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Minions and witches

Evil genius: Fly, my pretties, fly!

Image credit: LMK media

Drones could very well replace flying monkeys - or minions - to do the dirty work of evil geniuses on a surveillance mission.

When the Wicked Witch of the West wanted some intel on Dorothy and her friends, she sent her troop of troublesome flying monkeys to do her dirty work for her, making flying minions a must for any super villain (green face-paint optional).

However, overlooking the fact that the witch’s monkeys are fictional, surveillance simians may not be a practical option outside of the Land of Oz, so consumer drones could, in theory, be used to do a real-world evil genius’ bidding.

Flying monkeys are large and noisy, making drones a much more practical option for villains. As the monkeys are controlled by the witch with fear (probably), there is a chance they may not be all together truthful, hence one obvious advantage of using drones is that they would provide more reliable surveillance reports.

Off-the-shelf consumer drones are now capable of taking pin-sharp photos and 4K video, with military versions having incredible zoom technology onboard, so you can believe what you see. “One area where drones are superior to the flying monkeys is they have infrared capability, so they can fly at night and they can see things illuminated by body temperature or any other source of heat,” says Professor Peter Lee, director for Security and Risk Research and reader in Politics and Ethics at the University of Portsmouth. And drones’ abilities to see in the dark may be about to get even better.

Of course, drones use cameras as a proxy for eyes, to navigate and avoid bumping into things, as well as for capturing pictures. Researchers at the University of Zurich (UZH) are using eye-inspired ‘event cameras’ to better cope with high-speed motion and enable drones to see better in the dark. The new cameras do not need to capture full light on the entire bio-inspired retina in order to have a clear picture: they need changes in brightness for each pixel, unlike their conventional counterparts, ensuring perfectly sharp vision even during fast motion or in low-light environments.

“This research is the first of its kind in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics and will soon enable drones to fly autonomously and faster than ever, including in low-light environments,” says Davide Scaramuzza, director of the Robotics and Perception Group at UZH.

This means an event camera could assist search and rescue teams in scenarios where conventional drones would be of no use – for example on missions at dusk or dawn, or when there is too little light for normal cameras to work – or, perhaps, they would simply do a much better job on dusk raids than flying monkeys.

Being able to set coordinates and tell flying minions where to go is a huge advantage for super villains over using wilful simians capable of getting up to some serious monkey business. Lee says, for example, the witch could pre-programme a drone to fly in a predictable surveillance route, scanning the ground methodically for Dorothy. However, the next generation of drones will likely have artificial intelligence on board too, potentially giving them the opportunity for disobedience.

One area where the monkeys outperform current consumer drones is cooperating with one another. The idea is that future fleets of drones could fly together as ‘swarms’ and cooperate to survey vast areas. “At the moment I would give monkeys the edge on swarming and navigation simply because, like us, they all have a 3D spatial awareness that is very difficult to replicate technologically,” Lee says. This technology is known as ‘detect and avoid’ but it is very difficult to get drones to swarm and fly ‘as one’ because you have to make sure they don’t hit each other, as well as other obstacles in their desired direction.

The race is on to solve this problem. Unlike piloting a single drone by remote control, operating a fleet requires an automated system to coordinate the task, but allows drones to independently respond to weather, a crash or unexpected events, giving them a level of intelligence and autonomy.

Borzoo Bonakdarpour, an assistant professor of computer science at Iowa State University, says: “The operating system must be reliable and secure. The drones need to talk to one another without a central command telling each unit where to go and what to do when conditions change,” adding that the machines will need to independently make the best use of flying time and their energy to complete a mission.

His team has developed a mathematical model to calculate the cost, time and energy to complete a task based on the number of drones and recharging stations available, but it is only the beginning of making swarms of cooperative drones a reality.

“The monkeys are less likely to hit each other than the drones at the moment, but this could change over the next 10-20 years,” Lee says.

Military drones controlled by human operatives are already used to hit small targets, with devastating accuracy. But could off-the-shelf drones be used to grab a human, just like a flying monkey?

Mike Ryder, a researcher at Lancaster University, says: “If an evil genius was to order their drones to grab a girl like Dorothy, I imagine the drones would actually be quite well equipped to do it. They would also be fairly resilient, so if a few of the swarm [controlled individually by humans] were taken out, other drones could move in to fill their place. In this way, they have the potential to be far more effective than a single drone doing the same thing.”

In ‘The Wizard of Oz’, we don’t see whether the witch looks after her flying troop well but monkeys have the potential to rebel against evil despots, and drones could soon go rogue too. “If a drone was fully autonomous – a weapon drone – then logic says it would be free to change sides,” Lee says. One way of ensuring this could not happen would be great programming to put some constraints upon it.

However, a group of famous scientists have proposed a complete ban on developing autonomous machines capable of doing harm, such as weaponised surveillance drones – or the equivalent of armed flying monkeys – to ensure they do not turn on their human operators or do harm.

Elon Musk, Noam Chomsky, Martin Rees and the late Stephen Hawking are among the engineers and scientists to have signed the Future of Life Institute’s open letter which says: “Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.”

Lee highlights that coders have the potential to be ‘witches’ or the people calling the shots in the future because they are the ones who will decide when and how drones will behave. Whether these drones will ever be autonomous or weaponised remains to be seen.

While there’s only one Wicked Witch of the West, the possibility that drones could fall into the wrong hands is relatively high, as the technology is so cheap and easy to get hold of. “In this way, I suppose the danger isn’t so much a swarm of flying monkeys, but rather a horde of Wicked Witches, each with their own pack of flying monkeys,” Ryder argues. “Shops are quite literally stacking their shelves with flying monkeys ready to be bought up by whichever Wicked Witch should come along and decide to put them to use.”

Whether a super villain should opt for technology over furry minions depends on the task at hand, Lee says. “If I were a witch and wanted creative mischief with a current autonomous capability, I would choose the monkeys,” he muses. “But if I had a more defined task and I need reliability, whether that’s surveillance or the military side and I want to target someone, then I’d take the drones.”

While this scenario is a flight of fancy, the possibility of semi- or fully autonomous consumer drones that could be easily weaponised falling into evil hands is likely. If we do face a future where dictators and villains have the technological equivalent of a troop of flying monkeys, perhaps we should develop some ruby slippers pronto to allow us to return home (or somewhere less threatening).

As Dorothy says: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

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