Is it a bird, is it plane, no, it's another pesky drone - what we could soon be saying



Imagine a smartphone that could fly off your wrist and photograph you from all angles.

This latest development in selfie-technology was part of a fascinating, inspiring, and occasionally terrifying talk about drones at The Cheltenham Science Festival on Wednesday.

Because if you thought drones were just something that took pretty aerial pictures or went on bombing raids in the Middle East, Eyes in The Skies at the Town Hall was an eye-opener.

The audience was given a glimpse of a future that was part Back to the Future Part II, Star Wars, and Orwell’s 1984 by three speakers, representing drone technology, the regulation of unmanned aircraft, and civil liberties.

The fun stuff was outlined by technology and ethics expert Andy Miah, who showed video clips about drones being used in ways that could radically change the way we live, interact and entertain ourselves.

He conjured up a future where drones walk dogs (like in Back to the Future Part II) and are used in theatre and art shows – creating stunning aerial light shows and forming part of dance acts.

Drones, he said, have also been used to carry out graffiti and take photographs from multiple angles.

He also let one buzz around the room, after taking a vote on whether people in the audience were happy for him to do so.

But it will, most likely, be the use of drone as extensions of our smartphones that will affect most people.

Whether the thought of controlling a drone that flies around your head is one that excites you, or makes you dread ever having to go to a tourist spot again, will probably depend on how many selfies are stored on your iPhone.

Or course, no-one would like the idea of hundreds of drones flying through the air and colliding with aircraft, so Gerry Corbett from the Civil Aviation Authority was on hand to explain the rules, which seemed to boil down to not being stupid.

Sending a drone beyond your line of sight is stupid, flying it next to an airport is stupid, flying it into the London Bridge is also stupid (as an American tourist did), and grabbing hold of one as it buzzes around you while you are performing at a packed concert in Mexico is also stupid (as singer Enrique Iglesias did).

And a striking statistic in his segment of the talk was about the number of drones being registered. In 2007, there were 7. In 2014, there were 760.

A show of hands in the Pillar Room of the Town Hall also showed a fair few people interested in owning one.

He said drones that could be used to create hover boards (again, Back to the Future II) and even hover bikes (a bit like the speeder bikes in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi), as well as unmanned cargo planes, delivering goods (Amazon are interested in this) or even sending defibrillators to help people having heart attack.

The idea of dozens of buzzing selfie-drones flying around the world’s beauty spots is a frankly depressing one, but it is also one of deep concern for Liberty.

And Rachel Robinson from the civil liberties group was keen to stress they weren’t down on the technology, just that it needed to be used in a regulated framework.

Could drones be used to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, will it alter our sense of community if we feel we are being watched and recorded by these flying machines? This was the 1984 spin on it.

For the audience, concerns about terrorist use of drones were raised, but as the panel said, the genie is out of the bottle and technology can be used for good or ill.

As the saying goes, a telephone can be used to plan a wedding or a murder, and once invented, things can’t be un-invented.

And the panel seemed agreed on the need for regulations to ensure the safe use of drones, the fun use of drones, and the responsible use of drones.

This was a talk that really showed a vision of the future that could be extremely exciting, extremely annoying, and potentially quite worrying.

And the challenges that will bring to society, are only just being discussed – this talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival is just the beginning.