Since Henry Ford got going, the internal combustion engine has been responsible for many untimely deaths and generating vast quantities of war machinery and pollutants. But it has also driven (no pun intended) a mobility revolution that has transformed our lives and prosperity. I live in a corner of rural England where few people of my grandparents generation traveled further than 20 miles - a day's walk - from their homes in a lifetime and counted themselves lucky to own a bicycle. Now my neighbours commute to Bristol - over 30 miles away - and spend their holidays on the other side of the planet. If I counted up how many countries I've worked in it would include every continent except Antartica, and around 40% of the world's nation-states.
Earlier this year a Sky News cameraman was killed whilst getting footage of riots in Cairo - could that footage have been had more safely and perhaps more effectively by a drone? After all helicopters are regularly used for this purpose, without any ethical concern. The BBC think so and have been experimenting with drones as TV camera platforms http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24712136. Drones have also been used to help rapidly identify displaced people in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and will probably become a significant component of the domestic search and rescue infrastructure in most countries in the near future. Why? Because drones can be on station 24/7 at the fraction of the cost of a plane or helicopter, monitoring an affected area and providing real-time information to guide the deployment of precious search and rescue teams - saving more lives.
My Dragonfly colleague Darren White has extensive expertise in operating small drones and we have been working with a manufacturer to develop a high quality system for both media camerawork and humanitarian search and rescue. These systems are especially suited to very high risk environments, or where conventional access is limited. We are very interested in testing out the utility of one of these systems in Syria, and would like to hear from organsiations that have similar aspirations.
Ultimately, drones are part of a wider technological revolution (which includes Skype and social media) - one that began with the telephone - which allows us to be in two places at once. To meaningfully interact with people and places in our neighborhood and in another remote (from us) location simultaneously. Philosophers would no doubt tell us that all of these technologies are redefining the meaning of distance and "space". We like being in two places at once, and we find it very useful. If we didn't we wouldn't buy mobile phones or subscribe to Facebook and Twitter.