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Marvin Gaye once sang: ‘war is not the answer’. In the complex socio-ecological-economic systems we live in there are no answers, no solutions, only interventions that move us one way or another. That said, it should not surprise us that those aspects of our way of living with the most primal implications for our continued existence – as individuals or as societies – attract the greatest funding. This priority of existential anxieties may explain why so much technology is developed through the ‘defence’ sector. It may be wrong-headed to see the defence industry as one of our first lines of existential defence but it isn't difficult to understand why this has come to be the status quo.

Robotic aircraft – drones – are much debated military technology. Will they bring about a change in the ‘fight’ part of our ‘fight or flight’ conduct as profound as the introduction of the longbow? Who knows? Surely, though, while this change in military capability challenges our shared senses of threat and protection, robotic aircraft will also, more quietly, be changing the way we do all kinds of other important things.

Much scientific research, especially in Earth science, already makes extensive use of manned aircraft, often military cast-offs, and is beginning to see the potential for use of aerial robots. We will be using a robotic helicopter to take air samples above Ascension Island and so help unpick the global budget of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. We are also involved in the use of theultra-long-range Global Hawk robotic aircraft for making measurements of air flowing into the ozone layer high above the tropical west Pacific. Others have used robotic aircraft to study volcanoes, ice sheets, or the pall of brown air that flows out from south and east Asia at times. There is a growing sense that robotic aircraft will effect a step-change in our ability to sense the environment. In providing strategies to answer some of the most pressing issues in climate change and natural hazards this research addresses some of the most profound, if not the most obvious, existential issues of our time. All that stands between us and these new robot deployments is uncertainty about the ‘rules of engagement’: how to operate the robots in spaces shared with people.

Many civil and commercial uses for robotic aircraft have been identified: there are clear benefits for taking the air crew out of operations that are ‘dull, dangerous, and dirty’. Dull, repetitive operations (scanning fuel pipelines for leaks, say) tax human endurance to the point where safety can be compromised. Dangerous operations, such as tackling forest fires, expose air crews to severe risks. Dirty operations – fires again, but also smogs and other less immediately threatening pollution plumes – also put crews in danger. Robotic aircraft can use the weight saved by not carrying people and their life-support systems to greatly extend range and time on duty.

The major challenge to civil use of robotic aircraft will not be overcoming our distaste for handling the weapons of war – see how readily we've taken to GPS – but rather overcoming our fears of allowing robots into our societies. We are, quite rightly, nervous of ceding control of any large object to artificial intelligence. It is comforting to know that there is a pilot at the helm of a passenger aircraft. However, putting a pilot at the helm of a long, monotonous mission in a remote location may not always be the lowest risk option. Testing public acceptance of robotic aircraft in civil and commercial operations such as this should not be forgotten among the arguments on war.

Professor Rob MacKenzie and Dr Rick Thomas
School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
University of Birmingham