Debating drone use as pursuit of autonomous drones continues

Earlier this month Foreign Policy magazine website ran an article called ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ arguing that those opposing drones are “misleading the public” and “distracting attention away from some more important and bigger issues.”  Strong accusations indeed.  While far from being the first article that has been written arguing that drones are no worse than other weaponry (or even, a good thing), this was a seemingly well argued piece coming from two academics involved in the field of international relations and as such deserved something of a response.

Luckily Brian Terrell from Voices for Creative Nonviolence has taken up the challenge and responded with “Four Realities About Drones: War of the Killer Robots.”   As a part-time student myself,  I appreciate the academic temptation to want to disregard the messy reality of real life and simply focus on the underlying ethical issues. However drones are the concrete embodiment of those underlying ethical issues – and are being used each day to tear flesh and families apart. As such it’s our human duty to engage with both the ethical issues and the day to day reality.  Academics castigating and sneering at those who engage in public education and action on the issue is not helpful.

Meanwhile….   The ‘insatiable’ demand for drones will inevitably lead to greater autonomy according to a senior US military official this week.  The Air Force Times reported Colonel James Gear, director of the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft task force, as saying that ‘unmanned aircraft should be almost entirely automated so the humans can be productively engaged in tasks the machines aren’t good at’. We have reported before that research work is being undertaken in anticipation of this and a short report this week shows that researchers from the USAF and Wright-Patterson University in Ohio are developing systems to allow a single human operator to oversee multiple UAV’s at once often seen and the next stage towards autonomy. The ‘never ending’ and ‘sky rocketing’ demand for drones is also pushing the need for more satellite bandwidth to cope with the communications and intelligence from UAVs. According to Boeing’s Jim Simpson, vice president of business development for the space and intelligence systems sector “UAVs are standing down because there is not enough communications to utilize them.”


The push to autonomy is nicely satirised in this spoof presentation of ‘The Ethical Governor’, a fictional key component in autonomous drones, by animator John Butler.   You can read more about it here.

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