President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela was giving a speech during a military parade when a drone exploded not far away. This marks the first recorded attempted- assassination of a head of state carried out via drone. The rapid development of drone technology can seem concerning to many individuals who are worried about security and privacy. Even though drones can present a danger to society or a violation of privacy, they can also serve as an instrumental tool to relieve those who are in need of humanitarian aid or disaster relief.
What is the significance of the Maduro drone, was it really an assassination attempt? Are our fears of killer drones misplaced? Has the U.S. Supreme Court addressed any cases about drone surveillance? Should we object surveillance technology that is just meant to catch violent criminals? How can drone technology make people’s lives better off? Do drones have life-saving capabilities? How is the FAA preventing American drone companies from innovating?
A Closer Look at the Drone Attack on Maduro in Venezuela, written by Christoph Koettl & Barbara Marcolini
Slaughter Bots Video
Of Rockets & Robotics: Eyes in the Sky: Police Use of Drone Technology, Cato Institute Event
Of Rockets & Robotics: Commercial Drones: Challenges and Opportunities, Cato Institute Event
Is China Beating the U.S. at Innovation?, Building Tomorrow Podcast
In the Economy of the Future, You Won’t Own Your Kitchen, written by Pamela J. Hobart
00:05 Paul Matzko: Welcome back to Building Tomorrow, a show about new technology and the ways it’s making us freer, happier, and more prosperous. That is if we don’t screw it up. I’m Paul Matsco, and I’m sitting here with Aaron Powell and Matthew Feeney. Picture this with me. You’re an aspiring dictator who has just rigged the election and rewritten the constitution of a petro-state. You are, as someone in your shoes is wont to do, reviewing the troops to distract the starving public from blaming you for their plight. As you give a completely forgettable speech, suddenly, “Blam!” An explosion in the sky just a few hundred feet away. What’s happened? Apparently, you’re the target of the first attempted assassination by drone of a head of state. Congratulations! Now anyone who follows international news has probably picked up that I was talking about Nicolas Maduro, the President of Venezuela. Someone, and Maduro blamed a rebel conspiracy of some kind, bought a $5,000 commercial grade photography drone, strapped a block of C4 to it, and detonated it along the parade route, injuring seven soldiers. Now, Matthew, you’re our kind of in-house drone specialist. What’s your take? What does the Maduro drone mean, is it, was it really an assassination attempt? And what’s the broader significance?
01:20 Matthew Feeny: Yeah, my first reaction watching some of the video of this, which is not actually on policy, is that after the explosion, a couple of his bodyguards run around him with these, what looked like bulletproof blankets, and I think that has to be one of the worst jobs in the world. You hear an explosion on Maduro and you’re supposed to cover him with these blankets. Anyway, I do pity a lot of people in that country, the bodyguards included. So this is an interesting story. And I suppose, in looking at threats associated with drones, this kind of thing was a when, not an if. People have been worrying about people attaching explosives to drones and using them for assassinations or attacks on buildings, airplanes, you name it. Now, two things strike me about this particular story. One is that this seems like a bad way to assassinate a Head of State. Given the…
02:15 Paul Matzko: Why’s that?
02:16 Matthew Feeny: Because the, number one, the technology is rather expensive. This stuff costs $5,000 and requires a bit of training, not a lot, but a little bit. And you have to be quite good at flying these kind of things to go straight at a target from that distance. This thing exploded quite a way away from where Maduro was standing, it was certainly within his eyesight, but it doesn’t look as if it got anywhere close actually to doing it. And then there was another drone blocks away that looks identical that also exploded and just fell down. So it seems pretty incompetent. And it seems to me, and again, I’m not a foreign policy expert, and not a personal security expert, but it seems, at least to me, unlikely that this was funded by a government, that this was a government-sponsored assassination attempt. Could be wrong about that. It’s not… We should ask Juan Carlos, our Latin American expert here at Cato, what he thinks. But the second thing that strikes me about this is that this kind of thing is not gonna go away and will probably improve, if anything. So it’s something we should probably be worried about, something that is going… Drones are a tool like a lot of others that can be utilized for good things and bad. And we should certainly put these kind of threats on the table for things that we should consider. But at the moment, fortunately, this kind of attack is relatively rare.
03:49 Aaron Ross Powell: Why is it rare, or I guess, why did it take this long for it to finally happen? Because we’ve had drone technology for a while and they’ve been commercially available for a long time, and clearly lots of people are able to get their hands on explosives. And we’ve been panicking at the prospect of terrorists loading up drones and raining death from the sky and our cities filled with these things, killing everyone and everything, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. And as you said, this first instance, which seems much later than the panic that preceded it, was fairly inept. It didn’t look like it even came close to working. So is that a sign that these fears that we might have had are somewhat misplaced?
04:36 Matthew Feeny: I think they’re misplaced, I think it’s not worth worrying about this sort of thing happening on a day to day basis now. It’s something we should keep an eye on as a future threat. This is something that will unfortunately I think become more common. At the moment it’s rare because… I don’t know where Aaron hangs out, but at least I find it difficult to get my hands on explosives, [chuckle] like this sort of C4 that was attached to these drones. So you need…
05:04 Aaron Ross Powell: I wouldn’t know how to do it, but just, you look around the world, there are lots of places in the world where lots of people seem be able to get there.
05:09 Matthew Feeny: It’s certainly not impossible. So you want to… This became a very ghoulish conversation. So you want to assassinate a head of state, right? And there a couple of ways you can do it. It’s seems that buying a drone that costs thousands of dollars, and then finding C4 explosives, and then finding someone who can, is willing to be within range of the drone while flying it to kill someone, who also knows how to detonate the explosives, who also… It seems like there’s so many barriers to…
05:37 Paul Matzko: It’s really quite technical.
05:38 Matthew Feeny: Yeah, and again, certainly, definitely not with… That’s certainly something that’s within the scope of governments to do, which is why I think this is probably some sort of non-government attempt. I don’t think it’s, not that I’ve seen anyone seriously suggest this, but I just wanna put it out there. This seems so psycho punk and futuristic that I don’t think it’s a Venezuelan false flag attempt or anything like that. It seems a little bonkers to do that. Again, we should maybe ask some of our foreign policy colleagues about that, but it’s… What we have seen of drone technology is rapid improvement, and the range that these things can fly within and the amounts of load that they can carry will make these risks more pronounced.
06:27 Paul Matzko: Well, and to your point about a certain level of technical expertise being required and not being on display in Venezuela, well, the second drone, which appears to have been identical to the first one, it just ran into an apartment building and fell to the ground. It exploded 14 seconds later or something. But it’s always a problem when your assassin drone just runs [chuckle] into apartment buildings ‘cause you didn’t fly it right.
06:49 Matthew Feeny: Right.
06:50 Paul Matzko: So again, and the technology to, Aaron, your point, the technology has been there. It’s fancy to call these things drones, but a drone, we’ve had flying, hovering small aircraft capability for 25 years.
07:05 Aaron Ross Powell: When I was in fifth grade, I really wanted an RC helicopter.
07:09 Paul Matzko: Yeah. And in fact, the Japanese terrorist group, I hope I’m saying this right, Shinrikyo, the one that released the sarin gas in the subways, they actually, before they did the whole subway method, they were experimenting with using a helicopter, one of those small RC helicopters with a little sprayer to spray sarin gas from the skies. The difference between that and a quadricopter is really kind of marginal, other than the RC helicopter requiring line of site, whereas really our drones these days you can do from farther away, you can with that little camera on it. That’s a relatively incremental change, and it’s not like anyone flew an RC helicopter into a head of state and blew them up. Again, it’s possible, and again, with drone technology, it makes it you’re able to carry more weight, so C4 rather than a little syringe with an ounce of sarin gas in it. It’s able to go farther and farther, it’s easier and easier to use, so it lowers the barriers to that kind of terroristic threat. But it’s all more incremental. I think a lot of the paranoia tends to be within… At any moment now we’re gonna have swarms of terrorist controlled drones in the skies.
08:19 Paul Matzko: There’s this video that I watched called Slaughterbots, which is a great name for maybe a knockoff ’80s kids show, like not Transformers, but for an older audience, Slaughterbots or something. But the video is all about… It’s by this institute that’s worried about existential tech threats, so the singularity or things like that. But it’s quite dramatic, where you’ll have swarms of drones, assassin drones, dropped out of the back of an airplane. They will use facial recognition to hunt down individual people. So there’s this whole dramatic scene where a kid’s on the phone with his mom while the tracker drone comes and stalks him and kills him, and the line goes dead. Now, again, it’s a terrifying prospect, but the idea of that being… Think of the level of technical expertise, the amount of money, planning that goes into a terroristic operation like that. The way you catch that is not really by worrying about the tech per se, it’s by tracking all the human work that goes into setting up something like that.
09:31 Matthew Feeny: Yeah. I hope that we can put the link to this video on the show notes ‘cause I… Before full prepping, I took a look at this video that Paul’s talking about and, yeah, I think it would make a good… I watched it and thought it would make a great Black Mirror episode, [chuckle] something in those vein. And actually, it’s not… In that video, they’re not talking just about terrorists using it, but rather, this is the way the military could drop hundreds of these drones over a city, and these drones would just fly around and just kill terrorists utilizing facial recognition. We are a long way from this at the moment. Not least, you have to worry about the battery life of these things. Facial recognition is not up to spec, especially on tiny little drones like that. I don’t know if you can carry enough gunpowder on a tiny drone like that to actually kill someone. Again, not an ammunition expert, but I think that new technologies being utilized as weapons is something we’re used to, and I think you’re right to say the worry should be not with the tech per se, but rather with the utilization of it.
10:43 Matthew Feeny: There have been coalitions around the world to ban killer robots and to draw the line at artificial intelligence being used, not just with drones, but other weapon systems. And it seems to me that those kind of campaigns, while I might quibble with details, campaigns like that are the right approach to tech change, because I don’t think we wanna come across as techno-phobes. I don’t fear technological advances. There will certainly be incidents that we should put in the cost column when it comes to the development of new technology. But I have spoken and written about facial recognition and drones for a while here at Cato, and Lord knows I’m worried about how this technology could be used to erode our freedom and our privacy, but in libertopia, in a world where there’s certain oversights and there’s good regulations in place, facial recognition is quite an exciting technology, and so are drones. I know we started the conversation with a bit of a depressing note, but the idea of drones being able to coordinate rescue efforts, or to deliver medical supplies to people, perform search and rescue, there are exciting and useful applications of this technology, but we should also be wary of the rather disturbing features as well.
12:07 Paul Matzko: Yup. And perhaps, you can make a pretty good argument that a lot of that most paranoid scenario in our Slaughterbots future is stuff we’re already doing. We already have Predator drones that will circle a town in Iraq or in Syria and shoot someone just because they’re able to identify that they’re carrying a weapon, and therefore it’s assumed they’re combatant. We’re already doing that kind of thing, so… And notably, who tend to be the bad actors in these scenarios? It’s state actors more often than not.
12:42 Matthew Feeny: Yeah, but I think that is an example of an application of this technology that we are not happy with. But in… Again, in a world perhaps run by libertarians, I don’t object prima facie to the United States having predator drones that can fire missiles with a lot of accuracy, and that puts very few Americans’ lives at risk. This sounds like a good weapon.
13:11 Paul Matzko: Is that in and of itself?
13:12 Matthew Feeny: Right, in and of itself. So if we fight a war against a state actor, a fleet of Predator B drones seems like a worthwhile way to take out, say, a certain country’s tanks or its airfields or other aircraft. The way it’s been used in this never-ending war on terror raises tons and tons of really serious humanitarian questions that should concern all of us. But I don’t object necessarily to Predator drones being used in warfare. I do object to the fact that a lot of military technology like this comes home in the context of domestic law enforcement or border security. So CBP has some of these Predator drones, they’re not outfitted with Hellfire missiles, but they do come with very sophisticated surveillance technology. And the first instance in the United States of an American citizen being arrested, thanks in part to drone surveillance, was in fact, police, I believe in North Dakota, borrowing a CBP drone like this. And America has a history of aerial surveillance, and the technology is improving. And we’re now at the stage where the kind of technology we’re used to seeing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, is coming home for the men in blue.
14:31 Paul Matzko: And now maybe when you see those signs on the highway that say, “Speed will be checked by airplane,” it might actually be real and not just a…
14:39 Matthew Feeny: Right. [chuckle]
14:40 Paul Matzko: You see those and you know that you’re gonna get away with speeding.
14:43 Aaron Ross Powell: The signs always say, “Speed limit enforced by aircraft,” which seems far more threatening than “monitored”.
14:50 Aaron Ross Powell: I also… I wonder how much of the murder-bot scenario assumes a lack of cultural shifts too that mitigate against this. So facial recognition is, if we end up in a world where there are drones flying all over the place, that are seeking out people to kill through facial recognition, and so you live in a city where that’s happening, there are… Put on a hoodie. There’s… People can adapt. And we don’t… It’s not great to have to live in a world where everyone wears a hoodie or some facial recognition spoofing thing, but… Or culturally, people just shoot down drones whenever they hear them. It seems like these kind of… A lot of these scenarios depend on, and this is the problem with a lot of predicting the effects of future technologies, is they depend on everything but this technological change remaining static and that there won’t be shifts to it. And I can imagine that there might be shifts that would mitigate against a lot of these problems if and when it becomes a real problem.
15:50 Paul Matzko: Yeah. Well, I have to add to this that there’s a… There is a natural, I think, human tendency to overrate the effects of technology itself as almost the… An agent in these scenarios, and de-emphasize the role of humans and of culture I think, as Aaron’s speaking to here. So, there was a wave… The first wave of modern terrorism is the late 19th century, there’s a wave of anarchists who decide to take out heads of state. And so you have… You have bombings, you have people using pistols, killing everyone from czars to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. So you have this wave of assassinations, but none of that tech was new. So you had the tech and no one was… There was not a mass wave of assassinations of heads of state, the worst case scenarios, until something happened, a cultural shift that changed. It was people and society and culture that used those tools to questionable ends. And so you spend more time worrying about the political economy, about people, about culture and society, less time worrying about the technology per se, though keep an awareness of how it can used and misused. So… Oh, but I think on to something, Matthew, you led us to, the use of drone tech in domestic surveillance. So they caught that guy in North Dakota a few years ago. Now, there was this one court case I saw mentioned in some of the material, Florida v. Riley.
17:25 Matthew Feeny: Yeah.
17:25 Paul Matzko: Explain a little bit, how does that apply to drone surveillance potentially?
17:31 Matthew Feeny: Right. So some listeners might already be familiar with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But for those who don’t, the Fourth Amendment…
17:41 Aaron Ross Powell: Just pretend Jeff Sessions is listening.
17:43 Aaron Ross Powell: Telling him about it.
17:44 Paul Matzko: Okay, Jeff.
17:46 Matthew Feeny: So, the Fourth Amendment states the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. So that’s part of the amendment now. It goes on to talk about particular warrants. And this is one of the amendments where you can find the value of privacy, right? And as sometimes happens at the court, the court eventually had to deal with a Fourth Amendment question related to a new technology or an emerging technology. So the Supreme Court has, throughout its history, dealt with Fourth Amendment questions related to thermal scanners, smartphones, GPS trackers. And Florida v. Riley was a case where the court was presented with the question, “Is the warrantless aerial surveillance of someone’s backyard from a helicopter at 400 feet a violation of the Fourth Amendment?” It’s a 1989 case and what’s interesting, it’s the last of a trinity of cases from the ’80s dealing with aerial surveillance. There’s also a Dow Chemical case and a case called Ciraolo, California v. Ciraolo, or Ciraolo v. California. I forget…
18:57 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s someone suing someone.
18:58 Matthew Feeny: Right. And what’s interesting about these cases are that the Supreme Court has held that you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy to the contents of your backyard as observed from the air, and therefore, the police do not need a warrant to conduct such a search. The Ciraolo case I mentioned dealt with airplane surveillance at 1000 feet, and the Florida v. Riley case was a helicopter at 400 feet. It will come as no shock to this audience that in both cases, Ciraolo and Riley, the police were looking for marijuana. And this is still a good precedent today. The Supreme Court has not considered drone surveillance. So as it stands, police do not need a warrant to observe your private property from the air with a drone. However, some states have gone beyond that precedent. I think it’s about a dozen states have passed a warrant requirement for drone surveillance.
20:01 Matthew Feeny: But the Supreme Court standard is that police don’t need a warrant to observe your private property from the air. What I like about Florida v. Riley as a case is it includes a really prescient dissent from Justice Brennan, who wrote, in 1989, he says something like, “Imagine a helicopter capable of generating no noise, but hovering just above the patio and it doesn’t generate any noise at all. Would we say that this doesn’t run afoul of the Fourth Amendment?” And it’s one example in Supreme Court history of justices predicting the future. And Brennan is really talking about what we today call drones. So the sad reality is that police in most of the country don’t need to secure a warrant or anything like that to observe someone’s backyard. One day, the court I’m sure will deal with drone surveillance, but the state of affairs is not particularly satisfying.
21:00 Paul Matzko: Now, I’m curious in how this interacts with… I know there was a Supreme Court case recently, essentially saying police had to get a warrant to track your cell pings to a tower.
21:10 Matthew Feeny: Yeah. Yeah.
21:10 Paul Matzko: So it’s another way for the police to warrantlessly, or was, until recently, to warrantlessly surveil, to track you as you go about your daily business. The Supreme Court in my understanding has said, “Tsk, tsk, you can’t do that without a warrant.” But isn’t this kind of the same? It’s a different tech.
21:26 Matthew Feeny: Yeah.
21:27 Paul Matzko: Cell phone towers versus drone surveillance. But is the basic Fourth Amendment problem the same? How are these going to… Are they in conflict? How is this gonna be resolved?
21:36 Matthew Feeny: Well, the case you’re referring to is the Carpenter decision that was announced earlier this year. And that question involved the police using cell phone location data in order to identify the whereabouts of suspects who had committed a string of armed robberies. And they got this cell site location information without a warrant, thanks to the so called third-party doctrine, which states you give up any privacy rights or interests in information you volunteer to a third party. So they track the suspect for 127 days, I believe, and they secure a conviction. Carpenter says, “This collection, warrantless collection, violates his Fourth Amendment rights.” And here, the court came out, I think, in the right side, but it’s a very, very narrow decision. So to sum it up, the court found that tracking someone’s physical location using cell site location information for a week violates your reasonable expectation of privacy to a physical location.
22:45 Paul Matzko: Okay.
22:46 Matthew Feeny: It does not address license plate trackers, or traditional CCTV cameras, or facial recognition, or anything else. It’s a relatively narrow decision. That was the right outcome, it seems to me. But if you’re worried about aerial surveillance, Carpenter…
23:02 Paul Matzko: It has nothing to do with that.
23:02 Matthew Feeny: Doesn’t help you there. And that’s not to say that it won’t one day. A few years ago, or maybe last year, there was reporting about Baltimore police utilizing an airplane that would just fly around Baltimore, keeping the city under constant surveillance. This was a technology owned by the unambiguously named Persistent Surveillance Systems company. And the developer of this technology has described it as Google Earth with TiVo, that you basically have the entire city, or most of the city of Baltimore, and the police call up and say, “Hey, there was a robbery at 123 Smith Street,” and you just find out who was there and you can track whoever left there back home. And the developer of this technology, which by the way was used without the knowledge of the Mayor, the Governor, Maryland’s congressional delegation, he rightly said that, “Look, this doesn’t run afoul of any Supreme Court precedent.” And so that’s the situation we’re in.
24:17 Matthew Feeny: I don’t think we should have to wait for the Supreme Court to deal with this issue. There are local legislatures that can address this, but we should be aware of the state of the technology. The Baltimore situation was very expensive. It was, from what I understand, funded by some billionaire philanthropist. It’s pretty expensive. Human beings, from this plane, aren’t identifiable. They show up like a pixel. But the military has surveillance, aerial surveillance equipment that’s pretty intrusive. The military seems to be very fond of acronyms. [chuckle] There’s one surveillance, one drone surveillance program or technology called ARGUS. And for those of you who are into ancient mythology, Argus is the mythological…
25:04 Paul Matzko: The dog, right?
25:06 Matthew Feeny: Oh, the hundred-eye giant.
25:07 Paul Matzko: Oh, giant. Okay.
25:07 Matthew Feeny: So I think you’re thinking Argo, Odysseus’ dog?
25:09 Paul Matzko: I was thinking about the dog that watches the entrance to Hades.
25:13 Matthew Feeny: Hades. Yeah. Well, this is… So ARGUS, the hundred-eyed giant, and it stands for Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Imaging System. And this can…
25:25 Aaron Ross Powell: That’s pretty good.
25:26 Matthew Feeny: It’s pretty good.
25:27 Aaron Ross Powell: Props to the person who…
25:28 Matthew Feeny: Seriously. It’s not bad. And it can keep something like 25 square miles under persistent surveillance and has something like six-inch resolution, but that’s military gear. But again, the technology is improving so we should be prepared for when that sort of stuff comes to the home front.
25:48 Aaron Ross Powell: In that Carpenter decision, so it was a, you said a rather narrow or constrained in how much it… How far it actually reaches. But was there anything, reading between the lines in dicta that indicates what direction the court was thinking as far as when this stuff inevitably gets, comes up again, or similar situations come up again?
26:09 Matthew Feeny: Thinking back on the writings with the justices, there was… The Chief Justice, who wrote the majority, took great pains to be clear that this did not impact traditional surveillance. And it’s been a while since I read, but I’m not aware of them pontificating about a lot of future technologies, which I suppose is appropriate. You don’t want to show your hand. I know that Justice Sotomayor in the past has mentioned drones I think at public events as something that she’s a little concerned about. And, yeah, I… Given my analysis, I suppose, of Fourth Amendment cases over the last 10 years, I think there’s probably enough justices on the court that would be sufficiently creeped out by what we saw in Baltimore. Now, just because we’re creeped out by something doesn’t mean it’s unconstitutional, right? I think judges have to look at this with cold, hard stares. But as I said earlier, we shouldn’t have to wait for the court. There are legislatures in the country that can address this issue before the judicial branch.
27:21 Paul Matzko: Well, my impression, as we talk about this, is that it’s somewhat similar to the logic we were using in responding to assassin drones, which is to suggest that, again, the tech itself isn’t the primary problem here. It’s how it’s being employed, by who, and with what constraints. So with the Baltimore situation, that information was all proprietary, and it was done without the permission of, let alone the transparency of the local government. And so it’s a problem if you have a data set being collected that you can’t submit a FOIA request for, that law enforcement is using without warrants to arrest people. Because then if you’re the attorney for the defendant, are you gonna get access to those records? Will journalists be able to submit FOIA requests to get access to abuses of this technology? But that’s not necessarily the technology’s fault, that’s people not…
28:16 Matthew Feeny: Yeah. And the reporting on the Baltimore situation really did emphasize to me that I think the guy running the company was just really misjudged how this would be perceived. If I recall correctly, he invited Jay Stanley from the ACLU to just come along and take a look and see. [laughter] I think Jay was a little taken aback by what he saw and was told. And I believe the guy who runs this company seems like a nice guy, and he says, “Look, we only are using this to pursue violent crimes. And who could possibly object to surveillance technology that’s catching murderers?” And I get that, and by the way, I believe him. The problem is, I’m worried about the other people, not just him, but that’s not law, that’s government policy. That’s just the policy that they’re following.
29:10 Matthew Feeny: And anyone who’s listened to not just me, but my colleagues Patrick Eddington and Julian Sanchez, knows that the history of American surveillance reveals a long and diverse list of suspects, and the fact is that if a piece of aerial surveillance technology can track where a murderer lives, it can track where gun owners live, where people who go to Alcoholics Anonymous live, they can track where people who attend certain religious organizations live. And that’s the worry. And I think what Aaron mentioned earlier is really interesting, because it might be the case that enough of the population says, “You know what, I don’t mind really having persistent drones in the air that are just filming everything.” And maybe we’ll just either get used to that or there’ll be different kind of norms that emerge, that people find ways to transport themselves in ways that obscure them from the ever-present eye in the sky.
30:14 Aaron Ross Powell: I just think of the long history of teenagers figuring out all sorts of clever ways to obfuscate all their behaviors from their parents.
30:22 Matthew Feeny: Yeah and…
30:22 Aaron Ross Powell: We’re good at this sort of stuff.
30:23 Matthew Feeny: Yes, I can imagine parking lots being full of teenagers coming underground to swap cars and to try to figure out how to do all this. And, yeah. What I do worry about though is something we saw in the wake of the Snowden revelations, where you had people in surveys conducted by Pew, but also… This is, by the way, a phenomenon that’s also been studied using Google searches and Wikipedia searches. Totally lawful behavior is stifled. First Amendment protected speech and queries are stifled. And I worry that maybe there is someone who’s thinking of seeing a therapist, or going to Alcoholics Anonymous, or who wants to explore a new religion, or I don’t know, likes to go to strip clubs. All of this is legal, and you can… Yet if they live in a city where they know that they’re under the constant view of law enforcement, it’s understandable, it seems to me, that people might think twice about engaging in totally lawful activity like that. Yeah.
31:28 Paul Matzko: It’s a matter of time before the ex-spouse of someone has access, gets access, to one of these databases and says, “Oh look, the new partner went to a strip club and I’m gonna… ” The misuse of that material is a real potential. Now, to turn to a slightly more I guess positive take on the use of drones, a lot of our stuff here has been, “Oh no, which ways are people going to misuse this technology?” And that’s a legitimate conversation to have. We’re gonna turn to some of the cool, exciting applications that actually I saw at TechCrunch Disrupt a few weeks ago, and some of the ways in which this stuff, apart from state, apart from the surveillance state, apart from national security, terrorists and the like, are going to make people’s lives better off, wealthier, more comfortable, more peaceful, more pleasant.
32:19 Paul Matzko: But before I get there, one of the funny things to me is, as I was thinking through drone tech, is that we developed this new technology, and arguably the first consumer use of it, was to take… And it’s cool. The potential is fascinating. Are we gonna have drones deliver Amazon packages? Are we gonna have drones pollinate our crops? And yes, yes, kill our enemies and all these other kind of fascinating scenarios, but the first major mass consumer use is to take pictures at weddings. Drone photography by wedding photographers. That’s always kind of funny to me that… Would anybody have predicted that, would a science fiction author 40 years ago have been like, “We’re gonna get drones and the first thing we’re going to use them for, take pictures of the bride, bridal party.” That’s not what I would have expected but that’s, in fact, the drone that was used to try to assassinate Maduro is a drone that is primarily sold to wedding photographers. So there’s kind of an irony there.
33:16 Paul Matzko: But there was a lot of drone startups at TechCrunch Disrupt on startup alley. Everything from… They had a drone with a sniffer attached, that they had trained it to detect a certain kind of alcohol, essentially an alcohol product. And so the idea is the drone will fly at industrial sites along pipes and sniff for leaks. Because if the wrong pipe leaks the wrong substance, boom, and we’re talking lots of monetary and human loss, so you can sniff… These drones are capable of detecting much more minute amounts than the human being is and they’re much more… They’re less likely to miss something. They’re gonna be more rigorous than a human detector.
34:04 Paul Matzko: You can imagine, they had drones for warehouse security, have a drone that patrols. It’s cheaper than having a human security guard. Or drones that do… Actually Walmart just submitted a patent application for a bee-like drone with sticky pollen collecting legs that will fly around and do targeted pollination. Each flower, it’ll go to kind of like a bee. That’s a little farther off in the future, but even now at TechCrunch Disrupt they had, it’s kind of like pollen bombing, but you have a drone fly over from a few feet above the trees or the plants and drop a payload. Not as efficient as bees, but given the crisis in disappearing bees, it’s a way of addressing that problem. So that’s cool technology that will allow us to get fresh food more cheaply, make our industrial sites safer. It will make our lives better in a hundred different ways that none of us are really thinking about. It’s all kind of going on behind the scenes. It’s not as sexy or as scary as something out of a Black Mirror episode. But I came away from TechCrunch Disrupt thinking it doesn’t matter if any individual one of these companies fails or succeeds, there’s just so much interest here and so much investment, it’s happening, it’s inevitable, it’s going on right now. And I think rather than fixating on the scary scenarios, take comfort from the fact this technology right now is doing real human good and making our lives better.
35:37 Matthew Feeny: Oh yeah, I am, despite my tone perhaps in this episode, I am a long term optimist on this technology. I think it’s really exciting and it’s going to help a lot of people provide a whole new field for interesting innovation and entrepreneurship, and not just with wedding photographers and deliveries, but lifesaving applications. That when it comes to search and rescue or for helping coordinate responses to hurricanes and other natural disasters, I think drones have a huge potential there. And I’m really excited about the space. The frustrating thing is, sitting in the United States, that the FAA has been pretty reluctant to get these things off the ground. It’s sort of sad that Amazon, which is one of America’s most largest and most famous companies, had to test its delivery drone in England. And there’s another American drone company that does medical deliveries, but it’s flown a lot of these flights in Rwanda. I don’t think they’ve done any in the United States. It’s a very cautious regulatory body. And that’s a shame, there are places where these companies can innovate and conduct test flights, it’s just a shame that it’s not the United States.
37:05 Paul Matzko: Here, we can make a quick call back to episode nine about the transformation of China and adoption rates there, where they’re doing drone deliveries in villages, stuff that Amazon promised back in 2013 to be doing and we’re years away from. They’re already doing that stuff in China.
37:20 Aaron Ross Powell: Do you think that the FAA would… So if all this awesome stuff starts happening, so we get full on drone deliveries and medical supplies and things can get out in hurricanes and all that in other countries, how responsive is the FAA to feeling left out?
37:38 Matthew Feeny: I hope quite. And I want to be fair to the FAA, that in the last year or so there have been announcements that they are trying to be a bit more flexible when it comes to drone regulation, and that’s good. It seems that Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation, she seems to have a good head on her shoulders when it comes to this stuff. But how effective public outcry will be about this particular technology I think remains to be seen, because it’s one of these classic seen and unseen. So in the wake of Hurricane Florence, we haven’t seen a lot of drones flying around helping find people or deliver goods, so we don’t know, “Okay, well, if we had more widespread use of drones, how many lives would we have saved and how much less damage would that be?” We have no idea. But I think when you see typhoons or hurricanes in other parts of the world in countries where drones are more readily available, yeah, I hope you will have Americans who think, “Well, why couldn’t this have happened during our last natural disaster?” Or, “Why can’t I… ” And this is not true, but in the next couple of years, you might imagine someone in, I don’t know, Britain or Germany, an American tourist saying, “Well, why can Germans get their stuff delivered from the air, and where’s my burrito drone in New York?” And there are a lot of technical details here, I’m being somewhat flippant, but I hope there’ll be pressure to make this a more open space.
39:09 Aaron Ross Powell: About burrito drones and similar sorts of, “This drone is gonna deliver this package to you,” how realistic are these in anything like the near term? Because, if you think about it, what you got… You still… Drones still… These aren’t AI piloted, so you still need someone piloting these things, so you’re paying that person. They don’t have a terribly long range. They can’t carry a ton of weight, so the half gallon or gallon of milk might be more of a problem than… Even a burrito. If it’s a burrito worth eating, it’s gonna be heavier than…
39:49 Paul Matzko: It’s gonna be hefty, yeah. Five pound burrito. [chuckle]
39:52 Aaron Ross Powell: Versus the burrito joint in New York city hiring a bicycle messenger.
39:58 Matthew Feeny: Yeah. I wouldn’t… People listening, I think, should not get their hopes up for burrito drones any time soon. The burrito drone is like a blister in my brain just because of my colleague, Trevor Burrus, who loves to talk about burrito drones, and I think he really likes burritos. [chuckle] I think the technology… You’re right, so there’s the weight issue, there’s the battery issue, there’s the skill required issue. There’s also… Not to get too lawyer-y necessarily, but if you drop a burrito on someone’s head [chuckle], you could cause a mess. And there’s… Yeah, a bicyclist is a bit of a safer, more traditional way of doing it. And I think people like to talk about pizza delivery drones and burrito drones and Amazon Drones. We’re a little bit away from this becoming an affordable, common place thing. I just want to be in a country with a regulatory space that just allows experiments to happen anyway. And if it’s just the millionaires who can afford it or use it or are experimenting with it, that’s fine by me too.
40:58 Paul Matzko: So if I can do the optimistic case scenario, it would be that… So right now, you have a lot of… You have billions and billions of dollars of capital being poured into artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicle technology on roads. That’s actually a much, much, much harder nut to crack when it comes to autonomous vehicles, than autonomous vehicles in the sky. Turns out there’s less stuff up there to run into. You don’t have people and bike messengers with burritos in their bags darting out in front of them that the vehicle has to stop and recognize them. Yeah, I’m sure eventually one will hit a goose or something and you’ll have a problem. But…
41:36 Matthew Feeny: Yeah.
41:37 Paul Matzko: It’s a much simpler problem ‘cause there’s less stuff. It’s in that range of space above the tree line, but below where things are allowed to fly that’s relatively empty. And as long as you have a system where they can communicate with each other, which is again something that’s being developed with [41:53] ____. You have a scenario in which 99% of the objects in that space are all communicating with each other, are obeying rules of traffic, are creating kind of highways in the sky, that’s an easier application than doing this in conjunction with a bunch of dumb cars driven by dumb human beings, and dogs running out in front of cars, and bike messengers, etcetera.
42:17 Matthew Feeny: And snow, and rain.
42:18 Paul Matzko: So in a world in which you are free to innovate in this space, the FAA is not putting such tight restrictions on the tech, that’s the place where you would expect this to happen first before AV vehicles on the roads. And yet it might end up being the other way around, not because… Despite the fact that the tech case is actually easier. Now, as far as the financial situation, I mean, this is something Aaron brought up in our China episode, actually, we have a lot of built delivery infrastructure. There’s a whole system of roads and vans and bicycles that are designed to get stuff from point A to point B, so you have to have a really compelling financial use case to make it worthwhile to send a gallon of milk at a time all around the city.
43:06 Paul Matzko: But if you can get there, there’s a reason why there’s all this money pouring in here, why Amazon’s involved, Google’s involved, Walmart’s getting involved in drone delivery experimentation, that if you’re the first to crack it, it’s a big deal. It could transform our lives. You can imagine some day, whether it’s five, 10, 20 years in the future, where you want a gallon of milk, rather than waiting till next week’s big grocery store trip, you just say, “I want milk,” you say when you want it delivered, a drone comes out, drops it on a little dedicated landing pad with like an RFID tracker in it, it flew itself from a central depot, it has kind of aerial highways that it flies along to deliver stuff, they’re communicating with other drones. It would change how we shop, it would change how we consume, it would really dramatically change daily life, and the first company to really crack it stands to gain a lot, right?
44:01 Matthew Feeny: Yeah, I think this is an area, like a lot of others, at Cato, we’re constantly saying things like this, but we’re not very good at predicting the future. And I was just out in San Francisco recently with my colleague, Diego, who in conversations made the really interesting point that people in the 1960s and 70s, I think it was, were making predictions about the future of work, right? And none of them could have predicted that currently, in Britain, there are thousands and thousands of people who are employed as personal trainers. The world changes in ways that are unpredictable, but that’s kind of the exciting part. So I think this space… It behooves anyone looking at this space to have a bit of humility. We don’t have all the answers, but none the less, that shouldn’t stop us from embracing how exciting it is. Yeah.
44:50 Paul Matzko: This episode brought to you by the Personal Trainers Association of Great Britain. [chuckle]
44:53 Matthew Feeny: There you go.
44:54 Paul Matzko: That’s right. Well, thank you for listening, and until next week, be well.
45:01 Paul Matzko: Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy our show, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. To learn about Building Tomorrow, or to discover other great podcasts, visit us on the web at libertarianism.org.