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Drones: are they worth the sky-high price?

Neither a bird nor a plane

Drones are fun and easy to use. But when Jonathan Beckman tries one out, he has an ominous premonition of the shape of things to come

Drones are fun and easy to use. But when Jonathan Beckman tries one out, he has an ominous premonition of the shape of things to come

Jonathan Beckman | February/March 2019

One of the arguments often cited in favour of military investment is that technologies developed for war often have beneficial civilian uses. The evidence on this front is actually mixed. The microwave was invented after Percy Spencer, an American engineer, discovered that his radar apparatus had not only located the chocolate bar in his pocket but melted it (arguably the most socially awkward scientific discovery since Archimedes advertised his principle). This led to a generation who believed that cooking involved violently perforating plastic boxes while shrilly insisting that it was possible to make anything – roast dinners, fried fish, trifle – in the box that pings with faith, Pyrex and hallucinatory memories of how mother used to do things. The internet, which originated in the Pentagon, was fine when it was just MySpace and cat memes and a little homebrew piracy on Napster. But what with fake news, electoral manipulation, cryptocurrency heists, intrusive data scraping, the rise of narcissism, death of grammar and reduction of all structural analysis to a stock photo of an appalled woman looking at her slack-jawed boyfriend clock a passing beauty, one wonders whether it was all worth it. The one military innovation that never disappoints is duct tape: heroically waterproof, unfailingly reliable and useful in any abduction scenario.

The latest military advance to wear mufti is the drone. The dissemination of the technology was so recent that I felt a pang of disappointment when I opened the box containing the DJI Mavic Pro 2 to discover that it contained neither Hellfire missiles nor Paveway bombs. How was I supposed to have any fun with this? But when I took the Mavic to the park, it turned out that there are all sorts of ways you can enjoy yourself with a drone. These are:

1. Driving dogs wild by landing it a few yards in front of them, whirring enthusiastically then taking off as they yelp towards the drone.

2. Attempting to extract the bobble hats off the heads of unsuspecting pensioners out for a Saturday constitutional.

3. Inefficiently strimming the leaves off already autumnal trees

4. Loitering around the park café hoping that an intrigued member of staff will deposit a flat white onto the chassis.

5. Putting the fear of God into puttering flocks of pigeons.

6. Taking selfies. Lots of selfies. Close-up selfies. Distant selfies. Selfies that reduce you to a smudge of irrelevance. Selfies in which you tend not to be looking at the camera because you’re trying to work out which button on the handset controller takes the picture.

The Mavic is simple to assemble. How can something that snaps together so easily ever fly, I thought, as I clipped on one of the four plastic twists that propels the drone skywards. When I first tried it out, a warning flashed up on the controller screen that I was in some sort of no-fly zone. But a testy encounter with the police or a mid-air confrontation with a Flybe plane descending on Gatwick Airport...er, I mean City Airport, seemed a small price to pay for a gadabout.

Drones give their pilots a sense of empowerment. They are more compliant than grounded robots, which often struggle to navigate the labyrinth of human furniture. The most enjoyable function, which sent a swaggering ripple through my body, was keeping the drone hovering magically by my side. It was a one-machine entourage, at once bodyguard, tutelary spirit, outrider and pet (drones, like animals, get you in trouble when you let them out of your sight). But drones are also alien and unnerving. Their insectoid appearance is hard to love. And they constantly impose themselves with their infernal buzzing, reminding us that we are in their sights.

The day will come when the skies will be filled with thousands of these and it will not be a happy one. The air may reek with pollutants but, on its best days, it’s still expansive, aspirational, even sublime compared with our cluttered Earth. With an infestation of flying robots, grinding their blades and blotting out the sun as they officiously deliver groceries, monitor traffic flows or rescue kittens from trees, the sky will seem lower and more finite. Our horizons will have contracted. And our eyes will turn from the heavens and bend to the ground, as they search out the carcass of yet another decapitated sparrow.