A Short History of Drones in Scifi and Recommendations for Movies, Books, and Short Stories

September 18, 2019

 

Drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), are in the news this week with the drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil production facilities. Ever since the CIA weaponized Predators in 2002 the conversation has typically been about killer drones remotely piloted by soldiers as part of a government’s military operations. There’s a summary of history at understandingempire.wordpress.com and you can go to io9 for a clever 5 minute video about how CIA weaponized drones and the computer vision  involved gizmodo.com. In 2014 the United Nations held a Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems in 2014 to discuss killer robots www.un.org, focusing on getting governments to sign off. But as the Saudi Arabia attacks highlight, weaponized drones are becoming available to non-state actors (yes, it appears the ones in Saudi Arabia were launched from Iran or Iraq, but Hamas has been using inexpensive drones for years). And these drones do not appear to be remotely piloted or use any computer vision; they are basically GPS controlled cruise missiles. That makes them extremely hard to defend against, since there is no radio signal back to its home to detect and they are the size of a large bird. 

 

The first drones to appear in science fiction may have been from Thomas Edison’s failed attempt at a scifi novel, called Progress, which got finished by his collaborator Lathrop as In the Deep of Time, published in 1896. Smithsonian Magazine has a nice article about this www.smithsonianmag.com.

 

Recent science fiction has focused on rotorcraft drones (aka quadcopters- though the number of rotors can vary) for surveillance. It is worth watching the first season of  James Cameron’s TV series Dark Angel for a vision of  drones acting as Big Brother in urban environments. That drone was based on the ducted turbo-fan style of rotorcraft that was being developed by DARPA at the time- the technical challenge is basically getting a pony keg to fly. (Pro tip- do NOT even start season 2 of Dark Angel, it is so bad it negates out all the good things about season 1. Just pretend it got canceled after 1 season.) The recent bestseller The Robots of Gotham is very accurate, going into the computer vision algorithms under development for surveillance drones. 

 

But surveillance seems small potatoes compared to assassination by drone, and Daniel Suarez’ technothriller Kill Decision is by far the most thoughtful and accurate on what a non-state actor could do with a low cost autonomous swarm of drones. While the scary part is how assassination can be automated back to The Robots of Gotham, it turns out that many scientific studies confirm that those Eye in the Sky drone pilots do experience psychological effects from killing people remotely. Ian McDonald captures that level of PTSD in his brilliant short story Sanjeev and Robotwallah.

 

Of course, not all science fiction presents drones in a negative light. Spielberg’s adorable kid movie *batteries not included is about flying alien robots who help rebuild an old couple’s apartment- fun to watch with the kids with popcorn but have some tissues for the sad scenes. Other fiction treats drones as useful tools, see Ryan Gosling's police UAV in Blade Runner 2049 and UAVs are a time traveller’s best Swiss Army Knife of a tool in Kelly Robson’s Hugo nominated novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.

 

If you’re looking to learn more about how deadly drones can be when they are autonomous and have time only for one novel or movie, Kill Decision is your best bet. 

 

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- Robin

 

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