Why Seattle needs drones

The mayor's "no" on drones puts Seattle at the center of a nascent discussion about the role of high-tech tools in city government.
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Mike McGinn addressing a Town Hall meeting at Nathan Hale High School in 2011

The mayor's "no" on drones puts Seattle at the center of a nascent discussion about the role of high-tech tools in city government.

Drones don't frighten me. Military and law enforcement agencies with drones? Now that's scary.

President Obama's nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, faced tough questions recently about the U.S. military's use of drones to carry out targeted assassinations of American citizens without due process. As head of the National Security Council, Brennan helped make drones the centerpiece in the global War on Terror.

There's no reason to think Brennan sought to subvert the Constitution, or carry out attacks that a current United Nations' investigation calls potential "war crimes." But when military operations become orders of magnitude more efficient without putting U.S. lives at-risk (in the short term, at least), they become, well, just too easy.

That's why Mayor McGinn made the right call last week when he instructed the Seattle Police Department to end its experimental drone program.

When I first met McGinn in 2006, the first thing he said to me was "Tell me about this Facebook thing." A week later he was hatching ideas about how to use Facebook for his nonprofit's organizing efforts. I went on to become candidate McGinn's spokesperson in the 2009 mayoral primary, and helped Seattle become one of the first partners in the Code for America program.

Many will see this move from a Mayor who has always been eager to adopt new technologies as a win for civil liberties and police accountability. I would argue that killing the police drone program could become McGinn’s biggest technology accomplishment, and perhaps his most important legacy as Mayor.

Cities will play a major role in shaping how drones and other high-tech tools are used, or not used in our society. Municipalities, more than the federal government or legislative bodies, govern the physical reality we live in. While federal authorities may try to promote drone use, control rests with the cities. The drone industry has already targeted city police departments (and farms) as the most promising sector for growth.

McGinn is the first major city mayor to stop drone use, which places Seattle at the center of conversations and even regulations about their use around the country. This matters because drones aren’t just a niche civil liberties issue. They are part of the future of managing cities. Look at developments such as IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative or the growing influence of President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer, and you’ll see that high-tech tools (robotics, artificial intelligence, drones, etc.) are the drivers of 21st century approaches to governance. Our ability to cut-costs, protect the environment, repair old infrastructure, and fulfill other key government roles will depend on how we leverage these new technologies — and restrict their use.

McGinn could chalk up his drone ban as a win and move-on. Or he and his administration could treat it as step-one in an effort to lead the nation in sensible approaches to robotics and AI in government. While drone surveillance is a serious threat to privacy, Seattle and the region could also use these new technologies to monitor the environment or infrastructure, help formulate transportation policy or coordinate disaster response.

If the “big one” hits, aerial drones with thermal detectors could help identify victims trapped under rubble and save lives. If a quake destroys cell-phone towers and communication infrastructure, drones with microwave or LTE technology could keep first responders and citizens in touch. On a more mundane level, drones with machine-vision technology could identify potholes and monitor road conditions. With drones bouncing laser signals off of icy streets, snow-plows and de-icers could get real-time directives sending them to the most dangerous city streets.

Like drones with sensors, other forms of artificial intelligence can help us solve some of the region’s most vexing problems. Does anyone really believe we’ll be able to build enough roads and mass transit to accommodate the 600,000 people expected to move into the region in the next 15 years? Self-driving cars, now legal in three states, may be the most efficient option for regional transportation policy.

If we designated I-5, 405, and 520 “auto-pilot only,” we could dramatically reduce congestion without building any more roads. If we expanded the auto-pilot program to the busiest city streets, we could turn our entire road network into one big distributed mass-transit system. It’s still early, but self-driving cars are proving to be orders of magnitude safer than human drivers. An auto-pilot system could make Seattle the safest city in the country to drive or bike in. If all of this sounds unrealistic or expensive, we could always double the size of I-5 or 405 for a few billion dollars.

Unlocking the potential of these technologies won’t be about just saying yes to everything. City leaders will have to earn community trust, encourage innovation, and be wise enough to say no to technology that violates our values — or flat out doesn’t work.

Drones aren’t inevitable. No technology is, despite all the claims by futurist prophets. Wise and entrepreneurial city leaders are our best hope for choosing the best technical solutions. With thoughtful nuanced policies, Seattle can lead the way, inviting innovation, protecting civil rights and setting an example for other cities around the world. That approach will attract the talent and the industries who want to build the future with us.

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