Deutsche Bahn Drones: Are Omnipresent Drones Actually a Good Thing?


Imagine orchestrating an entire war in Iraq from Las Vegas, Nevada, with a diet coke in one hand, and a remote control in the other. Drones, also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), give us the ability to realize the fantasy of remote piloting. And now that this technology exists, countries are beginning to creatively expand their horizons, wondering how to use this innovation beyond the bounds of war. Germany, for instance, is beginning to test drones for the use of surveillance to prevent graffiti spraying on their trains. The small floating cameras in Germany's railway station are still in the testing stages, and have been met with both disapproval and concern. But such use of existing technology for the benefit of society must not only be tolerated; it must be encouraged. The equipment exists, and the world is evolving too quickly for that equipment to rust in the shadow of fear and uncertainty.

It was only after September 11, 2001 that the United States began seriously using these remote aircraft. With drones, soldiers could now wage war by operating cameras and flying planes from as far as 7,000 miles away from the battlefield, and still come home to their families after a day at work. This kept people who would otherwise be endangering their lives safe. It allowed for longer hours of operation, more precise targeting, and less collateral damage. But those who protested drone warfare worried that it was too much like a video game: war would become too easy. Without the burden of responsibility of sending our boys to fight halfway across the world, would politicians be quicker to agree to military intervention? The answer to this difficult question is still in the making.

But the existence of this technology is undeniably fascinating. It is a goldmine of possibilities for the future of surveillance, security, and crime prevention. Only a few days ago, on May 28, the Deutsche Bahn national railway in Germany decided to explore the possibilities of using the unmanned robot-helicopter to identify graffiti-sprayers and break the habit. Every year, the Deutsche Bahn spends an estimated $10,000,000 to clean graffiti off of railway cars. They hope that the use of the drone technology combined with the presence of security guards will prevent further vandalism, and help spot the graffitists that make their way inside.

Although these drones are still in the experimental phase, they have been met with German unease. To begin with, 3% of Germans requested to have their houses blurred on Google maps because they felt that their personal lives were being invaded. So the thought of being watched by scrutinizing drones is far from appealing to them. But the concept also disturbs some of the citizens because it rings a distant bell of invasion of privacy from about 80 years ago: the constant presence of the Nazi secret police in East Germany. That is not a bell that anyone wants to hear ring again. But should it deter advancement?

Lawyers defending the graffitists claim that the use of drones for surveillance is like "shooting a canon at birds" or "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut." Perhaps they are right that this use of drones is excessive. But innovation needs to start somewhere. The courage and intelligence needed to creatively transform existing technology for use in everyday lives to build a stronger and safer society needs an antecedent. And that starting place, that antecedent, just may be the Deutsche Bahn.