My weekly Guardian column:
In a remarkably short amount of time, drones have become a surveillance centrepiece. During the height of the recent protests in Hong Kong, drone footage captured by an unmanned vehicle showed the depth of outrage against Beijing. Reporters routinely utilise the machines for their work (there’s even a professional society of drone journalists), though critics warn there’s a danger that removing the human element when covering conflict could result in “war porn”. As such, debating the ethics around the use of drones seems vital.
But these are the comparatively simple discussions. Away from public gaze lies a huge and growing industry that now dominates the defence and surveillance arenas. It’s also becoming a central discussion inside the mining, agriculture and resource sectors. Governments, including in Australia, are desperate to doll out funds to attract some of the world’s leading drone manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Days after president Barack Obama announced air strikes against ISIS in September, share prices reached all time highs.
The explosion of drone use has led to a new industry called “unmanned aerial systems”. Measure, for example, is a company that provides a service for clients interested in renting drones for commercial use. The company’s founder, Robert Wolf, is a former economic advisor to the Obama presidency and Wall Street veteran, and he recently announced that the business opportunities in Africa are “incredible”.
I interviewed CEO of Measure Australia, Mark Stevens, who is an early architect of the “drone as a service” industry. Today, he’s working with customers in agriculture, energy, mining, infrastructure and public safety. Offering 50 varieties of non-armed drones, Measure collects data and imagery and then produces regular reports for clients. “For example, we can tell if a remote pipe needs to be checked”, Stevens says, “and right now a resource company like Fortescue Metals would send 20 men to check it out; we can save a lot of manpower.” They currently have no plans to work in the defence, military and police sectors.
With a hugely expanding commercial market, Stevens is convinced that it’s possible to run a drone business with an ethical base. “In the US we have turned down business because it didn’t fit with our values, such as providing drone support for more extreme African states. We reached out to ASIO in 2009 to tell them that we had been contacted by individuals that concerned us and we wanted to let them know. There was a group in Pakistan that asked us to provide drones over the country and we said no.” Stevens would not be drawn on the exact nature of this request.
Measure Australia imagines working with any number of industries that could benefit from surveillance. “We’re currently talking to Australian-state based rural fire services, so they could improve their vision during fire season and operate through smoke. There’s also options in mining, infrastructure and surf-life saving groups looking for sharks.”
Stevens is supportive of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) – “they’re leading the world in my opinion” – but critics accuse regulators in America and Australia of dragging their feet over necessary restrictions.
I ask Stevens if his company is monitoring environmental or animal activists – it was revealed this year that Animal Liberation uses drones to monitor poultry and stock in the Hunter Valley – and he tells me that it’s not currently happening but is possible. He’s keen to highlight the fact that their focus is on “providing an industrial solution.” North American energy companies are increasingly taking an interest in using drones to monitor green group activities.
Globally, Stevens says his American partners are talking to US companies operating in Africa, such as mining firms, cocoa processors and suppliers like Archer Daniel Midland (ADM), and agriculture corporations looking for work in monitoring crops and infrastructure. But the lack of tight regulation and rampant human rights abuses in Africa are surely issues for any drone provider. For example, ADM is currently being sued with Nestle and Cargill in a US court for allegedly aiding and abetting the trafficking of enslaved children from Mali in their cocoa supply chains.
With a burgeoning industry and militarised drone usage becoming ubiquitous in America’s “war on terror”, it’s therefore worth investigating the close co-operation between drone manufacturers and their desire to promote a softer, less-war focused side to the business.
Raytheon Australia donates to Canberra’s Questacon and a high school in Adelaide. The Victorian government partners with Lockheed Martin for development work, and RMIT University now runs a program for students to learn about this emerging technology. Corporate sponsorship of educational facilities isn’t new, and the cost dynamic between arms makers and universities has occurred for decades – but it should never happen without serious questions being asked. Too often, governments and educational facilities see dollar signs before morality.
It’s not hard to see how drones might benefit journalism, agriculture or efforts to tackle climate change. But too little is discussed in the public domain about the limits of unmanned surveillance on privacy, democracy and policing. The time for that debate is now.