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This article was first published on December 15, 2011.

In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. (Photo: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

Long imagined as a science fiction scenario, robotic warfare is very much today’s reality. As Randall Munroe of the web comic XKCD put it, “We live in a world where there are actual fleets of robot assassins patrolling the skies. At some point there, we left the present and entered the future.”

Much has been discussed of the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in modern-day warfare. While the Department of Defense has enthusiastically embraced the technology, arguing that it amounts to safer, cheaper and more effective warfare in the U.S.’s fight against terrorism, other reports have focused on the number of civilian casualties – particularly in Pakistan – that have resulted from drone strikes. Iran’s recent capture of a downed American UAV has also prompted security concerns as the world careens toward a global drone arms race.

Whether we’re comfortable with this trend in warfare, the robotics revolution looks to alter society’s relationship with war in some profound ways. Here are five things to know about the drones of today and tomorrow:

1. Despite concerns of legality, drone technology is moving ahead at full speed.


Drones have taken on crucial tasks in the military that have often been deemed too risky for humans: providing surveillance, launching missile attacks on insurgent leaders and dismantling roadside bombs that have been a leading cause of deaths in the recent wars. Frontline reports that since September 11, 2001, the number of drones in the U.S.’s military arsenal has expanded from 60 to more than 6,000, with President Obama making unprecedented use of these robotic warriors. Drone strikes have taken out some of al-Qaeda’s most notorious figures, including American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

But attitudes toward drones are significantly less upbeat in Pakistan, where the public outcry has grown louder in response to civilian deaths brought about by errant air strikes. The U.S. military’s figures on drone strikes and fatalities there remain strictly classified. However, analyses by the non-partisan New America Foundation estimate that approximately 17 percent of the total deaths caused by drone strikes in Pakistan were civilian fatalities – between 293 and 471 civilians in total. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has also estimated that 175 children have been killed by drone strikes since 2004. U.S. officials disputed these reports, saying that only about 50 non-militants have been killed by drone strikes over the past decade.

But even if the true civilian toll is relatively low – and, by the New America Foundation’s numbers, the civilian fatality rate from drone strikes shrinks every year – is the U.S.’s use of drones for targeted killings in an unofficial war compliant with the norms of international law? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared last year that, despite the U.S.’s insistence on secrecy in its drone program, “there is no question that we are abiding by international law and the law of war.” Non-partisan research organization Politifact posed the same question of legality last year – and promptly declined to answer it. The organization declared: “[W]e are uncomfortable stating with any certainty that a covert program is definitively operating within the law. We simply can’t verify it independently.”

Despite these concerns and the current debate over cutting the Pentagon’s budget, developments in drone technology are moving ahead at full speed. UAVs are being developed with improved flexibility, precision and endurance. The Washington Post reported earlier this year on military tests that are paving the way for completely automated drones that operate free of human control – although these types of UAVs are not likely to be realities for quite a while. Drones are also getting smaller, built down to the size of birds and insects. These micro air vehicles, or MAVs, are a booming sector in drone development, and in some cases the Pentagon has been looking to add on bug-like features like compound eyes and tiny cilia to assist with flight.

2. Rise of the “cubicle warriors”

Unmanned they may be, but the drone wars of today certainly are not lacking for a human element. Drone pilots are being recruited and trained at a faster rate than traditional military jet pilots, and face a host of different emotional challenges for the type of work they do.

Drone pilots remain cushioned from the risks to life and safety that fighter pilots face, but for them, being in combat is an experience that weaves in and out of their civilian lives on a daily basis. The concept of war as a video game has many observers wondering if pilots might be desensitized to the real effects of war, but according to P.W. Singer, Brookings Institute fellow and author of the 2009 book “Wired for War,” drone pilots face higher levels of combat stress than do some soldiers physically deployed in Afghanistan. One theory holds that drone pilots experience “whiplash transition” – the drone pilot’s experience of spending their work day in the virtual war zone, at times killing enemy combatants, and then returning home to their families in the evening. Moreover, even though pilots may not be physically close to the battlefield, they often view the war zone through up-close, high-definition imagery.

In a Frontline interview, Noah Shacthman of Wired magazine also discounts the idea that drones turn war into a video game:

No part of war is like a video game. Not even the part of war that involves a lot of glowing plasma screens is in any way like a video game. War can be slow; war can be deliberate; war can be boring; and war can have very serious consequences. None of that is true about a video game.

Even the parts of war that would seem the most video game-esque — controlling a drone, remotely operating a heavy weapon, doing some surveillance — even those things are so plodding and so deliberate, and the consequences are so great, that they’re really nothing like a video game whatsoever.

3. Desensitizing war for everyone else?

The surveillance capabilities of drones have enabled more and more video footage of on-the-ground operations to become available to the American public. Much like televising footage of the Vietnam War dramatically affected public perception of the military abroad, it’s anticipated that the proliferation of videos of operations in the Middle East will reshape the public’s relationship with war. Singer says that this trend carries with it the potential to desensitize viewers from the reality of being in the war zone. “The drone war is documented, downloaded, accessible for everyone,” Singer said in an interview with Der Spiegel last year. “You can see the videos on YouTube. It’s turning war for some into a form of entertainment. The soldiers call that ‘war porn.’ We can see more but experience less.”

Another concern is that the desensitization of war, along with the cost effectiveness of drones, will lead to more war in the future. At the Washington Post, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite writes:

Drones will not reduce conflict. Their very ease of use will tempt nations, our own very much included, to engage in automated conflict.

The problem with automated conflict, however, is that it doesn’t stay automated. People die in drone wars, just like they died from the automation of arrows when the crossbow was invented. War machinery has a terrible capacity to tempt us to think it’s something else.

However, others have dismissed the idea that weaponry by itself will subtract humanity from warfare. Human psychology and human emotions are still a primary driving force behind wars, and technological advances have not substantially curbed that element of warfare in the past, writes Adam Elkus at Democracy Arsenal:

Despite the nearly century-long prevalence of airpower, we have not become numb to war. Witness, for example, the powerful desire for retribution after the 9/11 attacks and its impact on domestic and international policy. Airpower — drones included — has not erased emotion from war because war is a complex mixture of irrational forces (emotion, hatred, and enmity), chance (friction and the fog of war) and rational policy. And as long as humans are involved in conflict, these forces will continue to exert themselves on the theory and practice of war.

4. The global drone arms race

Much of the discussion about drones and warfare has focused primarily on how America’s use of the technology would shape U.S. foreign policy and Americans’ relationship with war. But the U.S. is not alone in drone development: Countries like Israel and the UK also use drone strikes, and several other countries have UAVs for surveillance purposes. Earlier this year, China debuted a small drone equipped with a high-definition camera at a robotics trade show. Though the model was only about the size of a pizza pan, and less sophisticated than the U.S.’s combat drones, many observers saw the display as a glimpse of a future for an expanding global UAV market.

The premise of a “space race” in drone technology leading up to a world filled with drone warfare on all sides, analysts say, is troubling primarily because of the political and legal implications of such a world. The U.S.’s use of drones is tightly wound in the legacy of its counterterrorism campaign in the Middle East – undeclared, secretive and rife with targeted killings by unmanned vehicles. At the New York Times, Scott Shane describes the conundrum brought about the U.S.’s precedent of drone use:

If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.

5. Drones at home

UAVs have proven their popularity on a global scale, but drones are also looking to go local. UAVs Predator drones currently serve as surveillance units for drug trafficking operations along the U.S.-Mexico border, and U.S. police officials have expressed great interest in utilizing drone technology for law enforcement purposes on the domestic front. In February, the Federal Aviation Administration granted approval to Mesa County, Colo., to utilize the Draganflyer X6, a small drone model that comes equipped with wireless cameras and a variety of sensors, for law enforcement purposes. The Draganflyer X6 has already been used by police officers in Canada to gather evidence and survey crime scenes. Another model, the Qube, developed by military drone supplier AeroVironment Inc., was developed specifically for law enforcement assistance.

Last week, a Predator B drone deployed from a North Dakota Air Force base provided surveillance that eventually helped local police arrest three men charged with stealing six cows from a local family farm. The Los Angeles Times called it the “first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator.”

While the idea of drones proliferating on the home front may seem like an unsettling future for some, the scenario isn’t quite imminent yet. The FAA holds tight regulations over UAVs in the national airspace, primarily because it deems current UAV models lacking in “adequate ‘detect, sense and avoid’ technology” that would prevent collision with other aircraft.  The manufacturer of the Draganflyer X6 noted that its approval in Mesa County came “after a year or more of in-depth aircraft flight experience, safety practices, program development, use by the agency and the proven solid commitment by the Sheriff’s office to adhere to the FAA practices and policies.”  However, as the idea of using drones domestically begins to appeal to more and more local authorities, the FAA is looking to change its current regulations to accommodate the technology in U.S. airspace.


  • recyc79

    Face reality:  Drone operators will consider it he most exciting game ever played, and terrorists will do anything to get there hands on such weapons, and citizens in their homes and apartments can no longer feel safe from sudden attack. The international community successfully outlawed poison gas from widespread use. If we humans know what is good for us we damn well better outlaw drone warfare for the same reasons.

  • recyc79

    Face reality:  Drone operators will consider it he most exciting game ever played, and terrorists will do anything to get there hands on such weapons, and citizens in their homes and apartments can no longer feel safe from sudden attack. The international community successfully outlawed poison gas from widespread use. If we humans know what is good for us we damn well better outlaw drone warfare for the same reasons.

  • Suzun

    Regardless of what war is called, whether unmanned surveillance and targeted bombing with imprecise intelligence, it is a sophisticated form of TERRORISM.  The US military, Pentagon and the entire MIC that captures human innovation for destructive purposes, is committing unconscionable terror.  
    There is no other TERRORIST out There, wherever there may be, that can compare to the scope and sinister intentions that our government and our industry has developed.  None of these military technological developments makes any of us safer….on the contrary, now everyone, has become a target and the warfare expands to every corner of the planet and on indefinitely into a dark future – if there is any future to hope for.

  • Ajlong66

    you should probably kill yourself – just sayin.

  • Ajlong66

    you should probably kill yourself – just sayin.

  • Bagger

    Imagine a sniper who could sneak behind enemy lines, go without food or sleep for days and days.  Watching his target, gathering evidence, confirming when and if a target is alone.  That information leads to other decisions.  Whether it is identifying an IED bomber who is about to emplace a bomb, or after we’ve followed him back home to his stash of weapons we we decide to take him out.  That’s all a drone is, people.  A way for us to do that.  It’s not unthinking.  It’s NOT unmanned (just no one onboard)…it’s remotely piloted.  The same legal obligations are done at a command center (at least for those operated by the US Military) that are done for an F-16 dropping a bomb. 

    Note to the editor: The picture at the top of the story is an MQ-9 Reaper, not an MQ-1 Predator. 

  • Raymond Wallace

    I don’t know…It seems like you’re implying that other forms of warfare aren’t ridiculously destructive and idiotic.  Seriously…This is the twenty-first century.  When I was a kid I assumed that warfare, as well as religion and racism, would be a lamentable thing of the past by now. 

  • Anonymous

    I am a deployed UAV pilot and a member of the military and my job is not to kill people. 

    [rhetorical question] Your best friend, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, mom, dad, or spouse is deployed and I am scanning the road your loved one is going to be traveling tomorrow on a convoy. I see a local emplacing an IED (improvised explosive device). Sure they make tons of equipment to scan the ground to find the IED. But I can not only mark the place of the IED but also follow the “bad guy” to his house or cache where there is more IEDs and more people that are emplacing them. This is a real life scenario and it plays out all over the world. When I find and IED i know I potentially saved an untold number of Marines, Airmen, Soldiers, and seamen (yes they are here too). This is what motivates me to do my job

    O, and by the way there are no operated drones being flown in the United states (other than military airspace) because the FAA has not approved it. the one detailed in the article only has a range of a couple hundred feet.

  • Anonymous

    I am sick of the way that UAVs are down played as a “video game”. as an operator of a UAV I read these articles and comments that come up with half-ass information (some by professional journalists) and publish it as fact. come on people….

    Some people believe that because there is no pilot there is no accountability for there actions. Wrong, we like ALL pilots are just if not even more accountable for our actions. there is a lot more people watching our video than what per say a F-16 or a Apache.

    UAVs kill tons of innocent people. there is no excuse for killing innocent people. but the argument at hand is grossly blown out of proportion. the amount of collateral damage by ground forces, man aviation, and mounted forces far out weighs that of unnamed aviation.

    UAVs are just for killing. The main objective of ALL UAV platforms is for reconnaissance. If I find an IED who knows I may have saved the life(s) of someone you know.

    Its like playing a “video game”. A video game can be reset and started over. not a UAV. The consequences of not doing my job right and have profound affects to the soldiers, marines, airmen, and seamen I’m supporting. Yes, im going to be fine if it crashes, but we are confined by the same rules and regulations as ALL maned aviation.

    UAVs will be spying on me at home. as it stands there is no UAVs flying in the united states outside military airspace because the FAA is still researching the capabilities of the UAVs. finally, everyone is worried about being spied on? all you got to do is go to Google maps and see that even available to the public they show off there capabilities of how they can spy on us.

  • Briansw1

    seem to me that if a civillian is harboring a known terrorist and our drone destroys that safe house and eliminates that terrorist and the civillian gets caught up in the attack, well thats just tough shit!

  • Bajrotc

    Good discussion and program. Since we cannot put boots on the ground or have manned bombers orbiting the area this is a tool (drones) the US has to get into these sanctuaries to target individuals who are targeting our personal across the border.

  • Kim Ingraham

    If Pakistan had an effective deterrent to the terrorism that originates and hides out in their country, there would be no need for Drones to fight the war on terrorists.  Obviously, their religion prevents them from acting intelligently.  Instead, they rely on terrorism to attempt to wipe America off the face of the earth.  This is not going to succeed but their Imams and Mullahs don’t care how many of their people they sacrifice since there are so many willing to wage jihad and deluded into thinking they will get a reward in the afterlife.  The Muslim religion has failed it’s people by fooling them into thinking there’s a reward for their jihad.  How does a “good” country like America fight that kind of stupidity?   By minimizing our troops on their lands…….Drones work.  Too bad they don’t like them.  Stop trying to kill Americans and the Drones will stop too.

    Jihadists rely on the mob mentality…..evidence what is happening now.  Their religious leaders are to blame for whipping the easily manipulated masses into a mind set that killing anyone you disagree with is OK.  So now our talking heads in the media are trying to make this look like the evil American military has some kind of evil advantage.  No, the jihadists infiltrated our country, lied and stole to perpetrate the 9/11 murders and now we have them at a disadvantage and they’re getting our bleeding-heart liberals to try and stop the Drones.  So sorry, stop the terrorism and we will have no reason to use any of our many sophisticated weapons.

  • George Bruce Clark

    Good point UneedAname45 – a nice straight-forward scenario but what if the people living around the bad guys house, and therefore the civilian ‘collateral damage’ were all US citizens – would this change the calcualations? I expect it would. Many international legal experts believe that firing missiles into another country’s sovereign territory ( never mind killing innocent civilians ) is illegal,which would make this work a war crime. The US miilitary would no doubt argue to the contrary, but i believe a majority of pakistanis would not and it is their country after all.
    Perhaps the military is short on training in empathising with the plight of others, but if you could put yourself in the shoes of a pakistani citizen, things might look very different.

  • Andree Orange

    Hi! I just read your comment, you seem to know a lot about the subject! I don’t really know what to think about drones, it seems like there are positive and negative aspects for it, like everything else. I heard that UAV didn’t prevent PTS among pilots, is it true?

  • HumanBeing

    There are now drones operated in the united states in at least 26 of them. They are already being used against the citizens in court cases. These military drones are able to carry shock and taser technology as well as military weapons to use against the citizens. Oklahoma became one of the first states to allow this practice with no prior discussion from the citizens they just did it. Oklahoma’s Governor is Mary Falin a Democrat as state politics is dominated by that party however the State is largely conservative and votes Republican or Independent in National elections. So how did the Government do this? By good old fashion bribery. They gave Oklahoma a contract with Department of Defense contractor Tritton to assure the wheels would be greased by local politicians. Considering the incredibly slippery slope of the deadly use of drones has expanded from only rare cases in Afghanistan to now well over 2500 people killed by drones during the first Obama administration. The states allowing this form of oppression in their airspace seemed to have made a pact with the devil. Anytime corporations and government become married humanity loses.

  • Ame G

    Here’s a great example of a drone (nothing like a Predator) being used in a search and rescue mission. A driver wandered off after sustaining injuries in a car accident and was located in a cold Canadian forrest using an infared camera mounted on a quad copter. He was found unconscious and the drone saved his life.

  • j

    google operation cyclone