Four Glimpses Of The Future Of Drones

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Ulrike Esther Franke is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford where she works on the use of drones by Western armed forces and the revolution in military affairs. She is a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations – and a big Science Fiction fan. @rikefranke

What can sci-fi writers teach us about our future with flying drones?

A few years ago Sir Andrew Pulford, the British Chief Air Marshal mused that a Terminator 2 type world where machines can make decisions for themselves was “undoubtedly coming.” No one bat an eyelid. President Obama’s admission that he dreams about sending Iron Man into counterterrorism missions may have been controversial on the substance, but no one’s reaction was “who’s Iron Man?”

At this moment, when many of the ideas and inventions of previous generations of sci-fi writers are now daily staples, the sci-fi genre (be it film, TV, books, comics, or video games) has even greater power to show different realities to political and military leaders, as well as the general public. Specifically, battlefield technology itself is a sort of central character in many sci-fi tales. Ever since Robert Heinlein published Starship Troopers in 1959 – in which exoskeleton-equipped soldiers fight insect-like aliens – military science fiction has been a major subgenre. Robots play a big role in these writings: after all, the term “robot” was invented by a sci-fi author.

Few technologies today can bridge the present and the future like flying robots, or drones. Fittingly, exploring sci-fi’s treatment of the drone can provide insight into humanity’s relationship with a technology that is both on the frontlines of twenty-first century conflict and wrapped up for holiday gift-giving.

In the following four very different books, the authors describe the future of drones. One book is from 1988, while the other three have been published in the last three years. Two were written by American authors, the others by a German and a Scot respectively. Three are set on Earth in a short- to medium-term future; one takes place in far-flung galaxies and largely outside of our timeline. All four are fantastic reads. And each book highlights a different aspect of the future of drones.


  1. Tom Hillenbrand, Drohnenland (2014) – The Ubiquity of Drones

“The crime scene is already buzzing with hummingbird drones, floodlight drones, and other machines flitting about in concentric circles around the dead man, snapping high-resolution photos from every conceivable angle. ‘Any drone movements before the murder, Ava?’ She seems to be listening to something only she can hear. Then she says, ‘None at all. According to Terry’s data bank, the last recorded drone flew over the field two days earlier, a small delivery helo from UDS.’”

I concede that it is a risky move to put a German sci-fi book – which so far has only been translated into English in excerpts – in this list. But Drohnenland (‘Drone Land’) clearly deserves its spot. It is a detective story set in a somewhat dystopian EU-centric Brussels. An EU parliamentarian is dead, and detective Aart van der Westerhuizen is looking for the killer. It looks as if the case will be solved quickly, but van der Westerhuizen comes to realise that nothing about this case is normal.

Drones are ubiquitous throughout the story – as delivery drones, medic drones, surveillance drones, and police drones all share the sky. But although drones are omnipresent, they don’t appear as particularly disruptive. In Hillenbrand’s world, having myriad unmanned systems do all kinds of tasks seems not only natural but logical – why wouldn’t you have a medic drone that can come to a crime scene within minutes, having been alerted by the surveillance drone in the area?

A realistic assessment of future drone use? Yes.

Our skies aren’t filled with drones, yet. But the likelihood of being spied on by a drone while being in the process of writing an article about them has gone up. Already, there are prototypes of ambulance drones, delivery drones surveillance drones, and paparazzi drones. Hillenbrand’s world of ubiquitous drones is where we are heading – hinging on a few technological advances and overcoming some legal obstacles.

The mainstream view today is that robots will fundamentally disrupt our society and job market. But Hillenbrand has a point: even in a world filled with drones, the fundamental elements of human life (that, sadly, do include murder, corruption, and deceit) do not change. Societies adapt to changing circumstances, but our weaknesses remain fundamentally human.

For the military realm, there is an important lesson here. Much in the same way that ubiquitous drones do not change the basic motives of humans living together in civilian life, drones on the battlefield may not change the general realities of warfare as much as we may think.


  1. Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013) – The Surveillance Society

“Mae had the brief thought that they should call off the drones, and shut down the cameras, because Mercer was in one of his moods, and wouldn’t be cooperating – and anyway, she’d proven what she intended to prove.”

Heralded as the new 1984, The Circle has enjoyed tremendous success. It is not in fact a drone book, yet it raises important questions about surveillance, be it by drones or other means.

Eggers describes a near-term future in which a Facebook-Google-Twitter conglomerate creates the fully transparent society. But unlike in 1984, the surveillance is not instrumentalized by a Big Brother state, or even the company in question, but rather the other members of society. An essential scene in the book involves a group of people who pursue a man with their drones that can tap into databases and use face-recognition. Although the drone chasers mean no harm, they still end up causing it.

A realistic assessment of future drone use? Likely.

The technological elements of the drones described by Eggers are pretty much already here. The systems in The Circle appear somewhat more advanced than what can be found in most hobbyists’ garages, but that technology is on its way to becoming mainstream. And we are heading towards a world where millions of individuals have their own drones: since drone registration became compulsory in the United States in January 2016, over half a million systems were registered.

The Circle makes the reader think about the perils of total surveillance, in particular if the surveillance tools are in the hands of supposedly well-meaning individuals. Above all, this should remind us of the importance of legislation and the possibility that a new social contract may be overdue.

In military theaters, the availability of highly sophisticated private drones is also likely to have an impact. Militaries are increasingly struggling to keep up with fast technologic advances. It is therefore conceivable that soldiers will soon bring their private drones onto the battlefield. Moreover, we are now seeing commercial drones appearing on the battlefield: Ukrainian militants use commercial drones for surveillance, terrorist organisations use booby-trap drones, and even some militaries are now flying off-the-shelf commercial systems.


  1. Ian M. Banks, The Player of Games (1988) – Artificial Intelligence And Drones

“’You are a mischievous and contrary device’, Boruelal said to the drone Mawhrin-Skel, floating at her shoulder, its aura field orange with well-being, but circled with little purple motes of unconvincing contrition. ‘Oh,’ Mawhrin-Skel said brightly, ‘do you really think so?’”

Ian M. Banks is one of the most prolific sci-fi authors. His novel The Player of Games is the second of ten Culture Novels published between 1987 and 2012. I deeply cherish the series as a rare example of utopian science fiction (most sci-fi has a dystopian undertone – think Windup Girl, Super Sad True Love Story, or The Matrix).

Drones are an important element in the Culture Novels that take place in a post-scarcity world made up of a multitude of civilizations and species. Because everything is so strange and alien, for most readers, drones will in fact be the most recognizable bits of this universe. Banks portrays them as a species, as drones have become imbued with artificial intelligence and are sentient. They come with fully-formed characters and are vindictive, mischievous, sweet-natured, or eccentric. Player of Games revolves around a drone blackmailing Jernau Morat Gurgeh into playing a highly sophisticated and high stakes game.

In a military confrontation, no human would stand a chance against Banks’s drones. Just consider this exchange:

“Don’t be absurd,” Gurgeh said, and put out one hand to swipe the machine out of his path. … The next thing he knew he’d been shoved down into the grass at the path-side, as though shoulder-charged by someone invisible. He stared up in amazement at the tiny machine floating above him. While his hands felt the damp ground under him and the grass hissed on each side. … He tried to rise again, a shout of anger and frustration forming in his throat. He went limp. The shout died in his mouth. He felt himself flop back into the grass. He lay there, looking up into the dark clouds overhead. He could move his eyes. Nothing else.”

Banks novels also feature proper scenes of interstellar warfare, but those rarely involve humanlike species – they are simply too fragile and usually sit out the fighting, safely stored away in what amounts to highly sophisticated bubble wrap.

A realistic assessment of future drone use? Unfortunately not.

Ian Banks is certainly far removed from today’s reality and the likely future. Still, his view of AI is ground-breaking. Whether autonomy, true AI, or sentience will happen within the next years, decades, or centuries is uncertain, although people more qualified than me recently sounded the alarm over the expected advent of autonomous weapons. But if and when machine AI emerges, I hope it looks like it does in the Culture novels. But I would not bet on it.


  1. Ernest Cline – Armada (2015) – Drones and Videogames

“Armada and Terra Firma aren’t just games. They are simulators designed for a very specific purpose – to train citizens all over this planet to operate the drones that will defend it.”

Ernest Cline became famous with his first novel Ready Player One (2010), a recommended read and, as I am told, a cult book in Silicon Valley. Like Ready Player One, Cline’s second book, Armada, is a popculture fest and highly addictive.

Early on in the story, it is revealed that not only is there an alien race attacking Earth, but people around the world have been trained to control the remotely-piloted systems that will be used to defend the planet against alien invaders – without their knowing. The training is done through the highly popular videogames Armada and Terra Firma, which aren’t in fact games but simulations that train the user to control military technology. Sci-fi movies are equally part of the conspiracy: “Hold on, you’re telling me that Star Wars was secretly financed by the Earth Defense Alliance to serve as anti-Alien propaganda?” Thousands of video game players are turned into drone pilots in the blink of an eye when their game consoles are connected to real weaponry.

A realistic assessment of future drone use? Partly.

The military-industrial-entertainment complex is not a new idea. For years, the military has been collaborating with video-game developers. Spacewar!, the first video game, was developed by MIT graduate students who were funded by the Pentagon. In many games today, you can pilot drones, and some even come with real drones.

But reality is a bit more complex. For one, Full Spectrum Warrior, a game actually developed by the US Army, turned out to be utterly ineffective as a training and recruiting tool. More importantly, I caution against equating drone operators with gamers. Every single drone operator I have talked to has complained about that comparison. “I’m not a computer freak that goes around randomly killing people on a screen,” one pilot told me. Killing people is different from killing pixels. Cline chickens out of this issue by making the enemy aliens that want to destroy the world – which pushes ethical issue into the background.


The skies of tomorrow are certain to be filled with drones. Although not all visions of bright (or horrible) futures can come true, it is worth thinking about what future is most likely – especially if we think it may in fact be like that of Terminator 2.