Drone technology may radically alter human society: Report

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Apart from the industrial uses, drones have gained a bad reputation as tools for violations of human rights, breaches of privacy and irresponsible and dangerous uses by hobbyists – particularly at airports. However, new uses of drones are emerging that could greatly benefit us all, according to a report by one of the UK’s leading robotics experts.

Worldwide, drone sales are booming, totalling $13.1 billion in 2016, says the report. And the global drone industry has been estimated at around $127.3 billion.

The report, unveiled by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, which is led by Professor Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield, outlines five key areas in which drones can be used to benefit humanity.

Professor Noel Sharkey, co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and Emeritus Professor of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, said: “I have long campaigned against the excessive use of drones in armed conflict and policing as well as their erosion of our privacy. However, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“It is now clear that the responsible use of this technology could be enormously helpful in humanitarian work and environmental protection. When we have natural disasters, starving people in conflict, or emergency need for medicines, drones can come to the rescue.”

The report highlights how, if used appropriately, drones can serve society in numerous ways:

Humanitarian Aid: Assisting in the acquisition of data during humanitarian crises and delivering essential goods such as food and medical supplies.

Environmental Protection: Helping scientists with observation of (often endangered) species as well as monitoring and wildlife protection.

Emergency Services: Search and rescue, monitoring disasters and crises, inspecting critical infrastructure, and finding missing persons.

Responsible Journalism: Reaching areas of international interest that might otherwise be inaccessible.

Activism: Helping activists collect information about societal injustices, such as pollution from industry, unjust livestock treatment, inadequate delivery of healthcare supplies.

The authors of the report warn that drone technology touches on so much of our society that robust research is needed to maximise the service performed by drones towards the public good. The report also emphasises a need to get it right.

“The benefits of using drones in some circumstances can reap great benefits but we need to ensure that we don’t overlook potential negative impacts on individuals, communities, and the environment that would undermine the benefits of the technology,” emphasises Kristen Thomasen from the law faculty of Windsor University in Canada.

It is not just the regulatory landscape that needs to be addressed to ensure the beneficial use of drones, according to the report. Aimee van Wynsberghe, co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and a robot ethicist at Delft University, stressed: “There may be unintended ethical problems raised by the use of drones in the service of society which challenge the current approach to technological implementation; 'move fast and break things'. It is time for global standards and best practices to protect individuals in their public and private lives.”

Professor Sharkey added: “We need to get the public behind us in this important endeavour. As Denise Soesilo, a Development Advisor on Emerging Technologies in Geneva, put it: ‘drones are a rapidly emerging technology that stands to radically alter human society.’ We urgently need societal discussion on how we use the technology and we need to persuade those who control it to ensure that it is used for the common good.”

The report highlighted that regardless of the circumstances, a responsible attitude must be maintained to protect the operators and the individuals or groups who are being helped.