Extract from Elysium – 2014 – Directed by Neill Blomkamp

During the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a swarm of drones offered a fairly amazing show, demonstrating the potential of the technology. Used in a civilian context, the ballet was fairly beautiful but it raises some concerns amongst the military as to the danger that it might pose. Even more since it is already possible to launch mini drones from a plane.

In fiction, drones are commonly found but not used in a way that would be realistic. Well aside of a short few seconds in Elysium. What we can see in the extract is Kruger launching a few drones that are embedded on his gauntlet in order to kill his opponent. In order to do so, he holds in his right hand a laser that he uses to paint his target. He then taps a button and the mini drones leave his gauntlet. They “autonomously” fly to the target, and hit him without exploding. Kruger has to press another button in order to have the drones explode.

Aside of the joy that Kruger shows when the drones explode (which is obviously pathological), this short interaction raises a number of questions :

  1. When discussing the issues relating to drones and even more swam drones, people always underline the question of how autonomous they should be (if they should at all). In this specific interaction, the answer is that they are not. Basically, without Kruger painting the target for the drones, nothing will happen. Plus, there is another step in between where you have Kruger launching them. So, first paint, then authorize the launch by tapping on the gauntlet.
  2. I do not know how easy it would be to paint someone while standing in the hatch of a quadcopter (even more if that person is running and firing at you in the same time). In any case, it seems a bit complex to have to hold a laser in your right hand the way he does, while having to type on an interface on the same hand to confirm the launch. Just clicking on a button on the laser with your thumb would be so much easier (but less hollywoodish of course).
  3. After the launch, we have to assume that the drones are capable of locating themselves, scanning the area, understanding that there is nothing where the painting was done, and that in fact, the person who has left that spot is the one running over there. If the drones were not autonomous before, they clearly are now.
  4. Which of course raises the interest of having to confirm the explosion by having Kruger type something on his gauntlet (again, why not just click on the laser?). Here, it would also imply that he can clearly view where the drones are, and that the targeted person is indeed the target.

Blomkamp offers us a fairly interesting vision of how mini drones can interact with a soldier and how they can be used. While being plausible,  situation is nevertheless theoretical since it assumes that there is clear line of sight for painting and confirming (and that the drones are smart enough to do the work in between by themselves without making any mistakes).