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The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.
How smarter robot warplanes now in development could attack targets on their own.
North Waziristan published in February found that at least 194 people had been killed in 10 separate attacks over the preceding 18 months. At least 138 of the dead were militants, according to 80 villagers interviewed by the AP. The other 56 victims were either civilians or police.
In all, a minimum of 2,800 people have died in no fewer than 375 US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2004, according to a count by the UK Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Many hundreds of those killed were probably innocent bystanders.
For all the violence they inflict, right now armed UAVs are constrained by their comparatively simple airframes and engines.
The 27-foot-long Predators and 36-foot-long Reapers, assembled by General Atomics in California's Mojave Desert, are America's main armed drones.
Both are powered by propeller engines and have long, straight wings that limit their top speeds to 100 per hour for the Predator and 200 miles per hour for the Reaper, fractions of the speed of a manned, jet-powered F-16.
Today's drones are equally limited in their ability to sense the ground below them, detect targets and move to attack without assistance. Therefore Air Force and CIA operators must closely supervise most aspects of "unmanned" missions.
Human controllers at the launch bases handle takeoffs and landings using line-of-sight radios. Once the drones are on their way to the target zone, guided by GPS, control passes to crews sitting in trailers in Nevada, New York, California and other US locations. The crews relay commands to the aircraft via satellite.
"They utilize, in general, computer technology not dissimilar to what's on an office desk," explains Mark Draper, a researcher with the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio. "Lots of displays, a mouse, a keyboard. It may have a trackball, and in the case of certain Air Force UAVs you have a stick and a throttle as in a manned aircraft."
Standard procedure is for one crewman to control the drone's sensors, potentially including daytime and night-vision video cameras and high-resolution radars. If the sensor operator spots a target, he alerts the aircraft pilot, who can then order the drone to launch a missile or drop a bomb. The robot does essentially nothing without direct human input.
"Unmanned vehicles — even the most advanced in the military — are one step above remote control," says Missy Cummings, a robot developer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But if a host of government and private research initiatives pan out, the next generation of drones will be more powerful, autonomous and lethal ... and their human operators less involved.
"In the future we're going to see a lot more reasoning put on all these vehicles," Cummings says. For a machine, "reasoning" means drawing useful conclusions from vast amounts of raw data — say, scanning a bustling village from high overhead and using software algorithms to determine who is an armed militant based on how they look, what they're carrying and how they're moving.
"There's no plan for humans to be totally out of the loop," says Ryan Calo, a Stanford University researcher. "But there are pressures that create incentives for ever more autonomy," he adds.
Every time engineers dial up a robot's autonomy, reducing the need for human control, they also dial up the risk.
“Military robots are potentially indiscriminate,” says Patrick Lin, another Stanford researcher. “They have a difficult time identifying people as well as contexts, for instance, whether a group of people are at a political rally or wedding celebration.”
Robots that possess the ability to reason might not need human beings to make so many decisions on their behalves. Drones have the potential to be more efficient without the burden of direct human control.
"The ability to compute and then act at digital speed is another robotic advantage," Peter Singer, an analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, wrote in his seminal book on robot warfare, Wired for War.
Plus, reducing the burden on the controllers could break a major, and building, bottleneck in military drone operations. The Air Force has scaled back a planned expansion of its UAV fleet after running out of trained operators. “Our number-one manning problem in the Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms,” Gen. Philip Breedlove,commander of US air