Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK on the growing use of drones in combat and surveillance. As governments and military increasingly engage in warfare and spying by remote control, who – or what – is really in charge? Aerial drones and ground-based robots are becoming ever more intelligent and autonomous. Once they become self-aware, will humans finally be removed from split-second, life-and-death decisions?
Topics covered include the development and deployment of drones, risks and rewards of the technology, legal and ethical objections, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, terrorism, extrajudicial assassinations, autonomous and self-aware drones, non-military use of drones, robots and other land-based systems, and how drones are shaping the future of war and surveillance.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), also known as drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. While there are dozens of different types of drones, they basically fall into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes and those that are armed with missiles and bombs.
Use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because unlike manned aircraft they can stay aloft for many hours (Zephyr, a British drone under development, has just broken the world record by flying for over 82 hours non-stop), they are much cheaper than military aircraft and they are flown remotely so there is no danger to the flight crew.
While the British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens in specially designed trailers in the Nevada desert. One person ‘flies’ the drone, another operates and monitors the cameras and sensors, while a third person is in contact with the ‘customers’, ground troops and commanders in the war zone. While armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the CIA’s undeclared war in Pakistan.
The US has two separate ‘squadrons’ of armed drones – one run by the US Air Force and one run by the CIA. Using drones, the US Air Force has increased the number of combat air patrols it can fly by 600 per cent over the past six years; indeed at any time there are at least 36 American armed UAVS over Afghanistan and Iraq. CIA Director Leon Panetta has recently said that drones are ”’the only game in town.’ The CIA have been using drones in Pakistan and other countries to assassinate ”’terrorist leaders’. While this programme was initiated by the Bush Administration, it has increased under Obama and there have been 41 known drone strikes in Pakistan since Obama became President. Analysis by an American think tank The Brookings Institution on drone attacks in Pakistan has shown that for every militant leader killed, 10 civilians also have died.
Military drone manufacturers are looking for civilian uses for remote sensing drones to expand their markets and this includes the use of drones for domestic surveillance. Drones will make possible the dramatic expansion of the surveillance state. With the convergence of other technologies it may even make possible machine recognition of faces, behaviours, and the monitoring of individual conversations. The sky, so to speak, is the limit.
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