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The Dark Side of Drone Technologies: Tedx Talk

Encyclopedia Geopolitica is pleased to share Dr James Rogers’ latest talk – through the Tedx platform – on the risks, history and future trajectories of drone technologies. 


For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


In a field, slightly outside of Gatwick Airport – the UK’s second largest airport with over 40 million passengers per year – a small hobbyist quadcopter, or drone, was spotted flying high in the night sky. It was a single and simple drone, like the kind you can buy from Amazon for $50, hovering near the main runway. With its distinctive green and red lights flashing, it danced about, and then it disappeared. It was from this point onwards that the chaos began.

The sighting of one small drone, quickly turned into over 90 confirmed reports of ‘industrial quality’ drones causing havoc in the skies above the airport. A game of cat and mouse ensued, and the police desperately searched for the drone, or indeed the many drones, that were causing the trouble. Astonishingly, this carried on for the next three days, and by the end of an anxious and chaotic period, over 1,000 flights had been cancelled, diverted, or delayed. But, what actually happened here?

Well, put simply, it’s been over six months since this infamous event and we still don’t know. Two people – an innocent man and woman from the nearby town of Crawley – were arrested and then released without charge. The prime minister sent in the British Army with their high-tech counter-drone technologies. And speculation ran rife, with some accusing the Russians of mischief making, others putting it down to terrorist infiltration, and a few believing there was never any drones at all – apparently it was all just a mass hysteria and panic over nothing but the fear of the drone itself.

Now, we don’t know which of those explanations is true and, really it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that the Gatwick debacle showed us ‘Rogue Drones’ cannot currently be adequately controlled. It is the ‘rogueness’ that causes the public fear and anxiety about the drone. We fear them in the skies above us, because we know what they are capable off and that we are vulnerable. A drone can be above us, next to us, or horrifyingly outside our plane window as we are about to land at an international airport. We do not know who is controlling it, and the trouble is that there are currently few measures that can effectively trace, track, and disable these tiny drone systems.

This week, threats by environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion hit the headlines. A leaked memo from the group highlighted their plans to use drones to shutdown Heathrow – Europe’s largest airport – during “non-violent direct action” being held from June 18th. Airport bosses have suggested this could put passengers at risk, whilst the police have raised broader worries about how drones could be used in swarms, or in partnership with other emerging technologies such as “artificial intelligence, facial recognition, encrypted communications, and 3D printing”. As Claire Dimmock, a Sergeant in the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit has stated, this is “painting a frightening picture” about what the future of both terrorist and rogue drone use may look like in the UK. But how viable is this? What is the history of this threat? And what can be done to stop it? Well, in my latest TedX talk I explore all these questions, whilst taking a deeper look at the darker side of drone technologies and the kind of drone future we want to see. Enjoy the talk and feel free to comment and ask questions on here, in the YouTube comments, or on Twitter @DrJamesRogers.

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Dr James Rogers is Assistant Professor in War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark and Visiting Research Fellow within the Department of International Security Studies at Yale University. In October 2019 James will take up the position of SCANCOR Visiting Fellow at Stanford University. Dr Rogers focuses his research on drone warfare and contemporary security policy, and has previously been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, the International Journal of Human Rights, International Peacekeeping and the Guardian.

His co-authored book, Drone Warfare: Concepts and Controversies, is forthcoming with Manchester University Press (2019).

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Christopher Michel

Written by James Rogers

Dr James Rogers is Associate Lecturer in International Politics at the University of York and Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford. Twitter: @DrJamesRogers