Saturday, October 12, 2013

At Drone Conference, Talk of Morals and Toys October 11, 2013 At Drone Conference, Talk of Morals and Toys By MATT FLEGENHEIMER The people came for the technology, certainly, and for the flying demonstrations they were promised. They came to find the hobbyists and dreamers who shared their vision of drones as a force of good — or at least good business. They did not come for this. “Find a partner,” a philosophy professor instructed on Friday from the stage at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference, held at New York University. “I would like you to look him or her in the eyes for just five seconds.” Most of the dozens in attendance initially refused. The teacher pleaded until the partnering was complete. Then the counting began, and never seemed to end. At least one attendee appeared to surrender midway, looking away to compose a Twitter message after about three seconds. “You feel that little quiver in your stomach?” the professor, John Kaag of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, asked when it was over. “It’s called a sign of being human. Drones don’t feel that.” It has been a trying period for defenders of the drone. Public perception has been shaped in large part by the Obama administration’s use of drones in counterterrorism efforts, and civil liberties advocates have long decried the drone’s seemingly boundless capacity to restrict privacy. Then there was the blemish for local hobbyists last week, when a drone was said to have crashed near Grand Central Terminal, narrowly missing a pedestrian. And so, at times on Friday, the forum seemed equal parts acknowledgment of the technology’s perils and a self-affirmation exercise for its proponents, who have cited the potential of drones to improve agriculture practices and monitor endangered species, among other applications. Speakers appeared intent on softening the drone’s image — likening it to a kite, a cellphone, a pet on a leash. Others drew parallels to the work of Steve Jobs and the Wright brothers. One presenter, Raphael Pirker, brought his lawyer on stage. Mr. Pirker, who has used remote flying devices to capture sweeping videos of landmarks, is contesting thousands of dollars in fines sought by the Federal Aviation Administration over a drone flight at the University of Virginia. The conference, which was to include a “drone show” on Friday night, will continue through Sunday. The schedule for Saturday suggested a focus on legal issues. On Sunday, participants will form small groups charged with “programming and playing with” toy drones. So far the gathering has attracted a diverse audience. Nelson and Johanna Farr, who said they were starting an aerial photography program, traveled from Guatemala, spending about $1,000 each for round-trip tickets. Riley Morgan, 14, from the Upper East Side, cut short an interview to find a seat for a panel called “Life Under Drones.” Earlier, Riley had been clutching a quadcopter, a device about the size of his midsection, that he had made himself. He said he had flown it in Central Park and on Randalls Island. “People are confusing these things with the predator drones,” he said, adding that he had recently used his device to record a friend’s birthday party. “They’re not something I use to spy on people.” But the checkered reputation of drones remained the day’s subtext. An organizer of the conference, in his introduction to Professor Kaag’s presentation, wondered if drone supporters had been “drinking some kind of unmanned Kool-Aid.” Professor Kaag, who has written about the moral hazards of drones, paused at one point to declare his session “a real killjoy.” “I think they’re cool too, O.K.?” he said. “But slow down.” In front of the building where the conference was held, across the street from Washington Square Park, a group called the Granny Peace Brigade staged a small protest featuring a replica of a drone. “Drones explode people and do not help us make friends,” read a sign held by Alice Sturm Sutter, 65, from Washington Heights. Ms. Sutter, who worked in a medical tent in Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, said she feared that expanded drone use could allow the Police Department to target activists. (The police were later summoned on Friday when the protesters refused to move down the sidewalk, away from the building entrance, as directed by university security.) Nearby, Terry and Belinda Kilby, from Baltimore, appeared impervious to the disturbance. They came in part to promote a book of “drone art” — images shot using the devices — and to speak at a panel on Saturday. The privacy threat of drones for ordinary citizens had been overstated, they said. “Unless you’re super famous, like Paris Hilton,” Ms. Kilby said, “we’re just not that interested in following.” © 2012 The New York Times Company Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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