A drone for every home

Drones are becoming the latest military technology to find a home as consumer technology.

The present of military technology has always been the future of civilian technology. From jet engines to GPS and the internet, things invented for war have often found a new lease of life repurposed to make the world better, and drones are no exception.

The first foray into the consumer market is barely recognisable as a drone at all. The Parrot, a 60cm-square "flying toy" that retails for £300, doesn't look a huge amount like a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. It isn't armed with cruise missiles, for one thing, and it's quite a bit smaller. It's also not based around a plane-type design but is instead a "quadricopter": four rotors, which can spin independently so that the drone flies with a fair amount of stability. But it's an unmanned, fly-by-remote-control aerial vehicle. Definitely a drone.

The Parrot has two cameras, pointing forward and down, which let it be controlled by a smartphone or tablet over wifi. It streams video back to the "pilot", who uses simple onscreen controls to move it around within its 50m range. Out of the box, it is largely a toy. But all that changed when the hackers got hold of it.

Take the Joggobot. By modifying the software which controls the Parrot, a pair of game designers in Australia have created a robotic pace-setter. The drone flies ahead of a runner, keeping an eye on a pattern printed on their t-shirt, and maintaining a steady speed. The creators argue that their creation prompts questions:

Should the robot be a pacemaker for the jogger? If so, can this be motivating? Or should the Joggobot be more like a dog, reacting to the jogger like a pet companion? How does this affect the interaction, and in particular, the exercise experience for the jogger? Will joggers run faster or longer because of the robot? And, maybe more importantly, will the jog be more engaging?

The Joggobot is limited, however, by what the Parrot can do. Although the drone is undoubtedly impressive for consumer technology, it has a battery life of just 20 minutes – barely enough to break a sweat – and can't carry anything beyond its own weight, which means that it can't lug around a change of clothes while you run. 

For real breakthroughs, its not enough to use a toy based on military drones: you have to get hold of the real thing. That's what this Polish protester did, filming a three-way clash between the police, neo-nazis and anti-fascists from the sky:

The widespread availability of UAV technology raises the possibility that the surveillance state can be turned back on itself. Already, sites such as Fitwatch apply the police's logic of Forward Intelligence Teams (squads of officers dedicated to documenting the presence of known "domestic extremists" at protests) to the police themselves, publishing "spotter cards" to warn protesters of police with alleged histories of violence and so on. With civilians in charge of the tools of surveillance, hopefully the sort of mysterious CCTV blackout that, it was claimed, happened when Ian Tomlinson was killed, ought to become rare.

New technology always raises new issues. And there's no better demonstration of that than the Tacocopter.

A sort of half-joke, half-proof of concept, half-genuine business plan, the Tacocopter "combines four of the most prominent touchstones of modern America: tacos, helicopters, robots and laziness", as the Huffington Post's Jason Gilbert puts it. The idea is simple: hungry San Franciscans launch an app, which checks their GPS and bills their iTunes account before launching a drone carrying a taco to whereever they may be.

It doesn't actually exist, of course. But the founders insist that they are serious, with only the minor hurdles of the plan's illegality and impracticality holding them back. The company's co-founder, Star Simpson, told Gilbert that:

Current US FAA regulations prevent . . . using UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, such as drones] for commercial purposes at the moment. Honestly, I think it's not totally unreasonable to regulate something as potentially dangerous as having flying robots slinging tacos over people's heads . . . [O]n the other hand, it's a little bit ironic that that's the case in a country where you can be killed by drone with no judicial review.

The practical concerns, described by Gilbert as "minor", as still pretty tricky:

Navigating the treacherous terrain of an urban environment, keeping the food warm, finding a city map precise enough to avoid crashes 100 per cent of the time, avoiding birds, balconies and telephone wires, delivering food to people indoors, delivering food to the right person, dealing with greedy humans who would just steal the Tacocopter as soon as it got to them, etc.

The legal hurdles are what have been focused on heavily by bloggers such as the Economist's Ryan Avent. It's more fun to think that evil big government is keeping us from our robot-delivered street food than it is to handle the fact that it's quite tricky to automatically fly a quadricopter through a city. But as Avent says, "It's a short leap from the ridiculous to the transformative."

Right now, though, most of what we can do with drones is staying firmly in the former category. The pinnacle of consumer drone technology remains the Orvillecopter:

This week's edition of the New Statesman features a cover story on drones, and is on stands now.

A Parrot drone is displayed at CES. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon