purpose is to fertilise a queen. Given all of these references, how is it that we’ve come to a place in time where the most common understanding of the term has nothing to do with noise or fertility and everything to do with unmanned aerial vehicles?

The word has clearly gone from seemingly banal to being incredibly loaded, thanks in no small part to the controversial use of military and civilian drones around the globe.

Just this week, drones were over Paris in a series of mysterious sightings. The French are up in arms and rightfully so. Surely the grizzly attacks on press freedom at Charlie Hebdo have heightened fears of terrorism and the concern that someone nefarious might be flying these tiny aerial vehicles around: drones have been sighted over key transport and tourist sites in the French capital. On Wednesday, three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested for alleged drone use around the city. What we’ve learnt is that those taken into custody were actually doing a story about the mysterious drone sightings. Officials say the crew deployed their own drone as part of the story and have stated that the journalists weren’t related to the other sightings.

These events raise interesting questions about security and privacy, and reflect more than just French concerns about the rapid growth of non-military drone use. What’s interesting is that these technologies aren’t really new. Civilians have been flying remote-controlled vehicles for decades. What is a more recent development is that we’re now at a point where the technology for drones and surveillance can fit in the boot of anyone’s car. That seems to be the scariest thing.

For those looking skyward it’s hard to say where the next drone might come from. The US government this month released draft guidelines for civilian use but the rules that will actually take shape are yet to be seen. Amazon has said it could soon start delivering items via drone in key markets, news organisations and filmmakers are fighting to get their cameras airborne and the world’s military forces seem set on the idea that drones are the future of warfare so there’s clearly a lot of reasons for them to be in the sky. The question is, just how great will the “continuous, low humming” become?

Tristan McAllister is Monocle's transport editor.


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