Saturday, December 13, 2014

LA's Drone Expo Stresses the 'Good' Side of UAVs

“There's a good chance you will meet the next Steve Jobs here,” said Keith Kaplan, CEO of the Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle System Association (UAVSA), when I called him up earlier this week to talk about the Drone Expo his group was putting on in Los Angeles. Like the Internet, Kaplan argued that the much-maligned drone could do a lot of good – he mentioned “organic farming,” with some farmers using unmanned vehicles to track the growth of weeds on their land – and that we should distinguish the commercial and scientific applications of the technology from its “bad,” military-industrial roots.
The roots are, of course, totally rotten: From Gaza to Waziristan, drones have been used by the world's most powerful militaries to extrajudicially execute “suspected militants,” problematic young activists and whoever happens to be standing around them at the time. Meanwhile, police departments around the country have been trying to get their hands on the unmanned surveillance variety, sparking protest from those skeezed out by the idea of robots with high-definition cameras hovering above their homes.

But cops and soldiers were nowhere to be found at Saturday's expo, hosted in the Memorial Sports Arena just off the University of Southern California's South Central campus. Instead, what I saw were hobbyists – nerds, who looked like they probably had some very strong opinions about Linux distros – and young women in booty shorts next to exhibitors' booths trying to the overwhelmingly male crowd to check out were essentially remote-controlled helicopters; patriarchy was present as always, but the police state was pretty much AWOL, with companies gearing their marketing toward people who want to take “epic” nature photos.

Still, there was reason to believe the kinder, gentler face of drones and their potentially, legitimately good uses were being emphasized by some in attendance to deflect from the rightfully bad name drones have gotten from their use in, for instance, wanton murder. Just after the expo opened at 11am, around a dozen activists associated with a campaign against the Los Angeles Police Department's proposed use of drones disrupted a keynote speaker, Austin Blue, whose company SciFly "operates both fixed and rotary wing aircraft in support of advanced technologies in support of US Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement programs."

Video of the protest uploaded to YouTube (and since taken down) shows the protesters holding signs and chanting before one poindexter in the audience got up from his seat in a rage and snatched away all their signs. Later, as the activists shouted "hands up, don't shoot," a man can be heard saying: "Choke them." A protester said he also heard a man call one of his comrades a "nigger" as they were being escorted out

Perhaps affected by the commotion, later speakers stressed that they were for the “good” sort of drones, not those other kind (left undefined), with Captain Dave Anderson, who runs a whale-watching company in Orange County and recorded a popular video of said whales with an unmanned aerial vehicle, explaining that he was committed to using the word “drone” in order to reclaim it from those using the technology for less majestic purposes.

The most offensive part of the expo from the perspective of this left-wing anti-war scold was not the drones themselves – the privacy concerns are real and troubling, but like any technology it seems to me it can be used for both good (journalists exposing corporate agriculture) and bad (basically what the military does) – but former White House counsel Lisa Ellman's attempt to coin a new word: “polivation,” a portmanteau of “policymaking” and “innovation,” a linguistic equivalent of a war crime that Ellman earlier deployed in a TED talk, achieving Peak Insufferability. Two of the following speakers, all repeating the the mantra that we need to get over our fear of the commercial use of drones and just Legalize It already, also used the term.

I bailed at that point.

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