July 2022
Alan Dean Foster

Droning On

Thought for the day: if someone watches cooking and restaurant-review shows all night, will they a) put on weight because the shows will make them want to eat, or b) lose weight because looking at food for hours will kill any appetite? Surely this important topic has been the subject of at least a few theses and half a dozen government studies.

And now, back to the subject at hand: drones.

Axon, an Arizona company that manufactures tasers, has proposed integrating one of itsinvigorating little products with a drone. The initial mockup looks like something out of Star Wars, or maybe Dune. I don’t think it’s intentional on the part of the company, but the little airborne bugger looks downright intimidating. If I was a bad guy, saw one of these humming in my direction, and had any notion of its capabilities, I’d surrender right then and there. 

The intimidation factor may be one of this product’s most underappreciated and unrecognized capabilities. It’s one thing when you’re confronted by a cop holding a taser. People tend to react to the human behind the weapon, not the weapon itself (unless it’s, say, a Mossburg). Facing an armed drone, a frantic malefactor has no one in front of them to yell at, no one to argue with, no one’s mother to insult. The operator is out of sight.

Axis taser drone

The thought behind the Axon device is to enable the authorities to send in something to safely deal with, for example, an active shooter or otherwise barricaded and unreachable suspect. Further, the small drone can dive in through an open or broken window, travel down a narrow hall and, for all I know, drop down a chimney broadcasting in Vin Diesel’s voice, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas and drop that weapon now!”

What this means is that a dangerous suspect can be confronted without risking the lives of police, firemen, paramedics or other humans. Someone experiencing a violent mental episode and waving a large knife can be safely rendered harmless with no opportunity to cut those trying to help them. There are lots of obvious advantages.

But. Suppose the candidate for take-down is out of the drone operator’s range? Or their description is known but their location only generally? Wouldn’t it be a comparatively simple matter to program such a drone with the relevant information and send it out to locate, identify, and incapacitate the suspect? An AI-driven armed drone? Surely Axon, not to mention assorted military establishments around the world, are already working on this.

Here’s today’s reading assignment for you: “Watchbird,” a short story by Robert Sheckley. First publication in Galaxy magazine, February 1953.

I consider Sheckley to be not only the greatest writer of short science-fiction, but one of the best short-story writers of the 20th century. Especially during the 1950s Sheckley would toss out one brilliant tale after another, each one of which would, in the hands of another writer, serve as the basis for an entire novel. Sheckley wrote novels as well, but his true metier was short fiction. Much of his work included a healthy dose of satire. In the Soviet Union this made him a writer of significant stature. All his considerable output of short fiction is available and has been widely reprinted.

“Watchbird” deals with the prospect of AI-controlled armed drones. Drones equipped with real firepower, not non-lethal weapons like tasers. Of course if one can build a drone that can carry and fire a taser, replacing that takedown device with something more deadly, or simply destructive, is no more than a matter of a little engineering. Taser to laser, say.

Yes, I know truly powerful lasers require huge amounts of energy. But the small, cheap laser is already the source of an inordinate amount of aggravation for pilots. Imagine a flock of cheap drones equipped with equally inexpensive lasers swarming around Russian helicopters in Ukraine. I wouldn’t want to be piloting one of those Hinds.

I have to repeat that Axon isn’t (I think) considering AI-driven drones. Just the ordinary contemporary kind, operated by someone twiddling controls while following the drone’s progress via a screen and device-mounted camera. No flying Terminators. Yet.

Read Sheckley’s story. Then remember: this is from an author just speculating. In 1953. So about 70 years ago. Now take a leap of imagination forward, the same length of time. It’s 2093. We’d better keep a close eye on what goes into the chips that go into such drones.

And I don’t mean the chocolate kind.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.