“They’re Just Cameras”: Policing the Domestic and Abroad

A line seems to be drawn at Olin about working for the military-industrial complex that divides it into two parts: the “unacceptable” weapons manufacturers and the “acceptable” reconnaissance suppliers. Holding each other accountable to discourage unsavory behavior helps form a community, and I think it’s great that our norms have reduced the number of Oliners working at “unacceptable” defense contractors compared to other engineering schools. My goal is not to argue that the engineers at Skydio are perfectly identical to the engineers at Lockheed Martin who created laser-guided bombs, one of which was dropped by Saudi Arabia on a school bus in Yemen in 2018, killing 40 children and 11 adults.1 Rather, I believe we need to reject the artificial dichotomy prevalent in American engineering culture. The distinction between bombs and cameras is not helpful in understanding the real, violent impacts of the military-industrial complex as a whole. 

Often, when drones are discussed in the context of warfare, the focus stays on armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also known as ”hunter-killers,” such as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper manufactured by General Atomics. Some at Olin have claimed that unarmed UAS, such as the Skydio X10D, are different and thereby ethical to build for the military, as they do not directly harm anyone, and merely carry cameras. But is the difference so clear-cut? In practice, the vast majority of an armed UAS’s time is spent hunting without the use of its weapons: the targeted killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi “consisted of more than 600 hours of Predator time spent looking for and tracking him, followed by about 10 minutes of F-16 time remodeling the structure he was hiding in.”2 In fact, the Predator was first armed in 2001 long after its introduction in 1995.3

Whether the killer is attached to the hunter is simply a matter of situational preference that does not affect the overall outcome. Obviously, while the Skydio X10D also has high-quality cameras and thermal cameras, it functions differently than the Predator due to its small form factor and short battery life. However, it can still act as a part of a hunter-killer system for real-time ground combat. According to Major James Tay, small UAS can act as an effective “force multiplier” because of their ability to give GPS coordinates for ground-to-ground firepower and provide confirmation that a target has been eliminated.4 Instead of enacting violence with Hellfire missiles, asymmetrical intelligence from seeing “over the hill” allows for increased lethality including the ability to follow targets and update coordinates should they flee the site of initial attack. 

Proponents of surveillance technology in warfare suggest that it allows for more precise targeting, thus reducing civilian casualties. In practice, however, these targeting technologies instead are used to create new targets through techniques such as “pattern of life” analysis. By gathering data on civilian activities deemed signature behaviors of terrorists, a killing can be authorized without having to even know a target’s name. According to reports, individuals involved in the drone program often “have joked about how a group of Pakistani boys doing “jumping jacks” are easily construed as a “terrorist training camp.””5 From the sky, the label of non-combatant evolves to mean someone who has yet to receive designation as a suspect. All those surveilled are suspicious until proven dead: “civilian” becomes solely a retrospective term applied to a life that has ended without being designated a target.6 

This level of surveillance changes warfare away from a focus on military targets towards policing the lives of an entire populace from above. 

It is tempting to view this form of policing as a phenomenon that only happens outside the US, but by moving past the “newness” of drones, we see an old pattern emerge: police surveil a young man from the “suspect” population either by patrol or drone. An officer justifies the routine killing of these targets with little oversight due to a state of exception, triggered by a perceived physical threat to the officer or a terror threat. The identity of the target has little relevance.7 It’s no coincidence that after the military, Skydio’s website’s second “solutions” listing is for the police. Skydio brags that “more than 320 law enforcement agencies rely on Skydio in 49 states and across Canada” and that “no other drone solution serves law enforcement needs like Skydio.”8 In promotional material, they use rhetoric like “officer-involved shooting” to describe an officer returning fire on a suspect.9 Later, they demonstrate how the Skydio drone reduces the time needed to find a suspect in a field and have a K9 unit bite them.10 Note that police dog bites can go through bone and cause lifelong injuries and even death.11 In many jurisdictions, similar to other escalations of force, dog bites are disproportionately inflicted on Black suspects.12 Why is this company allowed access to our classrooms? Why do we have to pretend that unarmed drones are perfect observers that will “make the world more productive, creative, and safe”?13

In August 2023, Skydio ceased to provide consumer drones, beginning to sell only to private companies and the public sector14 — the U.S. military provides a more steady stream of funding than could be received from consumers. This shift marks a company-wide shift towards the defense industry: while Skydio used to boast its work in infrastructure and surveying, its new focus is clearly on the military and police. Of Skydio blog posts since August, about half are focused on defense and police applications.15 Much like how unarmed UAS are justified as ethical in comparison to armed UAS, Skydio allows engineers to justify their choice to work there by contrasting themselves to large weapons manufacturers. Lockheed sells bombs—Skydio sells safety. But who gets to be safe? Whose lives are allowed to be considered precious?  As a community, I hope that we can think more deeply about the systems that our engineering interfaces with and move beyond dismissing critique with phrases like “they’re just cameras” or “they do non-military stuff too.”  Let’s change our norms to see through the different aesthetics and messaging of military-industrial companies and stop working on things that are directly used to enact violence, no matter what form it comes in.

1US supplied bomb that killed 40 children on Yemen school bus | Guardian

2Franz, N. (2017). Targeted killing and pattern-of-life analysis: weaponised media. Media, Culture & Society, 39(1), 111-121. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0163443716673896. (Quote from Lt General David Deptula).

3Kindervater, K. H. (2016). The emergence of lethal surveillance: Watching and killing in the history of drone technology. Security Dialogue, 47(3), 223-238. https://doi.org/10.1177/0967010615616011 

4Group 1 Type: Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) as a Force Multiplier to the Fire Support Team | DTIC

5Tyler Wall, “Ordinary Emergency: Drones, Police, and Geographies of Legal Terror,” Antipode, Volume 48, Issue 4 (September 2016), 1122-1139.

6Neocleous, Mark. “Air Power as Police Power I.” In War Power, Police Power, 138–62. Edinburgh University Press, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt9qdr8p.9.

7Tyler Wall, “Ordinary Emergency: Drones, Police, and Geographies of Legal Terror,” Antipode, Volume 48, Issue 4 (September 2016), 1122-1139.

8Police & Law Enforcement Drones | Skydio 

9Facepalm Pilot: Where Technology Meets Stupidity: An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar | McSweeney’s Internet Tendency 

10The Future of First Response: Oklahoma City Police Department’s Drone Initiative | Skydio 

11We Spent A Year Investigating Police Dogs. Here Are Six Takeaways. | Marshall Project 

12K-9s in question: Bay Area police dogs bite with little consequence | KTVU
(WARNING: Contains gore of woman who had scalp bitten off after shoplifting Ulta)

13About | Skydio 

14Skydio to sunset consumer drone offerings | Skydio 15Newsroom | Skydio