Drones, Friend or Foe: Sellers Gloss Over Concerns at First Major Expo

Protesters gathered in Los Angeles to air concerns about privacy and safety, but the event went on.

Harold Sweet demonstrates the DJI Phantom Vision Plus drone during the first-ever Drone Expo in Los Angeles on Dec. 13. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Dec 16, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Charles Davis is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, Salon, and Vice.

Drones aren't just for spying on people and killing them without a trial—at least that was the message those seeking to speed the commercialization of unmanned aerial vehicles were trying to send with the first ever commercial Drone Expo held over the weekend in Los Angeles. Instead of weaponized UAVs with names such as “Predator” and “Reaper,” a crowd of mostly male hobbyists were greeted by young women in booty shorts luring them to booths hosted by exhibitors with names like “Drone Dudes” marketing what amounted to high-tech toy helicopters with high-definition cameras.

“There's a good chance you will meet the next Steve Jobs here,” said Keith Kaplan, CEO of the Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle System Association, when I spoke to him over the phone last week. Kaplan told me that drones were sort of like the Internet: a technology developed by and for the military-industrial complex that could ultimately serve a lot of good, civilian purposes. He didn’t shy away from use of the term “drone,” either, arguing that it shouldn’t be abandoned just because of all the negative associations.

But those associations weren’t entirely absent—and it’s not entirely clear that those in attendance actually viewed them as negative. One exhibitor, for instance, a ponytailed middle-aged man in a suit, emphasized the “military-grade” nature of his company’s $60,000 drones. In a press release promoting the expo, Wil Cashen, chairman of the Tesla Foundation Group, of which UAVSA is a subsidiary, emphasized the fact that drones were “now essential in our national security” and, he added, “are here to stay,” a theme—inevitability—that was emphasized by several speakers who sought to portray opposition to drones as little more than Luddism.

But that opposition, driven by a fear that UAVs could allow amateurs and law enforcement alike to easily invade the privacy of their neighbors, was present even at the expo. Soon after the expo opened its doors, protesters disrupted keynote speaker Austin Blue, whose company, SciFly, “operates both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. . .in support of US Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement programs,” according to a bio provided by UAVSA. Blue’s father also owns the company General Atomics, a leading manufacturer of drones for the U.S. military.

The protesters were not well received by those in attendance, with one man getting up from his seat and angrily snatching away their signs as the audience booed. When the activists started chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” which is popular among those protesting a recent spate of police killings, one man in the crowd responded, “Choke them, choke them”—a reference to the choking death of Eric Garner at the hands of a white police officer in New York City.

Hamid Khan, who has been helping lead local opposition to the Los Angeles Police Department’s proposed use of drones, told me that one man in the audience also yelled a racial slur at him and another activist. That spoke to the fact that enthusiasm for drones can arguably be traced to a macho culture of white privilege: it’s easier for a white man to fetishize military hardware because it’s generally people of color suffering the consequences of their use, he said. The choice to use the word “drone” by organizers and speakers at the expo could be viewed as an attempt to associate the gadgets that are for sale here at home with the perceived badassery of the unmanned vehicles dropping bombs abroad.

“What message was it sending?” Khan said of the expo. “It was very much clearly driven by the excellence of this technology as a killing machine.”

At the same time, Khan argued, those who profit from the military and police use of drones—people like Austin Blue—have an undeniable interest in also promoting a kinder, gentler, more commercial face for the technology. So while the “bad” use of drones was ever-present in the background, speakers such as Capt. Dave Anderson, who runs a whale-watching company in Orange County, Calif., and recorded a popular video of said whales with an unmanned aerial vehicle, were on hand to demonstrate that the technology could be used for purposes more majestic and inspiring than bloody and depressing—for producing photos of nature that any peacenik could love.

Lisa Ellman, a former attorney at the Obama White House turned drone industry lobbyist, was one of many speakers who stressed potential commercial applications. “Polivation” was the questionable word she coined for what she’d like to see from regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration, which is slated to release in 2025 a rule governing the commercial use of drones: allow “innovation” to guide their “policymaking”—that is, essentially, get out of the way of that so-called next Steve Jobs. Her talk focused on the safety of drones—fears of them crashing into people and power lines are overblown, she argued—but left unaddressed was the major issue activists have with the domestic use of the technology: the possible evisceration of what’s left of our privacy.

Even the most ardent anti-drone activist concedes that some uses of the technology could be beneficial. Farmers, for instance, could use unmanned vehicles to track the growth of weeds on their land; journalist Will Potter is also planning to fly a drone to keep tabs on corporate agriculture. What they fear, however, is that increased use of drones will, overall, mean increased surveillance power in the hands of corporations and the state. Internet retailer Amazon, for instance, is hiring pilots for its drone delivery program, Prime Air; arguably, no more than a publicity stunt, but Khan told me he fears that if the program ever does get off the ground, the company—which already has close ties with intelligence agencies—will share the data it gathers with law enforcement, voluntarily or otherwise.

“Amazon can say, ‘We'll be delivering pizzas and all that,’ ” Khan told me, “but the information Amazon's drone will be gathering as they're delivering their pizza, as they're navigating our airspaces and our streets and our alleys, will be very much up for grabs.”