Flying lawnmowers that haunt west Wales

Richard Marggraf Turley examines Wales’ role in research into unmanned aerial vehicles

1819’s fad, dismissed by John Keats as the “nothing of the day”, was a two-wheeled, peddleless precursor to the bicycle called the velocipede. Fashionable riders of this cock horse à-la-mode sat astride a brightly painted perch and propelled themselves along. An adept could manage 8-10 mph, keeping pace with a trotting horse. The sensation was said to be like skating. Early adopters imagined roads filled with civilian velocipedes, to the chagrin of ostlers and carriage-makers.

But darker visions soon emerged. The Tickler conjured the spectre of squadrons of rapidly mobilized “dandy dragoons”, adding that “such a corps might be very useful for home service”. Unlike horses, velocipedes didn’t need to be fed or stabled. What’s more, “if the head of a dandy charger was shot off” by a protester at some “public spectacle”, the rider could simply dismount and “nail it on again”.

Fads aside, there are striking parallels between Britain in 1819 and 2013. The master theme of both ages is the War on Terror (al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Wikileaks, whistleblowers versus the French Revolution and its anti-monarchist sympathizers). Both periods eagerly co-opt new technologies for military purposes, and both put in place a formidable system of “home service” surveillance. The post-Napoleonic War years, with their vast networks of spies, infiltrators and routine letter interception, was not a good time to voice criticisms of government. Neither is 2013. Snowden’s revelations confirm that GCHQ reads and routinely stores our electronic communications, exploiting NSA back doors into internet services used by millions. In his 1798 poem Frost at Midnight, Coleridge lamented that a “secret ministry of frost” was laying a chill over political debate in Britain. That frost is back with a vengeance. Perhaps we already think twice before “liking” Wikileaks on Facebook. Perhaps we pause before tweeting about drones in Wales.

Developments in drone research, indeed, are set to tighten the frost’s fingers around political debate. So let’s look at Wales’s role in this research. For almost a decade, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been flying out of West Wales Airport, part of the Welsh Government’s technology centre at ParcAberporth. It used to be the only privately owned aeronautical facility in Europe where both military and civilian drones could be tested alongside manned aircraft. Now, as a recent announcement at September’s DSEI arms fair in London’s docklands has revealed, Newquay Cornwall Airport will become an “integrated part” of operations at Aberporth. Welsh drones to Cornwall. Is this the kind of export we should be proud of?

A third piece of the UAV jigsaw fell into place in September. As John Cox, Chair of CND Cymru, reported on ClickOnWales last week (here) Edwina Hart, Welsh Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, announced she had signed an agreement with defence and security company QinetiQ to develop Llanbedr Airfield near Harlech for drone testing. Where CND deplores research into “remote-killing machines”, Hart speaks of “enterprise zones”. The fact remains, drones appear to be a Welsh boom business.

Except that the economic benefits have yet to be felt. In a much bandied-about figure, the University of Southampton and Teal Group consultancy estimate the annual UAV market could be worth $55bn-$62bn per year by 2020. To date, far from the 1,000 jobs predicted by Welsh Government, only 40 people are employed at ParcAberporth, with a dozen or so more working at the airport. In February, Ceredigion’s Lib Dem MP, Mark Williams, told the Daily Mail that, “despite a lot of public money being spent, there is not much evidence of economic development on the ground” (16.2.13). A poor return, then, for £17 million or so of Welsh taxes.

Ray Mann, owner of West Wales Airport, is quick to emphasize the civil market as a potential driver of future economic growth (BBC interview, 11.9.13). Certainly, there are exciting roles for UAVs in environmental conservation, logistics, monitoring pipelines, fighting forest fires, aid drops, and in search and rescue. However, the decision to announce the news of the Newquay partnership at the world’s biggest arms fair speaks volumes. The vast majority of buy-in is military. As Mann recently conceded to the Financial Times, “the problem for the civil industry is that we don’t have a big customer saying ‘please build me one of these’ ” (9.9.13).

A fortnight ago 100 campaigners staged a protest outside West Wales Airport, timed to co-incide with the DSEI arms fair, condemning the fact that technologies whose primary use is military are being researched in Wales, and supported by Welsh taxes. The issue is how we choose to project Wales into the world. To be sure, the Watchkeeper drone doesn’t itself carry missiles – as its name suggests, the system is used for intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition. However, its specifications include a laser designator, synthetic aperture radar/ground-moving target indicator and range finder. The lingo is that of precision, of pinpoint accuracy. We should suspend what Coleridge called our “believing minds”.

In March the Guardian published a visualization of every drone strike in Pakistan since 2004, using data from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (25.3.13). The statistics tell a chilling story. Out of an estimated total death count of 3,149 (75.9 per cent), 535 (17 per vcent) were civilian casualties, and 175 (5 per cent) were children. In other words, even assuming 76 per cent of drone strikes kill non-civilians – a big assumption, since for counting purposes the US include any male of military age in that category – 21 per cent have killed civilians or children. When these heads are shot off, they can’t be nailed back on.

Another chilling development is the use of controversial ‘signature strikes’, the existence of which was only recently acknowledged by the US and its European allies. Targets are selected based on behaviour analysis, rather than on specific intelligence. If, seen from the air, a column of moving cars acts like a military convoy rather than the wedding or funeral procession it might in fact be, it becomes a viable military target. Wrongly selected – and eliminated – targets have become a mundane fact of the War on Terror. Their reporting hardly raises an eyebrow in the West. How many of us remember the 30 October 2006 drone strike on a religious school (alleged to be a Taliban training camp) that killed 81-83, of whom 69 were children and 12 were civilians? Was this a mere blip in the technology, or a war crime?

Residents of Aberporth are driven to distraction by the ‘flying lawnmowers’ that buzz incessently overhead, but at least there’s zero chance of fire raining down on their houses. Further afield, remote weapons have damaged a whole generation of children. As Dr Peter Schaapveld, a clinical and forensic psychologist, told Channel 4 News earlier this year, a trip to Yemen to assess the psychological impact of drone strikes revealed “hollowed-out shells of children”, children who vomit when they hear the sound of UAVs above them.

Is Aberporth – and Wales – insulated from such appalling facts on the (far-off) ground? Or is it part of an equation that dehumanizes war and its victims? An equation that includes such argot as to drone (verb), to kill someone in a drone strike, and bug splat (noun), denoting casualties of drone strikes, since that is what it looks like in the screen.

But are drone strikes any different, in philosophical terms, from a laser-guided bomb, a manned aircraft strike or even a crossbow bolt? Isn’t it all action at a distance? Of course, the point can be argued, but a significant philosophical differentiator looks set to arrive in the form of artificial intelligence (AI). Today’s remotely piloted drones look certain to be simply a stage towards fully autonomous systems. I can’t be the only one thinking that Aberporth’s 500 square miles of restricted Welsh airspace (a deal brokered in 2011 by QinetiQ on behalf of Welsh Government) would be ideal for allowing autonomous UAVs to be put through their paces alongside manned aircraft.

Daniel Suarez, author of the popular Daemon and Kill Decision novels, argued in a 2013 TED talk that once AI is installed into UAVs, lethal autonomy – drones capable of making kill decisions for themselves – won’t be far behind. Suarez demands an international treaty banning robotic weapons. I would be proud if the Welsh Government, with its special vantage point on drone warfare, would support such a ban.

Doubtless, advocates of AI drones will invoke civilian applications. However, if the past is any guide to the future, the military will be the prime investor. Just as wooden dandy chargers could be sent against protesters without fear of injuring flesh-and-blood horses, artificially intelligent drones will take difficult decisions without the risk of traumatizing human drone operators in New Mexico. And make no mistake, just as with 1819’s velocipedes, “home service” will be as important as overseas deployment. You don’t need to be a futurist to know that autonomous drones will soon be monitoring civilian populations, their visible (and invisible) presence a powerful tool for behaviour management.

UAVs have already played a role in the drastic expansion of state “inspective force” – Jeremy Bentham’s phrase from Panopticon (1791) – monitoring crowds, picking out faces. Already DARPA’s Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance imaging system (ARGUS), equipped with a 1.8-gigapixel camera, is capable of surveying a whole city at once from 20,000 feet.

Modern pattern recognition software can already parse my movements from yours, and by combining face detection with gait recognition, we can both be tracked through a crowd (with linked CCTV, through a city). This is what “home service” means. And as Coleridge understood 200 years ago, holed up, under governmental surveillance himself in the “populous village” of Nether Stowey (Frost at Midnight), we act and speak differently if we know we’re being watched. That’s what a political frost is. The future arrived in the Romantic period – the age that first imagined, first reflected on, the total surveillance state.

What chills most, perhaps, is the fact so many of us appear to have blithely accepted surveillance – watch-keeping – as something inevitable, or even, with our “believing minds”, desirable. We’ve become normalised to the restrictions it places on us. But let us be under no illusion that in Wales, with its current and future military research into remote technologies, we find ourselves at the centre of issues with global ramifications. The Welsh Government’s stance on our own “populous villages” of Aberporth and Llanbedr says something profound about our view of the world, and our sense of Wales’s place in it.

Richard Marggraf Turley is Professor of Engagement with the Public Imagination at Aberystwyth University

3 thoughts on “Flying lawnmowers that haunt west Wales

  1. I sympathise with the sentiments behind this article but I would like to ask some questions. What the author objects to is the US (and Israeli )policy of using drones to strike against ill-identified targets in an undeclared ‘war’. I agree. He also objects to the wholesale surveillance of citizens by their government under the cover of ‘security’ or the ‘war on terror’. Again I agree. Indeed I cancelled my subscription to the Labour Party and diverted the money to Liberty in protest at the Blair government’s cavalier attitude to civil liberties. So one question is: shouldn’t we be objecting to our government (UK and Wales) using surveillance techniques and demand publicity and accountability. And shouldn’t we be objecting to our government consistently supporting US foreign policy whatever Uncle Sam does. Objecting to research and testing of unmanned vehicles seems a rather oblique way of opposing the things we really detest. Especially as unmanned vehicles can have all sorts of peaceful uses. Surely the key questions are: is there really any ‘research’ going on at Aberporth or is it merely testing vehicles designed and built elsewhere? If the latter, are the vehicles being tested military or owned by the military? My attitude would be: research into unmanned aircraft – yes; simply doing final testing of specifically military vehicles – no. I don’t think we should turn our back on technology simply because it can be misapplied. If so, you wouldn’t buy a bread knife. Equally, we shouldn’t be purely furthering its misapplication.

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