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"Drone" panel fails to create buzz

An Israeli Air Force Heron TP surveillance drone, known as the IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries).
An Israeli Air Force Heron TP surveillance drone, known as the IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries).
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

This post has been corrected. See note below.

Earlier this year U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed the military's plan to shed half a trillion dollars from its budget by reducing soldiers and increasing its fleet of unmanned drones. The announcement signaled that drones, or UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles), had become a central part of U.S. military strategy. But that strategy has come under a lot of scrutiny: for its secrecy, for reported civilian casualties, and for the fact that drone strikes have bred a new kind of warfare. While the Obama administration repeatedly defends these strikes, its clear that the legal and policy implications are not well understood.

This past Tuesday the UCLA Hammer Museum hosted a panel discussion on "Drones and Robotic Warfare." Three panelists took the stage, first to individually give some context to the topic, and then to speak as a group.

Eric Johnson, an avionics engineer and director of the UAV Research Facility at Georgia Tech University, was first to speak. He talked about UAV history, about recent developments in the quality of UAV video transmission and in their endurance capabilities. He also talked about potential civil uses, like in Japan, where UAV's have been used to dust rice paddies for over a decade.

Next up was Brookings Institute Senior Fellow John Villasenor, who didn't say all that much except for pointing out that the bulk of legal precedence regarding taking pictures from airplanes and cars has come from a slew of marijuana busts (California v. Ciraolo, Florida v. Riley and Kyllo v. United States). He made it sound like our police enforcement can only get crafty during a pot bust.

Finally, Patrick Lin took the stage. Lin is the director of the Ethics and Emerging Scienes Group at Cal Poly University, and he got the crowd's attention again by talking about looking at drone strikes as assassinations, about the lack of due process for criminals, and about these really scary sounding autonomous border patrol robots in Israel. 

Though Lin had finally touched on many of the points that have stirred the controversy surrounding drone strikes, he had failed to really find an avenue to engage the other speakers. When they all sat down to speak together, moderator Ian Masters further extended the diplomacy and the group was soon mostly lauding the many benefits of UAV technology. This was not what the zealous, middle-aged Westside crowd had come to hear. The elephant in the room was turning into a raging bull.

By the time the moderator opened the floor for questions, the crowd was ready to throw stones. Questions turned into philosophical tirades which then turned into attacks against the panel for being soft and defending instruments of murder. The crowd hooted and hollered and often bickered amongst itself, and it felt like a European cinema house that was showing a really bad movie. 

In their defense, the speakers actually made a number of interesting points both supporting and condemning the many uses of drones, and nobody on the panel had any authority to speak for drone strikes carried out by the United States. In fact, only one man can speak for that: the President. Fortunately he'll be holding some town-hall meetings on this upcoming campaign trail, and hopefully some audience members will show up with good questions, and not stones. 

Correction: A previous version of this post implied all three cases mentioned by panelist John Villasenor involved only planes. The post has since been updated.