Up Front 6/18

After a screening of the film, Eye in the Sky, at the Electric Palace in Bridport a few years ago, one of the less intense questions that arose was whether an insect-sized drone with a camera on board could really exist. In the film, Helen Mirren plays a Colonel tasked with coordinating a drone attack on a group of suicide bombers in Nairobi, Kenya, and one of the surveillance tools available to her is a camera-carrying drone disguised as a fly. Whilst the moral question of using drones as incendiary weapons was hotly debated afterwards, the thought that a drone could be disguised as a fly took some believing. However, that was in 2015, and if we have learned anything in the last ten years, it is that advances in technology come faster than anything we could have imagined. We still fear the intrusion of drone technology on our personal privacy and continue to question its use by both military and law enforcement, but there are beneficial uses too. Firefighters have used drones to see the extent and direction of fires to help control them; search and rescue missions have found them invaluable in helping recover people missing in difficult terrain—the same applies to disaster relief. In fact, the recent footage from a drone that was able to deliver life-saving flotation devices to two swimmers in difficulty highlighted just how many services these devices could help. And of course, there are the many uses in agriculture, construction and other industries. However, the question of how tiny and how easily disguised a drone could become can probably be answered by the recent announcement from a team of scientists at the University of Graz in Austria. They have developed autonomous little robots that interact with bees and are accepted as members of the bee society. Bees and wild pollinators are crucial to ecosystem biodiversity and food security, and the scientists believe that understanding and influencing the bees’ behaviour, from inside the hive, will help to develop new methods to protect the species and hence the environment. Whilst many of these experiments display great ingenuity and may help to alleviate some of the problems facing the world in the future, the long-term thinking of some of the researchers offers a slightly daunting prospect. Some believe that creating mixed societies of animals and robots can be a new way to protect endangered species, as well as the environment. In many ways, the mix of humans and robots has already begun, but who or what might we be having lunch with ten years from now?