More Than the Eye Can See

For some people, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game[1] might induce flashbacks to high school lockers and crummy cafeterias, but for others it is an incredible view into the future of unmanned technology. In the book, fleets of drones are piloted in space to win a war against aliens, but ultimately to colonize and explore deep space. Science fiction often depicts drones as humanity’s best option for exploring, harvesting materials on, or making contact with another celestial body, and it seems reasonable to think an alien life form would rather contact humans with a drone and not its biological counterpart due to Earth’s potential toxicity (reference War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells).[2] Currently, space exploration is a long way away, and humanity has eyes on a few, more manageable goals closer to home.

DroneIn America, the development and functional deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Fast-moving unmanned aircrafts allow for combatants to deliver a devastating amount of firepower from thousands of miles away to even the most remote locations. It follows that UAVs have their roots in military history, and can be dated back to the American Civil War, where balloons carrying payloads were sent drifting over enemy territory.[3] Certainly, technology has improved some in the past 150 years, and thanks to innovations from Israel’s military, the Reaper and Predator Drones are in near-full production for military missions. Pakistan[4] reported to the UN that over the past decade there have been around 2,200 deaths from UAV bombings, where 400 or more were civilian casualties, and 200 were thought to be probable non-combatants. In 2011, the United States lost a surveillance drone from its fleet as it crash-landed onto Iranian soil in an embarrassing international affair.[5]

More recently, in 2012, the United States uplifted its federal ban on the commercial use of UAVs, and it is now legal to personally own and fly Insitu’s Scan Eagle X200 and AeroVironment’s PUMA.[6] The aircrafts have already been responsible for incredible discoveries, like a slaughterhouse in Texas’s river dumping site.[7] Namely, commercial UAVs have been used in conservation efforts, to monitor endangered animals, predators, and poachers.[8] Of course, there’s a private company that manufactures boar-detecting UAVs,[9] with onboard heat signal sensory equipment, which are programmed to watch farmland and livestock at night. Journalism students at the University of Missouri in Columbia take a class on drone piloting because of its advantages in gathering information in the field,[9] but hopefully these students don’t take careers as paparazzi. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) predicts that the use of drones may cut their spending by 90% and that UAVs could be used to practically document the whole surface of the Earth.[10] Roughly 70% of Earth’s surface, however, is covered by water, a lot of which is too deep for human exploration, therefore inhuman machines must be used to explore the depths.[11]

It is estimated that nearly 80% of the species on Earth have not been discovered, and that most of them live under water, which makes their discovery nearly impossible without the help of aquatic unmanned vehicles, or AUVs. Certain companies are working to expose a never-before-seen underwater trove of fish and deep-sea creatures. Acoustic modems have been suggested in several models as a way for the AUVs to communicate in sophisticated deep-sea networks. Under the water, radio waves can hardly travel and instead a physical noise is emitted by one drone and “heard” by the others, resulting in a dense digital dialogue that can be transmitted to buoyant WiFi nodes and subsequently to the engineers and scientists on dry land.[12] There is, of course, always a military application, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is hard at work filling this national defense need with its Hydra project. Hydra consists of strategically placed underwater drone, for lack of a better word, stations, which can at any time deploy submersible or aerial unmanned vehicles, to supplement the capabilities of the U.S. Navy. The portable “stations” may be delivered by air or by ship, and can reportedly identify minefields as well as enemy watercrafts.[13]

With all the commotion on its surface, Earth has all but forgotten about its many eyes out of the sky, also known as satellites. Satellites are tiny unmanned space structures that typically consist of as much sensory equipment as possible, and they orbit the earth at various frequencies. Most notably, Google Earth has taken satellite-photography and constructed a virtual model of Earth’s geography and human installments with incredible detail, but these drones are also responsible for cellular communications and also President Reagan’s infamous Star Wars Defense Program.[14] An uncharted region of rainforest was recently discovered using Google Earth, and several new species of animals were documented in a subsequent expedition to the area. The people responsible for the expedition commented on the potential use of satellite imagery and UAVs in mapping the final frontier, which they guessed was either in Mozambique or Papua New Guinea.[15]

Undoubtedly, the use of drones raises serious ethical concerns, especially in military applications, but also in the private domain where people are now worried they will be spied on by random strangers with flying cameras. Pakistan and Iran have already taken issue with the use of drones in warfare and espionage respectively, but China has the whole world beat with its miniature bee drone, modelled after real bees, which with its high definition cameras can only be described as the quintessential surveillance tool.[16] Recent advances in artificial intelligence[17] and the promise of forming massive networks of drones would probably impress any science fiction fan, but the fact that it is becoming a reality should impress anyone.



  1. O. S. Card, Ender's Game, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC., New York, 1977.
  2. H. G. Wells, War of the Worlds, Tribeca Books, U.S., 1898.
  3. L. Krock, Timeline of UAVs, 2002.
  4. M. Nichols, Pakistan tells U.N. at least 400 civilians killed by drone strikes, 2013.
  5. S. Shane and D. E. Sanger, Drone crash in Iran reveals secret U.S. surveillance effort, 2011.
  6. J. Lowy, FAA certifies first 2 types Of drones for civilian use, 2013.
  7. K. Hill, Potential drone use: finding rivers of blood, 2013.
  8. G. Hood, From battle to birds: drones get second life counting critters, 2013.
  9. A. Gregg, 9 totally cool uses for drones, 2013.
  10. Reference not found.
  11. NOAA, To date, we have explored less than five percent of the ocean, Accessed 31 October 2013.
  12. E. M. Sozer, M. Stojanovic, and J. G. Proakis, Underwater acoustic networks, IEEE J. Oceanic Eng. 25, pp. 72–83, 2000.
  13. Tactical Technology Office" title = "Hydra.
  14. J. Atteberry, How the Star Wars program didn't work.
  15. L. Gray, Scientists discover new forest with undiscovered species on Google Earth, 2013.
  16. S. Poole, Drones the size of bees – good or evil?, 2013.
  17. R. Beckhusen, So it begins: Darpa sets out to make computers that can teach themselves, 2013.