From a Tin Can to a Killer Vamp: The History of Drone Evolution

“Let Robots Do the Dying,” said Simon Ramo, the aerospace pioneer.

The first “robots” that did their dying for us were clunky little tin cans with wings on them. Anti-aircraft gunners would shoot them down during training exercises in WWII. On rare occasions they were sent out on simple attack missions – with no return policy. Their purpose was to explode.

And they had no religion. No virgins in the after-life. No sense. No brain. No consciousness.

By the time Vietnam War started, they were less clunky, with a simmering of a personality. They were known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs.

In Vietnam they also got their first real sense, a camera lens. They flew thousands of reconnaissance missions in high-risk areas. They got a glimpse of the Tonkin Gulf clash. They marked Agent Orange tracks for the B-52s. They suggested convenient spots for napalm dumps. Eventually they spluttered and crashed. Sometimes they reincarnated in Charlie’s backyard as a modern art installation.

The UAVs were commended because “they saved lives.” Friendly lives, that is.

But overall, remote-control warfare was still in it’s infancy.

The Yom Kippur War changed things. A heavily damaged Israeli Air Force used the UAVs for the first time to get real-time images of the Syrian air defenses. It saved the war for the Israelis. And it gave the UAVs a sense of real notoriety. It made them hungry for more attention.

They got it with 9/11.

The War on Terror gave the UAVs a sense of real character. They were promoted from an acronym to a Drone. Pentagon believed in them. After 2001, the number of U.S. Air Force Predator Drones grew from a dozen to about 7,500.

The Drones were delighted with their promotion. Suddenly they got a serious job in the mountainous, isolated plains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen… They finally got a brain. An on-board computer. Multi-spectral targeting system. Synthetic aperture radar. Laser-targeting. Countermeasures. Moving Target Indicator. And, most importantly, bombs. Four Stinger missiles. Six Griffin air-to-surface missiles. Two 100 lb “tank-buster” Hellfire missiles.

The Hellfires became especially bothersome to Afghan shepherds and desert partiers – anyone who might look suspicious from the orbit. The missiles would shoot marginally past intended targets and into Afghan wedding receptions, car convoys, and religious gatherings – with “laser-accuracy.”

The joystick-happy college grads who guide the Drones to their suspicious targets sit on the other side of the planet, in underground bunkers in Nevada. They monitor the live satellite and Drone feeds and fly the birds like you would play with Microsoft Flight Simulator, except that occasionally you pull the red switch. This is the switch that has the power to render suspicious pixels into harmless pixels. Just like in Call Of Duty.

These college grads are a major element in the fight for America’s freedom, 6,370 miles away from America. They live for Pizza, Pepsi and joystick.

In the next few years Drones became celebrities. The CIA handled their PR and invented catchy slogans, like “zero collateral damage.” Or “surgical precision campaigns.” The media generally bought the PR. The Drones executed clean and successful surgeries all over the place.

How many of the Drone attacks have actually been successful? It depends on how to define “successful.” One of the first highly promoted hits was Bin Laden’s senior lieutenant Mohammed Atef. In November 2001, a Predator drone captured footage of a hotel in Kabul which housed Atef’s crew and their SUVs. Fighter jets were brought in to erase the place, and a drone was used to shoot Hellfire missiles into the aftermath.

The Drones have taken out countless suspicious encampments in the desert – thinking Bin Laden was there. They’ve taken out Al Qaeda convoys. Residences. Training camps. Tents. Or so we are told. It is impossible to know how many hits in total. But according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in Pakistan alone the Drones have vaporized over 3,000 “suspicious” targets since 2001.

150 of these were named militants.

At least 175 were children.

In Yemen, November 2011, one mischievous drone even took out an American citizen, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi. There was no jury or deliberation, just a CIA statement that the target was involved in the bombing of USS Cole. Al-Harithi and his car convoy were vaporized 100 miles east of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

Al-Harithi became the first U.S. citizen killed by the U.S. government during the War on Terror. This was another facelift for the Drones. They were now allowed to take out Americans.

2011 also marks another milestone for the Drones: the birth of X-47B, an $831 million concept bird developed by Northrop Grumman.

She looks like a George Lucas fantasy.

She is almost completely independent. She doesn’t need a remote pilot. She can fuel herself in mid-air. She can land on an aircraft carrier. She can even make herself invisible.

Most importantly, she can change mission parameters without human intervention. If a suspicious wedding reception is joined by a suspicious car convoy, why not take out both?

She is the 21st century robotic version of the 1970s “liberated woman,” after the contraceptive pill became widely available. She decides who to fuck and when.

She’s also equipped with a 4,500 lb payload capacity. She doesn’t have to take out small flocks anymore, she can take out the entire village if the situation so demands.

As an an independent lady, she is the forerunner of a new age of unaccountable warfare, where robots will not only do the dying for us, nor just the killing, but also increasingly the decision on when and who to kill.

As she gets more sophisticated, unaccountability gets more sophisticated too. ”It was her,” the general might shout, after the wrong village is taken out by an agitated Drone.

The new generation Drone will have a brain and a collection of senses that could jointly pass the Turing test for consciousness. We could probably have an intelligent conversation with her over the phone, without a clue that we are talking to a carbon fibre ninja.

The only thing she doesn’t have is conscience. Which is exactly why her career is still in the first part of an exponential S-curve.

The really worrisome part is that she is homebound. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act already talks about the “integration of unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace system.” And FAA has already issued domestic flight certificates to hundreds of DOD drones.

We can assume that the domestic Drones will be handling more than just missing person cases.

We are now entering a phase where Drones will not only change the nature of war, but the nature of domestic law enforcement.

Simon Ramo must have known that even robots would want more out of their lives eventually.

The question is how much more are we willing to give them?