The eye in the sky

What do the British Army, Amazon, and Marilyn Monroe have in common? They all were early pioneers of drones – the next frontier of the global economy. Dr Pippa Malmgren delves beneath the surface in this fast moving world

April 21 2020


For the cigar smokers out there, imagine a world where a Corona, Robusto, Churchill, or Lusitania was thrown together into one category with snuff, cigarettes, cigarillos, nicotine chewing gum and shisha. While it might be technically correct to call these “nicotine products”, it would not be useful. Yet this is how people talk about “drones”. The child’s toy in the back garden, the Predator drone that “puts warheads on foreheads”, and the cruise missiles that recently took down the world’s most significant oil refinery, Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia, are all drones. For a true understanding of this technology, we need to learn the unique qualities of each “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV) that we lump together as drones.

The first thing to understand about UAVs is that, like cigars and some other things in life, size does not guarantee performance. Take the Norwegian Black Hornet Nano drones used by the SAS: They measure 4x1 inches, weigh 16 grams, and have three onboard cameras that offer infrared and night-vision capabilities. The word is, they initially cost $190,000 each. But price is not a useful way to distinguish between drones. The mass produced toy drones that cost less than £20 can do a lot of damage – witness the £50 million losses caused when toy drones disrupted Gatwick Airport for 33 hours in December 2018. The so-called “military drones” can cost upwards of £250,000 and have far less capability than a commercial drone that sells for £25,000. I say that with some confidence because alongside my work as an economist advising on international markets, policy and geopolitics, I produce an industrial drone called HiSight by the firm I co-founded, H Robotics. We only sell to companies, because we believe that drones are not toys, even if the public thinks of them this way.

This was not always so. Modern drones began as defence equipment. The father of drones was the English actor Reginald Denny, who appeared in many Hollywood films, including Of Human Bondage (1934), Rebecca (1940), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), and Batman (1966). He’d been an RAF pilot in the First World War, until he was shot by friendly fire. Fascinated by aircraft, he brought several Sopwiths to Hollywood and sold them to Howard Hughes, who used them to make his epic film, Hell’s Angels (1930). With the proceeds, Denny indulged his passion for remote-controlled aircraft and ultimately launched the “Dennymite” – the first-ever mass-produced UAV. It had one particularly unexpected result. The production line had lots of “Rosie the Riveters” – women who built defence equipment. Fellow actor Ronald Reagan was then Head of Public Relations for the US Army’s First Motion Picture Unit, fondly referred to as “the Celluloid Commandos”. He commissioned a young US Army photographer called David Conover to take some photos of the ladies. One caught his eye as she fixed props onto the drones. He immediately took two weeks leave to teach the young girl how to pose for the camera. That’s where Marilyn Monroe was discovered – on the first drone mass-production line.

UAVs are now at the heart of national security. President Trump and the US national security establishment have accused China’s drone makers of disguising the best reconnaissance system in modern history as a children’s toy. The idea is simple. Many of the toy drones have to be plugged into a computer every few weeks so that the software for the autopilot function, which allows the drone to be flown remotely, can be updated from time to time. But, because the drones typically only have one motherboard for both the camera data and autopilot, the two data streams can co-mingle. In theory it is possible to take a download with each update and thus get all the telemetry and data.

Why would anybody want the camera data? The amazing thing about the aerial view is that it allows you to value assets. You can tell what a business is worth from an aerial image, whether it’s an agribusiness, a mining site, infrastructure, a construction site or even a parking lot. These days hedge funds and asset managers pay firms like Planet Labs, with their thousands of shoebox-sized satellites, for the imagery of parking lots at airports, shopping malls and city centres to tell how many people are passing through before any hard data points are available. Drones capture and deliver this data even faster. The dark allegation that the US has made is that Chinese drone companies are gathering the data and making it available to the Chinese Government. That’s why the US Government has recently prohibited the purchase of Chinese-made drones by any government entity and grounded the existing drone fleets.

The Chinese find all this a bit rich, given that one of Google’s early backers was DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), which gets to see every single internet search and track every person’s movements. Amazon, which the Chinese view as another surveillance machine, now houses all the data management for each of the 17 US intelligence agencies. Others have also noticed the details in the patent filings for the new drones from Amazon, Google and Walmart. They all seem to contain far more elements for gathering data than for delivery. Is delivering a package an excuse for finding out what car the family drives, how many kids reside at home, and what the dimensions of the house are? The best read on this subject is Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile), which warns of the threats to free will and free markets by such data-collecting technologies.

Little wonder the public, and governments, are uneasy about drones’ surveillance aspects. Yet they come in many forms with capabilities that serve many purposes. Just like a good cigar.

Dr Pippa Malmgren is an economist, author, tech founder and former advisor to the US President