Thursday, May 8, 2014

Droning On

Droning On


Drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) have been prominent in the news lately.  Amazon rolled out its plan for almost-instantaneous home delivery using drones.  The NY Mets got in trouble with the FAA for using a drone to take overhead pictures during spring training (their response was that pop flies went higher than the photo drone), and a California medical marijuana dispenser proposed using drones to deliver his medical herbs to patients’ homes.  Drones are one of those technologies that have potential for major social and economic advances, and in the short run, they can radically change the War on Drugs, speeding the move to the end of Prohibition.

Many of the world-changing technologies affect transportation or communication – printing, railroads and steamships, telegraph, and motion pictures are good examples.  The contrasts between the life of a pre-Gutenberg European and a nineteenth century American, eating beef shipped from the West and dressed in New England clothing while reading a morning paper from a high-speed steam press is startling.  But these first generation technologies underwent transformations even more amazing. 

First they went from being bulk carriers to serving individuals.  The telegraph, with central offices and trained intermediaries for every transactions was replaced by the telephone under the direct control of the user.  Trains were superseded by automobiles and trucks and 1,000-passenger ocean liners by smaller, faster, more flexible airplanes.  Movies were shoved aside by radio and television.

Leaps forward became gigantic bounds when they combined with each other.  Movies were a combination of photography and electric lights and motors; and in turn, television combined radio and movies.  When these early jumps joined with the leaps of the late twentieth century – computers, space flight, and the internet – the leaps became revolutions.  Modern weather forecasting was a child of the telegraph, but only when it was combined with satellite visualization, hurricane airplanes, computerized radars, and broadband communications did it become a truly reliable part of daily life and business.  The modern smart phone bears little resemblance with Grandma’s black, wired to the wall, one-to-a-house rotary dial model.  Even tv dinners zapped in microwave ovens far surpass the canned foods developed for Napoleon’s armies.

Drones stand on top of four legs of these modern revolutions: transportation, communication, networking, and space technology.  The Amazon proposal is a good example.  Amazon would receive orders by mobile telephone or the internet and process payment through networking computerized banks.  Final delivery to the purchaser would be by drone guided by satellite-based GPS navigation.  Other recent examples are wide-spread.  Photographers are using drones for everything from the Mets publicity pictures mentioned above to new angles on wedding spreads.  Farmers use them to inspect their crops and herd livestock.  Soon they will replace manned aircraft for crop straying.  Wildlife biologists do animal and habitat surveys quicker and more accurately than by hand.  They could often replace television news helicopters which have horrible safety records.  Drones are beginning to appear in law enforcement contexts.  The full scope of their use is almost unimaginable.

Drones could cause major changes in the War on Drugs in the next few years, making it less dangerous and violent and hastening the end of Prohibition.  Drones actually have a long history in drug trafficking.  In the 1980s stories surfaced of Mexican drug smugglers using radio-controlled model airplanes to move kilogram-sized loads of cocaine across the Rio Grande into Texas.  They could not be spotted on radar and could not be seen or heard from more than a few hundred feet away.  They could land on very small open spots and then left to sit until the receivers were sure they had not been detected.  With radio controllers on both ends of the flight they could be sent back for reuse, but were cheap enough to be disposable. 

Over time those model airplanes have morphed into both large military drones with payloads measured in tons and small computerized tools that can go anywhere; both have the capability to remove most of the risks of drug trafficking.  Drug traffickers face risks at three times: when crossing the American border, while carrying drugs in transit, and while making an actual sale.  Drones could minimize all three of these risks.

Just like the model airplanes, large military-style drones (costing less than the jet airplanes or even large trucks now used) could cross the U. S. borders from Canada, Mexico, or anywhere along the sea coast with little risk of detection; and if detected or intercepted, the smugglers – not at the scene – would avoid arrest.  Those same drones, flying low below radar coverage, away from major roads, and landing in isolated areas, could ghost shipments within the country as well.

Street-corner sales, both to the consumer and small-scale wholesale is where the small drones will come into their own.  Flying just above street-light level and below rooflines, they will be practically undetectable.  Guided from a third- or fourth-floor window, they can deliver to a single customer almost instantaneously.  To the extent payment can be mediated electronically via cell phone, no actual seller-buyer contact will be necessary.  These transactions will eliminate undercover purchases and sting buys since the purchaser would have no contact with, or ability to identify, the seller.  Even street surveillance by police would be of little use.

The gains to police from the use of drones will be of much less utility.  They are already using large drones for border inspection, but those will be of less value against smuggler drones than they currently are against surface transportation or manned aircraft.  Since small drones will move drug dealers off of the streets, small police drones will have little to see.  Use against grow-houses or processing plants are indoors and will continue to require the police to follow warrant procedure.

Drones should appear in drug transactions quickly, and their use will expand even faster.  They will have the effect of shifting the advantage from the police to the drug marketers, making enforcement harder.  The War on Drugs will be even more futile.

The effect of introducing drones into the drug market will grow from a buzz to a drone to an uproar – a blare that will help trumpet the end of Prohibition.