Stories on unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones, have become one of the 2012 news zeitgeists. Every week new stories emerge: about their war use in Rolling Stone, their future with police departments in the New Yorker, other uses in Popular Mechanics, the Border Patrol's controversial (and possibly ineffective) use of them in the L.A. Times their purchase by police in Seattle Times. Drones are here. Drones are everywhere.
Why? It's a compelling subject. Nobody knows how small and invasive drones will get — some are the size of a hummingbird — and lots of legitimate questions remain about whether government will be able to use them responsibly.
But when we began reporting this week's cover story "Homeland Droneland," we learned that speculation was only half the story. Drones, in fact, have been here in the Pacific Northwest for years. There's an Idaho farmer who built one to monitor his crops. There's the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol flying predators along the northern border. There's the U.S. government partnering with universities to look for endangered animals and even document a dam removal project on the Olympic Peninsula.
And while the prospects of surveillance by flying robots is definitely alarming, the potential for the peaceful use of drones, according to researchers, is nearly limitless.
The big question, which we can't answer, remains: can we figure out how to channel these mechanical wonderbots for purposes of good? Or will drones just become more eyes in an increasingly prying society?