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Drone Wars: the humans behind the technology

Designers and developers say they, and their UAVs, are misunderstood.

Her lab’s claim to fame (it even got her on the Colbert Report recently) is an iPad app that, with funding from Boeing, allows anyone with a few minutes of training to fly a small surveillance UAV from anywhere that has an internet connection.

In her lab the day of our interview, her students were fixing the one that Stephen Colbert flew into the wall repeatedly on his show. It's an Ascending Technology Hummingbird that is roughly the size of a pizza pan. It comes with a camera and four propellers. In action, it looks a bit like an over-stimulated pinwheel.

“That’s the big coup,” said Cummings, who sports tidy blond bangs and diamond earrings, in her MIT office. “Anybody can be a pilot. It used to be that this technology was reserved for an elite few. Now it’s in the hands of everyday people.”

Of course, all that access isn’t purely a good thing, as Cummings will be the first to admit.

With the good comes the bad, and Cummings says the public isn't alone in misunderstanding the ramifications of UAVs. The Federal Aviation Administration needs to put proper regulations in place, especially given that UAVs are poised to become the next big thing in commercial aviation, she said.

Without them, “oh, it’s going to be a mess,” she said.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes and some are as small as bugs. You’d never know they’re here, she said.

What is underway is a tidal shift in war-making that has caught the world off-guard.

“I keep waiting for my students to make one that flies over here to look into my office,” she said, meandering toward the window. “I keep looking over my shoulder.” (What would she do? “I’d shut the blinds.”)

Cummings views herself as a proselytizer more than anything else, trying to help people get the full picture of the technology.

“You have to ask yourself what it is that you’re really uncomfortable with,” she said.

“Is it that we’ve trivialized something that used to be complicated? That we’re closer to the matrix, that the distinction between technology and humans isn’t as clear? What are we talking about here?”

Flying vehicles remotely isn’t news, she points out. The military has been launching Tomahawk missiles form afar for decades. Cummings trained on them herself.

One day, when Cummings was training with the Air Force, she made a mistake. During a simulated dog fight with another aircraft, she locked in on what she thought was the target. Just as she was ready to pull the trigger, her target switched from an enemy to friend.

“I didn’t see that the track had switched and I pulled the trigger,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

Removing the human from the equation allows for a greater degree of accuracy, she says, and remote monitoring systems mean more eyes on the target. A lawyer can tell a military captain if she is within the Geneva Conventions, and then her chief advisor can tap her on the shoulder if he sees a child’s bike outside a building they were about to bomb.

Armies are always going to be attacking targets, Cummings said, and in her view, UAVs mean fewer deaths, fewer fatalities and improved decision-making when they do so.

"You are never going to move people past war. Human nature is what it is," she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “I’m a war-fighter deep down inside. At some point in my life, I was willing to drop a bomb on people.”