Drones and Everything After

Drones And Everything After
The flying, spying, killing machines that are turning humans into superheroes.
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
Illustrations by Andrew Rae

Recently, it has been getting harder to disappear on this planet. A surveilling drone began passing over the remote forests of northeastern Nigeria earlier this year, tracking the separatist group Boko Haram, catching glimpses of hasty encampments and escapes along dirt trails. When the militants kidnapped 200 schoolgirls this spring, a camera in the sky captured a large group of girls, sitting together in a clearing. Soon after, the cameras captured a similar group of girls elsewhere in the forest. Each time, the girls were moved before they could be spotted again, or rescued. What was left was just a spooky afterimage, like the ­impression made on a photographic plate: The most famous missing people on the planet, for an instant at least, found.

Late one afternoon in December, a drone armed with Hellfire missiles was flying low over the Yemeni desert, an audible buzzing presence, tracking a ­convoy of cars and trucks that were caterpillaring along a route between villages. Within the convoy were the members of two large families, escorting a bride from a wedding celebration in her own village to another in her groom’s, and though they noticed the drone, its presence was not unusual. Then, while the group was stopped because of a flat tire, the noise from the drone grew louder, as if a decision had been reached, and it began to discharge missiles. Several men jumped from the fourth truck before it was destroyed, but as they fled the drone seemed to track them across the sand, and fired again, according to Al Jazeera America. An older sheikh ran from his car and found his son, dead and bloodied, pierced by flying shrapnel in his face, neck, and chest. Twelve men were killed. They were farmers, shepherds, and migrant laborers, mostly. U.S. government officials would say later that the target had been a militant, affiliated with Al Qaeda, who managed to escape the attack. A report by Human Rights Watch suggested that he might never have been there at all.

In a hobby shop in Cupertino, California, last summer, a 13-year-old boy named Kyle Ettinger noticed a tiny Nano QX drone sitting on the shelves and thought to himself, “Oh my God, I’ve got to have it.” The machine was a marvel. It was black and yellow, weighed less than an ounce, looked a little like a Disney bug, and yet it could fly. Ettinger learned to maneuver it through the air around his yard and neighborhood; he was hooked. Soon he bought two more drones, larger and more capable. One was outfitted with a first-person-view camera, so that through a pair of goggles he could see what the drone saw. He liked to pilot the machine out of view, so far that his father would get anxious that it might crash or get lost, then bring it soaring back toward them, like a hero. Ettinger would sometimes get motion sickness flying the drone. But through the goggles, Cupertino seemed to crack open. Flying a couple of blocks from the house in which he’d been raised all his life, Ettinger noticed a large electrical station he’d never known existed, an industrial mass in the midst of his suburb. He says, “You can see a different world from up there.”

If you were creating, from scratch, a taxonomy to describe all machines, these drones would not belong to the same species. They would probably not belong to the same phylum. The technology of unmanned flight has diversified so rapidly that there are now 1,500 different kinds of drones being manufactured, and they are participants in nearly every type of human endeavor, composing a whole flying-robot ecology so vast that to call every one by the same name can seem absurd. But drone, an impossible word, is also a perfect one. Each of these machines gives its human operator the same power: It allows us to project our intelligence into the air and to exert our influence over vast expanses of space. Drones have become important to the pursuit of isis, the plans of Amazon and Google, the management of farmland in Asia, the protection of pyramids in the Andes. Just within the past two weeks, Facebook has announced a trial of a drone-based wireless internet, the delivery conglomerate DHL has revealed that it will use the machines to ship packages to isolated German islands in the North Sea, and the U.S. government has decided to allow Hollywood production companies to film from drones, making possible visual angles that have so far existed only in animation.

Where the Drone Flies
Through a Volcano That erupted in Iceland last month. Photo: Eric Cheng
Over Bernal Hill Where Amit Gupta shot his famous drone selfie.
Onstage With the Japanese dance troupe Eleven Play.
Over Enemies Surveilling and assassinating.
Through Farms Tracking the wheat crop in France.
Around Newlyweds And sometimes accidentally bumping into them.

Drones are a different kind of new technology from what we’re used to. The communications breakthroughs of the past two decades have multiplied the connections within society, but drones offer something else: the conquest of physical space, the extension of society’s compass, the ability to be anywhere and see anything. This physical presence can be creepy when seen from the ground, in ways that echo the imaginings of science fiction. “Flying,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, who ran the robotics program at NASA’s Ames facility, “creates this dynamic where people are no longer on top.” And yet to the drone pilot, maneuvering through the air, it is liberating.

It’s an incredible thing, extreme elevation. It makes you feel both alone and unsurpassable. Send a drone up, equipped with a camera, the control in your hands and your laptop rigged to see what the camera sees, and what you feel is not displacement but extension. Each of these flying robots, more than anything else, changes your perspective. Now anyone with a drone can watch the Earth from a point of view that once implied great power. This summer, the pastor of a prominent Evangelical megachurch in Texas delivered a series of sermons comparing God to a Predator drone.

Lost in the concern that the drone is an authoritarian instrument is the possibility that it might simultaneously be a democratizing tool, enlarging not just the capacities of the state but also the reach of the individual — the private drone operator, the boy in Cupertino — whose view is profoundly altered and whose abilities are enhanced. “The idea I’m trying to work out to simplify this whole thing — surveillance, drones, robots — has to do with superhero ethics,” says Patrick Lin, a technology ethicist at California Polytechnic State University. “It’s about what humans do when they have superpowers. What happens then?”

It’s an incredible thing, extreme elevation. It makes you feel both alone and unsurpassable.

In San Francisco, it no longer seems out of the ordinary for a drone to get lost in a tree. “Big thanks to the SF Fire Dept,” one drone enthusiast tweeted recently over a photo of a firefighter laboring up a ladder to rescue a robot from a high branch. Drones have been disappearing into the playa at Burning Man. “It is white plastic with red and blue stripe stickers on the propeller arms,” ran the Craigslist post pleading for the machine’s return. In Seattle, a drone saddled up to the 26th floor of an apartment building and peeped through a window, alarming the woman inside. In Los Angeles, a drone wandered high into the sky near LAX and startled the pilot of a Canadian jetliner; another hovered near the tenth floor of the LAPD’s headquarters, drawing curious cops to the window. In Yosemite, the Park Service had to issue a ban to keep drones from spooking nesting peregrine falcons. These machines, in other words, have begun to display punkish, pubescent energies, as if we had entered drone adolescence.

It wasn’t too long ago that to operate an unmanned aircraft meant standing in the middle of a field with a radio controller in your hand and toggling the vehicle through the sky — back and forth, up and down — as if tied to it by a tether. That this now seems ancient is thanks in part to the smartphone revolution, which made many of the components needed for autonomous flight (computer processors, GPS, tiny cameras, and sensors) far smaller, smarter, and cheaper. Within the past five years, these technologies have helped to produce affordable drones that can fly on their own, stabilizing themselves when the winds shift, heading for a point specified on GPS. We are deep enough into the entrepreneurial era that everyone can see a gold rush coming; hobbyists in the obscure world of radio control trade stories about cold-call emails from investors or government agents. “I have these buddies who would drop off into darpa-land for a few years, and you’d never hear from them,” a Texan tinkerer named Gene Robinson says. “And then suddenly they reappear with a Ferrari, and they say, ‘I can’t tell you exactly what I’ve been working on. But it worked.’ ”

Robinson wanted in on the rush too. A decade ago, he was a somewhat burned-out IT guy in his mid-40s, recently divorced, and maybe a bit too garrulous for IT in the first place. He quit his job, worked to perfect his drone — a fixed-wing model that looked like a miniature Stealth Bomber — and tried to figure out how to make money on it. Robinson did the simplest thing he could think of: He stuck a Nikon camera onboard, its lens aimed down, and went searching for people who might pay for the point of view. Farmers, real-estate agents. Prospecting, and having had little luck, Robinson eventually connected with a volunteer group called Texas Equusearch, which scours rural stretches of the country on horses and ATVs looking for missing people and dead bodies. They were interested. They could see how a drone might be useful.

Robinson’s first drone search was for a man named David Lee Pettiet, who had departed the modern grid in an especially barren spot of West Texas. Search parties had failed to find Pettiet for six months, long enough that the sheriff, according to Robinson, became convinced he was still alive and had begun to suspect he might be robbing banks around the county. Pettiet’s sisters were despairing. The drone found him within a day—its aerial camera photographed two slashes of white, a foot apart, in a brambly clutch of downed trees, that turned out to be Pettiet’s tennis shoes. The sheriff’s deputies had passed just a few feet from Pettiet’s body during a mounted horse search weeks earlier. But their perspective was wrong: too low.

Robinson has now flown drone searches in 31 states and several foreign countries, and this higher angle, 400 feet in the sky, has given him a view of a lot of human activities that might otherwise remain secret. Often he is called in after helicopter searches have failed; because his drone is cheaper and can stay in the air longer, it provides a more comprehensive view. It takes 15 minutes for his drone to photograph a square mile, every inch accounted for. “Human beings have left an awful lot of this world empty,” Robinson says. But he has learned how to spot earth that has been churned to dig an impromptu grave, the way grass gets crushed and marked when a body is dragged through it, and the kinds of shelter that people seek when they are lost and alone. Some people he works with will try to press a suspect to confess by telling them campfire stories of what the drone can see. Robinson believes that to locate a dead body is to restore certainty to the family. Your 2-year-old was not kidnapped; here is the spot where he drowned. Here are the physical remains. It is as if he were reattaching stray pieces of society, putting things back in their place. Robinson says he had a devilish, misspent youth. “Now I’m earning my heaven points.”

The privilege of seeing this way, and this much — it exists simply because he has a drone. Should it? Clarifying where drones are allowed to fly and under what circumstances has proved challenging. There are no consistent laws about whether police need a warrant to fly a drone over your property, searching for drugs or evidence. (A few state legislatures have passed laws requiring police to secure warrants, others have decided that cops do not need to, and most have set no guidelines at all.) It is even less clear how private operators, hobbyists, or governments should operate. The airspace above 500 feet is reserved for planes and other aircraft, but below that line the rules are “irregular and inconsistent,” says Troy Rule, a law professor at Arizona State — there is little clarity, for instance, about whether a property owner can prevent her teenage neighbor from flying a drone over her house. Congress has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate the commercial use of drones by next September, but an agency audit has signaled it will likely miss its deadline. One mark of exactly how conflicted the government is about drones is that Robinson is at once a frequent collaborator with state agencies and a recipient of cease-and-desist letters from the FAA.

In Georgia once, searching for a missing woman, Robinson happened upon a huge marijuana crop, perfectly clear from the drone’s camera. The local sheriff took the images and executed one of the biggest pot seizures in the state’s history. (Courts have generally held that individuals have little reasonable expectation of privacy from aerial surveillance.) In Torrance, California, there is a man who uses his drone as a flying citizens’ patrol, to photograph police in the act of pulling cars over or operating checkpoints, as a curb on abuses, so that cops in the Los Angeles area often find themselves subject to a scrutinizing eye in the sky. When ­science-fiction writers and critical theorists have warned of the surveillance future, they rarely imagined this chaos. The surveillance capacities of the state have grown. But so have these accidental private panopticons.

“It does make the libertarian side of you a little uncomfortable,” Robinson allowed, when we were having lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Wimberley, Texas. He pushed across the table a drone image he’d shot in Oklahoma a few weeks earlier, in a search for a missing man, a square mile or so of empty parkland enclosed by a few houses and streets. With his thumb, he traced means of egress and ingress; there was a shopping center and power lines, evidence of the whole connected anthropological network of a town. “More people are seeing the world from that perspective,” Robinson said. “Eventually, even more people will. You’ll be driving a car down the road, and you’ll have that aerial view in mind.”

There is a four-minute shot that opens Pretty Sweet, a short skateboarding film from 2012 co-directed by Spike Jonze, shot entirely from a drone. The lens starts tight on a skateboarder’s face — a gnarly and meaty face, the kind an Italian butcher might grab, cure, and slice. Then the camera begins to move, past him and across the street, tracking four new skaters as they jump out of a pickup truck and scale a fence, then following one skater razoring down a flight of stairs, then soaring past them and down to a bug’s-eye view, another skater leaping, a girl tumbling, each figure quickly exchanged for the next but the movement continuous, as if the camera were working in cursive, until it lifts higher and disappears into a cloud of confetti. Money shot. “Even now I watch that and I get chills,” says Randy Slavin, a commercial director who recently founded the first drone film festival. “There is literally no other way to get that shot. You can put a camera literally anywhere in three-dimensional space. You can design any shot.”

In a movie Following skateboarders in Spike Jonze’s Pretty Sweet.

Slavin bought a drone shortly after he saw that video, but it took him a while to get good enough to make much use of it. Certain moves turned out to be tricky. He wanted a shot that would track someone walking down the street, initially from the front but then turning as she passed and watching her from the back. That pivot was hard to perfect — you had to pull the camera back, dip it, and turn it all at once — and so he practiced it on a basketball court near his apartment in Tudor City. Soon, though, he could get the drone to run like a dog, low and fast along the street. He got it to skim over a swimming pool, like a bird hunting fish, and to stalk through gardens of friends’ mansions in the Hamptons, like a burglar. On his laptop, Slavin showed me one of the most famous sequences in 20th-century film, the beginning of The Shining, where the camera follows a car deep into the wilderness. Kubrick shot these scenes from a helicopter — far more expensive than a drone, and also less nimble. “You can just hear Kubrick saying, ‘Closer! Get closer!’ ” Slavin said. With a drone, you could always get closer; you could move back and forth between the intimate and the vast. “My dream,” Slavin told me, “is to start a shot in a living room” — on a couple having an argument, maybe — “and then very quickly go out the window and up, so that you can see the whole city.”

None of the early entrants in Slavin’s festival, which will take place in February, were shot by Kubrick or Jonze. This is a novice’s medium. In one infamous drone video, the camera swoops toward a bride and groom standing in a field with their foreheads touching and eyes closed. The drone flies under a flowery arch twined with flowers, then slams into the groom’s head. On YouTube, there is evidence that the technique of many drone photographers is better, and there is some artistry too: gorgeous overhead film of New Zealand’s landscape, for instance, and one dramatic video from a drone flown into a fireworks celebration in West Palm Beach, powder exploding all around the camera. “Pretty ballsy,” Slavin said approvingly.

There is something uncanny about the drone perspective that creeps up on you, the more videos like this you watch. The drone’s point of view emphasizes the mass scale over the individual. One of the early drone videos that got around, enough to collect nearly 2 million views, is a vision of last year’s Burning Man, roving across the encampments — the huge sculptures, the big empty desert beyond. From high above the festival, individual distinctions blur and the people look almost choreographed. The man who shot it, a San Franciscan named Eddie Codel, had been going to the festival for years, and he told me he was intrigued by the way the drone removed you from the usual individual perspective —­ circumscribed, on the ground — and let you see the “organized chaos” of Burning Man as a whole.

Above the desert Documenting the Burning Man festival.

When this perspective first began to proliferate through aerial photography nearly a century ago, it was greeted both with awe and alarm. Observing the world from above distanced the photographer, and the viewer, from their subject: “the God’s-eye view,” as the film historian Paula Amad calls it. Walter Benjamin believed there was violence inherent in this perspective — dehumanization and threat. (The Futurist poets, early theorists of Fascism, loved aerial photography.) Other intellectuals were convinced that it emphasized the essential interconnectedness of people. The aerial view resembled the perspective from which audiences gazed down on mass stadium spectacles, in which individuals become “mere building blocks and nothing more,” the critic Siegfried Kracauer wrote in his famous essay “The Mass Ornament.”

Both the beauty and the strangeness of drone art come from this point of view. The line of sight seduces photographers. It also affects them. There is a San Francisco outfitter called Photojojo that rents camera-equipped drones for the day, and the company’s founder, Amit Gupta, told me that customers tend to take pictures of recognizable monuments from an unusual perspective, or to photograph themselves. The drone selfie has become a slightly ridiculous cultural artifact (at least since Twitter persuaded Patrick Stewart to take one in Cannes), but the perspective it provides is thrilling: a reminder of how small we are and how little we can see, of how awesome and humbling the God’s-eye view can be.

Here, for instance, is Gupta taking a video of himself from a drone, a young man in a T-shirt and jeans standing on Bernal Hill, next to two of his friends. The drone hovers at eye level as if it were a fourth friend, and then Gupta touches the controller and the camera begins to back away and the frame extends; now it captures not just the three men but the whole hill they are standing on, and then the park. Then, the neighborhood, and then most all of San Francisco. And then, majestically, the bay beyond. The film lasts only 15 seconds, but in Gupta’s hands the drone is not a tool of narcissism but a context machine. As the video ends, he is still in the center of the frame but his true subject has swelled all around him: San ­Francisco, the mass ornament.

There are villages in the most remote tribal areas of Pakistan in which these context machines are such a constant, noisy presence that drones are sometimes called bangana, a Pashto word for wasp. While they linger, no one on the ground knows whether their mission is surveillance or assassination. It is this combination of inscrutability and remote power that makes them such a maddeningly seductive and destructive tool of foreign policy. In May 2012, a drone strike destroyed a residential block in the Yemeni city of Jaar. Fifteen minutes later, the drone fired again, into the same houses, so that some people who had come to help the wounded were themselves killed. A pregnant woman died. A 65-year-old taxi driver, rushing to help members of his family after the first strike, saw “seven or eight” bodies scattered around him. No one seemed to really understand what, or whom, the drone had been pursuing, or even who was operating it. Some eyewitnesses who spoke with NPR were certain they had seen a gray American jet, “like an eagle.” Those talking to the London Times were convinced the plane had been black and Saudi. Perhaps the aircraft they’d seen had nothing to do with the strike at all.

The places where drone strikes have been most common are places accustomed to violence and war. “In Pakistan, things fall out of the sky all the time,” the country’s former president Pervez Musharraf is supposed to have said. Things dropped from drones tend to fall more exactly in place. American drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have killed between 3,200 and 5,400 people since 2002, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, by whose accounting about one-fifth have been civilians. In Pakistan’s tribal areas, the strikes seem to have suppressed militant attacks on the local population and panicked terrorist leaders — but they haven’t caused civilians to flee. Since the Pakistani army began destroying villages in North Waziristan in June, nearly 1 million people have fled their homes. But with drones there seems to be no assumption that any individual attack is likely to be followed by another. People stay put, says Christine Fair, a scholar of South Asian security at Georgetown. “There has never been a refugee crisis because of drones.”

And yet something has changed. It is so much less risky to deploy drones than manned airplanes that the threat of a strike — the possibility of assassination — now exists everywhere in these zones. It is part of the everyday landscape even when no soldiers are near. A hovering weapon is sometimes the most visible image of America overseas. (And not just America: Ukraine’s government has bought drones to deploy against Russian-backed insurgents, Chinese officials have disclosed that they’d considered sending an armed drone to assassinate a drug trafficker in Myanmar, and Hezbollah has been flying drones, likely provided by Iran, into Israeli airspace.) Survivors remember the strikes with a bewildered horror: “I found families … wrapping up the body parts of people from the ground, from here and there, putting them in grave clothes like lamb.” “A person leaves his house in the morning and he looks right and left, not knowing from where a blow might come that would be his end.” “I can’t think what possible connection my mother had with the Americans and why they had to kill her.”

Before unmanned aircraft proliferated, the American military could track a target virtually anywhere on Earth, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance, but the cost and complexity of performing these missions limited their use and often required approval from very senior officers. Drone technology, says Ioannis Koskinas, a retired Air Force colonel, has given soldiers “at the smallest infantry level — the squad” — access to these tools. An ordinary soldier can, if the resources at that moment permit, learn what is happening in a dangerous area he is about to enter in something close to real time. His awareness is enhanced.

Pilots typically benefit from what psychologists call “the morality of altitude” — separated from their victims by thousands of feet of airspace, they tend to suffer far less post-traumatic stress than do their counterparts on the ground. But drones have collapsed that moral distance, bringing their operators into far greater intimacy with their targets. The details of how drone pilots work have, like the missions themselves, been largely classified, but by combing through unclassified medical studies of drone-operator stress, Peter Asaro of the New School has been able to pinpoint some of the changes. Asaro found that tasks that had been distributed through the military and intelligence bureaucracies (gathering intelligence on a target, conducting surveillance, weighing the risks of a targeted killing, navigating a plane, firing a missile, assessing what happened afterward) have now been concentrated, so that they are all performed by tiny teams often scattered at bases around the peacetime United States, working at night, monitoring targets halfway across the globe for whose survival or death they are responsible.

“A pilot traditionally might have to fly to a coordinate and drop a bomb, and that was it,” Asaro says. “Now a drone operator has much more intimacy. Often he has to track a subject for weeks beforehand. The access to the intelligence is much greater. Sometimes they have to do damage assessment in the aftermath of an attack — to count the bodies pulled from the rubble.” Two years ago, a former drone-sensor operator named Brandon Bryant went public, telling reporters about his difficulty shaking memories, including one of a strike in which he was sure that his crew had inadvertently killed children. “They aren’t really like pilots, and they certainly aren’t like artillerymen, where you never see the target,” Asaro says. “The better analogy is to snipers.”

An anonymous drone operator, interviewed by the artist Omer Fast:

Five thousand feet is the best. I love it when we’re sitting at 5,000 feet … Plus, at 5,000 feet, I mean, I could tell you what type of shoes you’re wearing … I could tell you what type of clothes a person is wearing and if they have a beard, their hair color … If someone sits down, let’s say, on a cold surface for a while and then gets up, you’ll still see the heat from the person for a long time. It kinda looks like a white blossom … It’s quite beautiful. I mean, heck, if you see somebody light up a cigarette, that’s a huge beacon. You just see a very white glow coming from that area. And you’re just on a preset path flying a circular orbit, watching them as they’re smoking from about two to three miles away.

The great Silicon Valley TacoCopter Hoax kicked off with an announcement of a new product just futuristic enough, and just fratty enough, to drive tech websites into a state. “It’s an unmanned drone shooting a taco from space down at you and your colleagues during lunchtime!” the Huffington Post’s Jason Gilbert enthused. “The concept behind TacoCopter is very simple, and very American: You order tacos on your smartphone and also beam in your GPS location.” You can imagine the rest. The hoaxers suggested that their “tireless” drones would soon be flying tacos to customers sitting at the beach.

The idea that robots might serve as mechanical butlers has been around at least since the very first episode of The Jetsons aired on September 23, 1962, during the Kennedy administration, almost seven years before the moon landing. George and Jane become overwhelmed by the complexities of life in the SkyPad apartments and decide to buy a robot maid, Rosie. Under her watch, life runs more comically but also more smoothly: The meals get cooked, the house gets cleaned, and she cracks wise in almost exactly the manner and accent that Fran Drescher would, more than a quarter-century later. She helps with homework.

This notion — that a personal robot might hover near at hand, helping to ease life’s small dilemmas and anxieties like a Seussian cleaning machine — tends to be the first instinct of would-be drone entrepreneurs. A roboticist in Boston named Helen Greiner envisions drones that would meet her midway through her run on the Boston Common bearing a water bottle. David Weekly, a San Francisco technologist who recently founded what he says is the first venture-capital fund devoted exclusively to drones, says that techies “think first about Follow-Me. They buy a Phantom 2 and immediately think, Couldn’t I get this to follow me around all the time and photograph me?” Many of these drone-videography applications, Weekly believes, are prone to a looming hype-and-bust cycle. Weekly is more enthusiastic about projects that envision drones’ operating on a larger scale, or in places that are hard for humans to reach: repairing and monitoring wind turbines and bridges, for instance, or cultivating large agricultural fields from the air.

Some of the most ambitious drone projects are already in trials. A few months ago, Andreas Raptopoulos, the co-founder of the Menlo Park company Matternet, raveled to Bhutan, where he has been working with its government to use drones to deliver medicine to health clinics isolated high in the Himalayas. Raptopoulos is fond of noting that one-seventh of the world’s population — 1 billion people — are without access to roads for some part of the year. Drones, he believes, could serve to correct the geographic accidents of birth, to give people living in the most remote and often poorest corners of the globe a more tangible connection to the rest of civilization.

Bhutan had been tricky in ways that both reminded Raptopoulos of the problems he was trying to solve and suggested how difficult the solution would be. It takes up to 12 days for medicine to get up the mountains by road, or for blood samples to get down to a lab in the capital, and even driving to the mountain clinics was an anxious experience. Matternet’s drones, cheap and light but with limited range, are meant to hopscotch up the mountain, each one handing off the package to the next, like a flying-robot Pony Express. The intention is for the handoff to be automated, but the ­technology wasn’t quite there yet, and so Raptopoulos had stationed workers every 20 kilometers. The altitude posed special problems: “When you go up higher, the air is thinner, you need to spin your propellers more aggressively, and you lose some of your performance,” Raptopoulos says. Flying through the Himalayan valleys, his drones couldn’t always connect with cellular networks, but they were able to use their internal GPS to navigate back to their track. They made do. Medicine got up the mountain much more quickly. “We could do it in a couple of hours,” he says. “Most of the time.”

“Drone operators aren’t really like pilots, and they certainly aren’t like artillerymen. The better analogy is to snipers.”

The interesting thing about projects like Matternet is that they suggest how a single human operator might control an entire system of drones. Vijay Kumar, a roboticist at the University of Pennsylvania, is experimenting with drone swarms, which would be more powerful and also, ironically, simpler, since in a swarm each individual drone could be assigned a different task. He showed me a video of an experiment he had run in which five drones had been given a blueprint of a skeletal structure and a row of construction materials. After a minute, the drones begin to zip over to the materials, each grabbing something in its hook, and then, a few feet away, adding the piece to a small structure that has begun to rise. 

There is enough of this going around to think that swarms could be the drone’s most plausible future. Both Amazon and Google have hinted at large networks of autonomous delivery drones, and Facebook recently suggested that its project would aim to have one human pilot for every 100 drones. An agricultural engineer at Georgia Tech is working to design large teams of drones and ground-based robots that can monitor and manage farmland with no human involvement.
A roboticist in Switzerland is working on designing drones that could on their own tie fibers together to create tensile structures — a rope bridge across a remote ravine, maybe, to be prepared before a human explorer arrived. Kumar has deployed his drone teams to map the destruction of Japanese buildings after the tsunami. “Think about 9/11 — those firefighters should not have run up those stairs, robots should have flown up them,” Kumar says. “Who cares if you lose a hundred robots.”

This humanitarian strain runs through many drone projects, and though it is often deeply felt, it also serves to disguise dramatic disparities of power. “People should not be dying because medicine cannot physically get to them,” Raptopoulos says, and this is moving and true, though it is also a way to introduce what he says is his ultimate vision, of a for-profit package-delivery service. Part of the attraction of drones is that they allow their operators to tinker in faraway places—leapfrogging medicine over swamped roads, annihilating militants holed up in unreachable villages, discovering lost bodies—even though not every disruption is welcome.

And yet this is a complicated kind of privilege. Drones let you see so much more of the Earth, at once more fully and minutely, in ways that confuse the normal relationship between intimacy and distance. With a drone you roam in a peculiar disembodied manner; you move through the world a little less like an actor and a little more like a director. Your new powers make you a little less recognizably human. In some real but imperfect way you exist in more than one place at once.

One 102-degree afternoon just before Labor Day, I drove with Gene Robinson to an empty field in the Texas Hill Country to fly his drone. Robinson placed the machine on the flatbed of his truck and connected with it wirelessly, programming a flight plan and a launch protocol. Then he walked out into the middle of the field, gave a crow’s hop, and threw the drone up into the air. Until it was 60 feet in the air, it just climbed upward. Then, having situated itself in space, it adjusted and began a slower, looping climb up toward 400 feet, high enough that you could no longer hear it.

We lost sight of it quickly. There was a noise in the distance of an engine heading our way. “General aviation,” Robinson murmured — an airplane, and he turned around to look for it. Drone operators know never to get in the way of airplanes, since that is one of the clear red lines that the FAA has set. I asked Robinson whether he was concerned. “Oh, no,” he said. We could see both the drone and the plane now. “We’re at 400 feet,” Robinson explained, pointing to the drone. Then he pointed to the airplane. “He’s at 20,000.”

From the ground, they were just two tacks in the same pincushion; I could not have said which one was higher. One of Raptopoulos’s drawings depicts a drone highway, a horizontal band of space a few hundred feet from the ground in which machines can travel through the air undisrupted by the traffic and chaos below. But then there is space for dozens of bands like that between Robinson’s drone and the airplane passing overhead, maybe more. There is just so much empty room up there. ■

*This article appears in the October 6, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.