Drones Away

The peril and promise of unmanned aerial vehicles, at home and abroad

(Page 2 of 5)

Too Many People

One group is certainly not going to profit from the drone boom: pilots. There will be lots of people building drones and maintaining them on the ground. But flying them? Not so much. Indeed, there are already too many. 

Imagine the prototypical lethal drone strike. You probably envision a young pilot sitting in a mocked-up cockpit, hand on a control stick, seeing what the drone sees on a video screen. But he’s just one of a few hundred people it takes to fly that single mission.

In a typical lethal drone strike, more than 100 analysts are monitoring communications, signals, and imagery. When you include the technicians making sure the drone is in contact with a communications satellite, the maintenance crew on the ground, and the lawyers (yes, lawyers monitor every lethal strike), the typical killer flight involves anywhere from 150 to 200 people. For a surveillance-only flight by the Global Hawk, which doesn’t carry any weapons, there can be up to 300 people involved. It takes a huge number of people to fly a drone. 

But when drones become domestic big time, there will be hordes of drones in the sky. With 30,000 of them buzzing around—the same number of commercial flights per day in the United States—how will they keep from running into each other? How could any fledgling drone company afford even a few dozen people to man every robot flight?

To keep the drones aloft, human beings will have to hand over most of the control and navigation tasks to computers and, ultimately, to the drones themselves. Tomorrow’s private drone operators won’t be yanking joysticks or pushing rudder pedals. They’ll be sitting at a computer, or holding a tablet or a mobile phone, from where they’ll select a mission profile from a pre-set menu, then hit a button and let the drone go to work.

Actually, several drones will go at once to work together as a team. They’ll take off, fly to their job sites, communicate with each other, perform their tasks, and then fly home and land, all while figuring out on their own the most efficient routes. The robots’ human assistant won’t be a pilot in any traditional sense. In fact, it won’t matter if he’s ever flown in an airplane.

The technology to manage multiple drones simultaneously exists today. A California-based software maker called DreamHammer has been licensing a system called Ballista to the U.S. government since 2011. The interface is startlingly simple: You point and click on a three-dimensional map, and the drones, which are represented by little airplane icons, do the rest. They know where to go, the fastest way to get there, and, crucially, how to avoid running into each other. “Today, drones require many people to operate one,” says DreamHammer CEO Nelson Paez. “Ballista allows them to focus on their mission and not on the complexity of operating vehicles.”

Drones have come a long way from their early ancestors. The first truly remote-controlled vehicle was built in 1898 by the famed inventor Nikola Tesla, who tried to sell a radio-controlled motorboat to the U.S. military. Washington laughed him off. As the historian P.W. Singer writes in his 2009 book Wired for War, Tesla learned an important lesson about humanity’s willingness to accept these new, automated devices: “what was technically possible mattered less than whether it was bureaucratically imaginable.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, with the emergence of the Predator, that the military finally embraced the concept of unmanned aerial vehicles. The Predator began as a surveillance drone, then was armed to hunt and kill terrorists shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

Unsettling as it may sound, the truth is that operating drones is often best left to computers. And as more drones fill the sky, it will be essential to automate their flights. Human pilots are too prone to error, too easily distracted, and too slow to react to unexpected interruptions and dangers. Thanks to a biological response known as the neuromuscular lag, it takes us about half a second to recognize a threat—say, a potential mid-air collision with a flock of birds—and another half-second to take action to avoid it. An autonomous drone can do this faster and more reliably.

That was the conclusion reached last year by the Defense Science Board (DSB), a committee of civilian advisers to the Pentagon. In a report, the DSB urged the military to “more aggressively use autonomy” in its drone missions, in order to reduce the large number of people it takes to fly the drones and to unleash the full potential of the technology. But the board also recognized that the idea of quasi-conscious robots can scare the hell out of people.

“Unfortunately, the word ‘autonomy’ often conjures images in the press and the minds of some military leaders of computers making independent decisions and taking uncontrolled action,” the board wrote. “While the reality of what autonomy is and can do is quite different from those conjured images, these concerns are—in some cases—limiting its adoption.”

The military’s top drone operators echo that sentiment. “We have the potential to achieve greater and greater degrees of autonomy,” says retired general Dave Deptula, who was the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and who now advises companies that develop drone technology. “But that brings with it huge policy issues. We’re not ready today, and may never be, to hit a button and say, OK, come on back after you’ve delivered your bombs and tell us what you hit.”

But drones need to be autonomous, to some degree, if they’re going to efficiently perform the myriad tasks engineers have planned for them. The Defense Science Board advised the Pentagon to mount a public relations effort, and to choose words designed to reassure anxious humans. “It should be made clear that all autonomous systems are supervised by human operators,” the board wrote, “at some level.” 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Chance the Droner: I like to watch.

  • Nazdrakke||

    I wonder, as they extol the economic boom of drone making, if anyone has attempted to study how much wealth will be destroyed when the whole country is under constant surveillance?

  • Jake W||

    The whole country? Constant surveillance?

    You mean like right now?

  • JWW||

    Good piece. Kind of unnerving that about 2/3 of the way through the piece the theme from Terminator popped into my head....

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