Here’s a spooky story: The price of drone technology has gotten so low, someone gave my seven-year-old son one at his birthday party. It was a miniature quad-rotor one, palm-sized. I put some AAA batteries in the remote, turned the drone’s tiny power switch to “On,” followed the calibration instructions—left stick down till it beeps, right stick down and to the right till the drone light goes steady—and hit the liftoff button. The thing leaped off the floor with severe, insectoid purpose, and hung in the air around face-level, making an intense and upsetting buzz, for however many seconds it took me to mash whatever controls would make it set down again. There were plenty of other presents; we would deal with it later.
Before I could get back to it, though, the kid decided to try it on his own. It went up, and up some more, and went zipping off across the living room toward the hall. Sitting in the armchair, I knew what was going to come next. I’m not sure if I even said the warning aloud before it happened: The buzz faded down the hall, with the seven-year-old in fast pursuit, and then came a blip of commotion and an awkward silence. He called out for help.
You flew it straight into the toilet, didn’t you? I asked.
He had. He fished it out, and I turned the tiny power switch to “Off” and wiped the whole thing down with a Clorox wipe as best I could, then set it on a paper towel to dry. I warned him it was probably ruined. He’s known about water and electronics ever since the time when he was in kindergarten and he decided to get some stickers off the back of an iPad by going off and washing them away in the sink. This would have to be another life lesson.
One of us was about to learn something, anyway. An hour or two later, a sudden whine and burst of movement caught my attention from the other side of the room. The drone was trying to lift off from the paper towel, on its own.
I grabbed it and looked at the power switch. It was still off. I turned it on and off again. Eventually it subsided. I flipped it over, so it wouldn’t be able to go airborne, and left it there. The switch was absolutely set to off.
At intervals, the rest of the evening, the drone would keep firing, one or two rotors whirring away at a time. There was no way to make it stop; its power supply was an internal battery. By morning, it was done twitching.
The reason a drone can be cheap enough to be a child’s toy is that unmanned vehicles of all sizes, guided and autonomous, are now being mass-produced for every imaginable application, up to and including warfare. Probably the more expensive and complicated models have off switches that turn them off. I mean, you’d think they would. It’s not as if the technology industry takes shortcuts or fails to anticipate how things could go wrong.
A few days later, I plugged the toilet drone in and charged it up. It flies just fine.