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Can Drones be a force for good?


Drones – friend or foe?

When we think of drones many of us imagine the flying weapons of destruction wreaking havoc in the war on terror.

But could this autonomous flying machine be a force for good in the modern world?

Three speakers at TED Global 2013 offered their visions of the future in a session titled “Those Flying Things”.

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Lian Pin Koh, a drones ecologist, has piloted the first successful trials of aircraft that could protect the future of endangered flora and fauna.

His project Conservation Drones has teamed autonomous aircraft with an autopilot, GPS and cameras to create drones that cost as little as $500 USD.
Practical uses of the drones include monitoring Orangutan nests in Indonesia, and patrolling to ward off poachers in areas with endangered species.

His drones are programmed before taking off with an interface built on top of Google maps using open source software.

Drones have potential not only for combatting wildlife crime but also monitoring wildlife populations

“We chuck the drones in the air, grab a cup of coffee, sit back and relax. Sometimes we worry the drone won’t come back”

The MAJA drone – their latest model – can transmit a live video feed back to base, at a resolution of 1-2 cm per pixel, and has a range of 30-50km.

Collecting data from the field is one of the biggest challenges for ecologists. Koh explained to the audience his drones will eventually be used to remotely download pictures/data from sensors attached to radio collars on animals and remote cameras on the ground.


Drones could also help connect some of the hardest to reach places on earth.

Over 1 billion people across the world have no access to roads throughout the year. Rainy seasons and challenging landscapes push the costs of moving essential supplies out of reach for many people in the developing world.


Andreas Raptopoulos believes Matternet, a network of drones, will do for atoms what the internet did for bits.

He wants to build a network of drones for moving supplies across the globe. Matternet’s flying vehicles and landing stations could enable us to ship supplies 10km in just 15 minutes by floating 400ft in the air.

The landing stations will be designed to allow the drones to automatically swap batteries and continue their journeys. The initiative is backed by seed funding from Singularity Labs and a16z.

With Matternet it’ll cost just 24 cents to send 2kg across 10km

The first field trials have already taken place in Haiti, where they successfully delivered medical supplies to people affected by the recent earthquake.

Crucially Raptopoulos believes the system will be a cost effective way of reaching people in remote places.

“This is a new paradigm” he said. “It’s decentralised, peer to peer, bi-directional and adaptable”.


Matternet isn’t just for the developing world. Raptopoulos sees many applications for the megacities of the world that are already crippled by traffic congestion on the ground.

He sees his network of drones as a modern solution to an age old problem. In practice they could work just like the internet does in today’s world – operating 24/7 in the background, a couple of hundred feet above ground connecting people across the city.

“Matternet will do for transport what the mobile phone did for communications”.


Drones still have the potential to harm humanity. David Suarez, the third speaker in the session painted a darker picture of the future of machine driven warfare.

Combat drones already exist and have been used extensively by the United States. Many other developed nations are already building their own fleet.

Autonomous combat drones risk taking the humanity out of war

The current fleet are operated remotely and a human makes the final decision to strike a target.

Full automation is the next natural step in their development, in what Suarez describes as “fully autonomous lethal weapons”.

He told the TED audience that by taking people out of wars, automated drones put the decisions and morality of war into the hands of the few.


The current generation of drones are already collecting hundreds of thousands of hours of surveillance footage of combat zones. Military forces use this footage to identify potential targets before striking.

Combat beyond the capacity of humans

The current scale of data collection is already going beyond the ability of humans to properly check and verify. Suarez believes the next logical step is for the drones to do the checking for us.


Could automated combat herald a horrible new age of war?

Suarez predicts the potential for private enterprise and breakaway military groups taking up automated arms, creating warlords undermining the rule of law.

And worse still, those of us in the developed world might be even more at risk because of our infatuation with big data.

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If you’re terrified by the idea of real-life killer robots, we have some bad news for you – they’re already here.

Two different automated killing machines operate in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. Suarez told the TED audience they can make lethal decisions automatically.

So how can we stop this nightmare? Suarez believes international treaties and frameworks are one of the only ways we can protect ourselves from the grim reality of automated killing machines:

“The secret is transparency. For the sake of democracy let’s make sure killer robots remain fiction”.


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