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GRAVES: To drone or not to drone?

Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent  One of the proofs that a rule of thumb really does have general applicability is its relevance even in extreme conditions. Thus, proof, at least for me, that it really does hold true that you can find a meaningful silver lining in pretty much every dark cloud (as well as the reverse) includes the eventual silver-plated benefits to humanity emanating out of the darkest of clouds, that of war.

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Thus, for example, enormous advances in food preservation came out of the American Civil War, eradicating hunger for millions. Air traffic control systems, helping to make air travel the safest means of transportation, were born in the Great War, the 100th anniversary of which we are now on the verge of commemorating. A medical advance from that same war came, distastefully, from the use of mustard gas. (This one registers particularly with me because my wife’s grandfather, Arnold Bickett, had been gassed in the Battle of the Argonne Forest and suffered from a slight but deep cough from the experience for the rest of his life.) Siddhartha Mukherjee, in “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” notes that it was the medical condition of mustard gas survivors which provided medical researchers their first clues about fighting cancer with chemotherapy drugs.

So, remembering that I am only pointing to silver linings, tiny benefits from the horrors of war and certainly not serendipitous pay-offs that can or should be used to justify such, what sort of benefits do we suppose will come from more modern warfare? Well, has at least one answer — drones.

The American military began using drones in earnest over the last decade because of the specific complexities and nature of war in the Middle East. Drones are used to keep watch on suspected terrorists, enemy combatants and IED planters without putting American military personnel in harm’s way. They are also used to deliver highly targeted, highly deadly payloads to enemy objectives as specific as single individuals. Astonishing.

Even more astonishing is the fact that private enterprise is now investing heavily in drones for non-military purposes. Drones will be — strike that — are already being used to improve maps and to increase the precision of agriculture, already significantly enhanced of late. (Our own MTI has a highly successful program training people in this now.) But this is just tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. Entrepreneurs are convinced that drones can be made so efficient and so economical within the next few years that they can be used for personal shopping and pizza delivery. From the stuff of science fiction to the most mundane, from wiping out terrorists to wiping out the craving for pepperoni, in less than a generation.

Imagine, then, my enthusiasm for this new technology in schools. Need to keep better tabs on the little ones during recess? Send out the drone to hover above the playgrounds. (“Helicopter parenting” won’t be just for parents anymore.) Lunch room too loud at the middle school? Scramble the drones to monitor sound levels and issue robot-inflected warnings about inside voices. Hallway behavior troubling? Bathroom hijinks getting you down? Gender-less drones don’t mind surveying such activities for endless amounts of time and never waiver in their relentless vigilance.

Am I serious? No, frankly, I’m not. But at the beginning of my career I would have never believed we would line school hallways with cameras or provide computers to students on a one-to-one basis. Each year, it seems, we are faced with a “brave new world.” Whether the meaning of that tends more to Shakespeare’s ironic use of the phrase in “The Tempest” or Huxley’s frightening use of it in the title of his still-compelling book, though, is precisely the question.