This article is part of Privacy in the Pandemic, a new series from Future Tense.
The coronavirus pandemic has crippled the world, and drone users have spent the past two months trying to figure out their technology can help battle the virus. There’s lots of talk of using drones to deliver medical supplies and to sanitize streets, but not much of this is happening in the wild. Mostly, we’re using speaker-carrying drones to yell at people. The pandemic shout drone first hit the internet in early February, when Chinese authorities used some to startle grandmothers. Police would speak through the drone and tell people to wear masks or to go home. Soon after, Italian, Spanish, and French authorities all fielded their own shout drones for quarantine enforcement, and the rest of the world followed suit. In the United States, authorities have used them in Daytona Beach, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and Honolulu. In Wyckoff, New Jersey, police used one to sing “Happy Birthday” to socially distanced children.
Most speaker-carrying shout drones appear to be DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise models. It’s a nifty, foldable drone first released in 2018 by the ubiquitous Chinese drone maker DJI, and it’s used by both pros and consumers. The Mavic 2 Enterprise comes equipped with a one-way, 100-decibel speaker capable of playing custom voice recordings, which allows the drone pilot to talk to someone on the ground (or play a series of recordings). This is quite useful for people like firefighters and search and rescue workers, who can use the drone to issue instructions and orders from afar. Drone pilots also like to use it to scare the snot out of friends with their backs turned.
In one light, I welcome the shout drone, because it is evidence that small drones will not actually bring about total world surveillance. Authorities largely aren’t using drones to actively track and punish people who break quarantine, in the sort of terrifying and pervasive ways depicted in science fiction and particularly breathless YouTube videos. Instead of using drones to persistently monitor people, authorities are largely using them to periodically yell at rule-breaking people in a gimmicky way, as a form of coronavirus surveillance theater.
The coronavirus epidemic is demonstrating that small drones are lousy at doing the type of nightmarish, persistent surveillance at scale needed to enforce a quarantine. While I certainly could track a naughty quarantine breaker with my drone for a bit, I would only be able to do so for about 25 or 30 minutes. The quarantine breaker in question would almost certainly notice I was doing it (drones are loud and covered in blinking lights) and respond accordingly. It is also very difficult to ID individuals from even rather low-altitude aerial imagery, so I’d still probably need to follow the person to their house (and then I’d be stuck, since I can’t fly the thing inside).
To effectively do this type of persistent surveillance, you need a lot of skilled drone pilots, a lot of drones, and a lot of batteries, all of which cost money and time. If you’re trying to track people, there are simpler and more effective ways to do it, like monitoring mobile phone use to simply tasking someone to drive around in a car. Yelling at people with a drone occasionally for dramatic effect—with the implication, perhaps, that you’re monitoring the situation with a drone much more often than you actually are—is much cheaper and easier to do. It would be even cheaper and more practical to just have a guy drive around with a car and a megaphone—but that’s not the sort of thing that inspires upbeat news reports about how we’re using technology to beat the coronavirus.
There are, perhaps, some practical uses for shout drones. Police in Chula Vista, a California city near San Diego, recently announced that they would consider using their speaker-equipped drones to inform homeless people residing in remote canyons about the coronavirus situation and the services that they may be able to access. (As of this writing, they have not actually used drones in this way.) According to a police spokesperson who I spoke with, the Chula Vista PD believes that sending an officer on foot into these regions, as is their usual habit, would be dangerous and time-consuming for their officers. They think that a speaker-carrying drone can convey the message inexpensively and safely.
While this is not an unreasonable idea, there is still a central problem here: Shout drones are creepy, and creepy in a way that is alienating, in the midst of a crisis in which human connection is both dangerous and critical. While I don’t doubt that most shout-drone users have good and public health–minded intentions, they must admit that they are still yelling at people with a flying, faceless mechanical helicopter that looks like a weird bug.
The visual creepiness of shout drones is compounded by the fact that disembodied voices are deeply disconcerting. The French critic and composer Michel Chion has written extensively on the power and strangeness of disembodied voices, which he dubs “acousmatic”— a “sound hat is heard without its cause or source being seen” (which can describe mechanical objects, like radios or telephones or drones). The voice itself he calls the acousmêtre, an invisible being that is a sort of “talking and acting shadow”: a voice that you cannot attach to a face.
A casual telephone conversation with a stranger isn’t creepy because you are expecting it the disembodied voice. But it’s different when the faceless voice appears to have power over us or, even worse, seems like it can see us when we can’t see it. Think of the inherent creepiness of speakers in public places that issue commands but give us no visual information on who is doing the talking—a concept that Aldous Huxley illustrated in Brave New World, in which the heroes navigate a dystopia full of whispering, imploring, electronic speakers that issue directions and subliminal suggestions.
While the police may reassure people on Twitter that their shout drones aren’t actually capturing video, or stalking people, the public has no way of knowing that this is actually true. All the public sees is a creepy robotic helicopter that may be capable of doing or seeing anything and is speaking with a voice that cannot be attached to a human being. It is not a recipe for fostering public trust. During times of fear and uncertainty, human beings become even more reliant upon personal relationships and trust—and more likely to lose that trust, over time, in institutions that they believe have failed them during their time of need. This is particularly important for especially vulnerable populations, like homeless people and the undocumented, who are often already disinclined to trust what authorities tell them.
“The person-to-person approach, rather than an impersonal drone, is much more likely to elicit the kind of outcomes that I think people would be hoping for in this situation,” says Eric Tars, the legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, of efforts to communicate with the public in this way. “And it does require more of an investment of people and it does require putting some of them at risk, but if you are choosing to send out a drone instead of a person, then you have to question—is that just transferring the risk to the people experiencing homelessness? And is that a fair or an ethical thing to do?”
While shout drones may seem like a useful tool for public communication, I am worried that this trend (and that is what it is) will actually do more harm to the public’s willingness to comply with quarantine regulations than good. We have ample evidence that community-based approaches to policing and law enforcement achieve better results than more hands-off and detached methods. Police in the U.K. received harsh criticism recently for using a drone to shame people for walking outside, on the grounds that it was a “police state”–like overreach of their power. Authorities in New Jersey have recently received the same criticism over using a drone to shout warnings at people in cities.
Ultimately, shout drones are tools of distance, a way for authorities and others to, in essence, project their voices into a moving mechanical object in a way that minimizes the risk to themselves and their physical bodies. While authorities may understandably not want to risk getting the coronavirus, from an ethical perspective, that fear does not necessarily outweigh the importance of getting lifesaving information to people using a method that they can trust. The shout drone is an interesting trick in the coronavirus playbook, but it is no substitute for the harder, riskier work of helping the public survive the pandemic. Sometimes, we must face our fears—and the public—in person.