The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fast on the heels of giving the US Military props for their funding, R&D and real-time application of alternative energy sources, I’m reminded that in all things involving humans, the good, the bad and the ugly principle applies.  Chalk this up to a gentle knock on the noggin, a serious reminder that our military’s purpose is to defend the country, develop defense and wartime strategies [alternative energy works into this] and support all things weapon-related with gusto.

In this case, the subject is drones, aka UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], a new generation that is sure to amaze.  And disturb.

An article I recently read made my jaw drop with awe and an undeniable sense of foreboding.  We could call this the nascent I Robot stage of drone development.   I’ve written to the subject of drones before.  The science is incredible but I find the use of drones, war and peace applications alike, incredibly creepy.

The X47B, however, a fully-automated drone being tested by the Navy is in a class of its own.

Fully automated.  Meaning no one in Omaha is joy-sticking the X47B remotely, guiding its maneuvers, reconnaissance or defensive/offensive usage.  This drone will be dependent on onboard computers, perceiving threats through highly attuned sensors, and then acting, accordingly.

How sophisticated is this drone?  X47B has been designed to land on an aircraft carrier at sea.  My husband served in the Navy and lived on a carrier [a floating city] of approximately 5000 personnel.  Though not a pilot, he’d be the first to say that landing an aircraft on any carrier is incredibly challenging.

X47B is that advanced, that sophisticated.

The speed with which robotic aircraft is developing is frankly . . . stunning.  On 9/11, the US military had few drones in its arsenal.  Reportedly, 1 in 3 US aircraft are now robotic, primarily because of the cost effectiveness in comparison to traditional planes and reduced casualties to military personnel.  As aerospace pioneer Simon Ramo stated in his book “Let Robots Do the Dying:”

More aggressive robotry development could lead to deploying far fewer U.S. military personnel to other countries, achieving greater national security at a much lower cost and most importantly, greatly reduced casualties.

But as has been pointed out in numerous articles, we aren’t fighting Robot against Robot wars.  At least not yet.  Israel’s R&D drone technology is said to have started as early as 1992. Russia, Pakistan, even Iran are funding and developing their own drone programs. In fact, according to ABI Research, 65 countries are utilizing or developing drone programs. We’ve seen and read of the carnage when drones miss their target or targets are just plain wrong.  We’re talking Robots vs. Humans and the question of accountability cannot be dismissed.

X47B is a new generation, a next step.  As startling as its capabilities sound, the X47B will not be alone in the expanding robotic landscape.  We have robotic ground vehicles, mapping robots, IED detecting devices [that look like oversized Tonka toys] in the field, as well as robotic submarines and tanks to small, insect-like drones, complete with micro-cameras, in development.Small Fry Drones Utilizing Micro-Cameras

Ready or not, we’re approaching a Brave New World of robotics and weapon development.  The US military sees robotic vehicles, surveillance equipment and weapon systems replacing manned missions to handle the Three Big D’s—dull, dirty and dangerous. Defenders of autonomous systems insist that on-ground personnel will have the ability to abort missions and on-board computer-driven directives.  Still, the question lingers–if on-board computers are making split second computations would a manual ‘abort’ order have any relevance?

But what sets the X47B apart from its predecessors?

The GPS-based navigation and landing system is state-of-the-art, making the carrier landings feasible for this fighter-sized vehicle.  In addition, the program will allow the drone to conduct aerial refueling.  Missions would be preprogrammed, making remote guidance unnecessary. The X47B provides a far larger payload, allowing it to attack larger targets and perform multiple back-to-back missions, many of which would be beyond human endurance.  And it has stealth capabilities.

Robotic technology is racing forward.  What has not proceeded with equal speed or ease is the conversation about the ethics and morality involved in using these systems, particularly as relates to the chain of accountability.

As Noel Sharkey, computer scientist and robotics expert, recently stated in the LA Times:

Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability. This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?

The LA Times further states:

Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.

There is no denying that we’re entering a far different world in the way wars, international tensions, border protection, even domestic policing will be handled in the near future.  Let’s hope the right questions are asked and adequate answers provided before we slide down a very slippery slope.

Is there oversight? you may ask.  If the Congressional Unmanned Vehicle Caucus is an example, not much.  Though the caucus likes to advertise itself as a watchdog it has become little more than a booster club for all things drone.  For instance, instead of questioning the enormous amount of money, the cost-effectiveness of domestic drones used for border surveillance—illegal drug smuggling and illegal immigration—or even the success rate of the domestic drone fleet [which is anything but spectacular], the Department of Homeland Security actively supports the acquisition of ever-expanding systems.  As is so often the case, it’s a ‘follow the money’ love affair. Alternet reports that:

In the 2010 election cycle, political action committees associated with companies that produce drones donated more than $1.7 million to 42 congressional members who were members of the congressional drone caucus.

Yup, it’s always the same formula, working the cheap seats with suitcases of ready cash.

X47B will be testing its carrier landing capabilities in 2013, aerial refueling in 2014, and if all goes as planned the drone will be operational by 2016-17.

There’s still time for Americans to demand a serious Q&A.  But not much time.


12 Comments on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. dakinikat says:

    So, who is responsible for the kill? The machine? This seems to remove responsibility away for murder from people. I thought machines were not supposed to harm humans. That’s the rules of I, Robot, right?

    • This sounds more like the beginning for a Terminator world.

    • northwestrain says:

      Obama is a passive aggressive – so Drones are just perfect for his way of doing things.

      I also read that article about the Drones landing on air craft carriers (LA Times) — I’m a Navy brat — my dad served time on air craft carriers. I’ve talked to retired Navy guys who have been aboard the modern air craft carriers — and they are guessing that the Drones would have to be in contact with the carriers — could be computer talking to computer.

      Then the is the problem of GPS — that’s how the Iranians brought down the drones — they simply managed to misinform the drones about their location.

      This year I’ve seen several drones — mostly flying out of Air Force bases in the Southwest. So, of course, the US Navy would have to do the Air Force one better. I think we will be seeing a drone arms war between the branches of the US military. The newest entry are the pilot-less drones (no gamers sitting in a dark basement playing pilot).

      The Army and Marines will need heir own special drones and then the Coast Guard Nazies will need their drones so that they can bomb pleasure boats at will.

      I’m expecting that the military TOY budget will increase — which is really just more corporate welfare for the Military Industrial Complex.

      Oh and don’t forget the ranches in South Eastern Colorado being stolen by the US Military for drone bases. It is amazing — the US military just doesn’t have enough land — so they are stealing more land from family ranches. (There was an article about this — and the local campaign is called — Not one more Acre.) When we drove through Southeastern Colorado (Fall 2011) I saw bumper stickers all over the place with the slogan about not one more acre. I had no idea what the protest was about until I read about the plans the US military has for Southwest Colorado. One of the first things that the military does on the stolen land is to rip out the tree rows.

      My mother’s family is from Kansas — a next door neighbor to Colorado. I grew up listening to Dust Bowl stories. The tree rows were planted to avoid future dust bowls. The US military is proving to be poor stewards of the land they’ve stolen. The military has been chopping down the tree rows.

      Drones are bad news — at some point in the future everyone might have a drone monitoring them 24/7. This SciFi novel is almost writing itself.

      Meanwhile the US military drones arms race has begun. I guess the US Navy is top dog with their pilot-less drones landing on air craft carriers. The Admirals are really excited about their new toys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • ralphb says:

        Nazis? That steps on my last fucking nerve. What a stupid thing to say!

      • northwestrain says:

        Sorry you were insulted.

        But I had the unfortunate experience of having my boat boarded by the water Nazies — who are also scab strike breakers at a new unloading facility on the WA Coast.

        The Coast guard under Homeland security has been boarding pleasure craft — and wrecking boats. We were lucky — my husband stopped the coast guard idiots from destroying the life lines on our boat. (which proves the lie that they are boarding for a safty inspection.) The Coasties wrecked out deck with their combat boots. Our decks are still marked up after many scrub downs. Water Nazies are what they are. — sorry to insult you — but THEY insulted me personally and I don’t forget and never forgive.

        At the moment I have no respect for the Homeland security idiots who call themselves Coast Guard. Plus the officers get away with raping women under their command.

  2. peggysue22 says:

    That’s the question: who owns the accountability? This technology in robotic weapons systems is full power ahead. But there’s been little if any discussion about the downsides. In domestic surveillance applications, there are real privacy issues. These cameras anymore can look straight into your house. When it comes to lethal, weaponized models, the idea of preprogrammed computers making the calls should raise more than a few alarm bells.

    The money angle is really disturbing because it’s driving the issue [along with everything else]. But when it comes to the sort of damage these UAV’s are capable of inflicting and the kills in the field, there needs to be far better oversight than this silly caucus is providing. The Alternet article as well as the links they provide are pretty horrifying when you consider the implications.

    Too often, we wait until after the fallout to ask the right questions or to consider the ‘unintended consequences.’ And these autonomous systems, this X47B and its future spinoffs, could provide plenty. And yes, there is a Terminator feel to this with Sync links waiting in the background.

    It’s no longer Sci-fi.

    • This on top of the Panetta interview on BB’s earlier post. So say your old college roommate is on a terrorist watch list and you go to a college reunion? Will one of these drones be sent to kill the presumed terrorist & everyone else will be considered incidental casualties?

      This just makes me think of the development of the A-bomb. The future consequences were not considered. Did they think that our Enemies would acquire the same capabilities? Don’t think so. So now we have all the Republican candidates & Obama saying “we won’t tolerate Iran getting a nuclear bomb.”

      Testosterone poisoning has reached epidemic levels. Forget fluoride in the water, we need estrogen in the water to avert the desire of these warmongers from annihilating all life on earth.

      • peggysue22 says:

        That interview with Panetta was really disturbing. Taylor Marsh had a piece on the interview too asking ‘Who Are We Anymore?’ I think it’s a valid question when we can excuse all manner of things previously thought of as repellent–put kill orders on American citizens, indefinite detention without due process, say torture techniques are A-okay, etc. We’re becoming as bad as the maniacs we so despise. And this drone warfare plan, no questions asked, is just another piece in an increasingly ugly picture. We’ve turned into rigid authoritarians with no real respect for the law, while giving lip-service to democratic principles.

        Regardless of how we got here, we need to find a way out, toute suite.

  3. fiscalliberal says:

    I was surprised on how the Iranians took down the drone. I was more amazed that the picture showed basically a intact aircraft. You can bet that it was sold to China or Russia to develop counter measures to be sold to the nations under attack.

    The most astonishing story I read was that the drones were controlled at a base in Nevada. Some of the pilots in Nevada were women. So a typical shift gets executed and the people can go home to cook dinner and play with the kids.

    I thought this article was very good in terms of getting a discussion going regarding where we are going. I think 1/3 of the military budget is special appropriations which has no traceability and is totally unfunded, hence has to be borrowed. This has gone on with acceptance from the Republicans and Democrats.

  4. quixote says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks, Peg!

    The big drones get the attention, but I can see where the micro-drones could be the most effective. They’d be super-hard to spot, could spy on anything anywhere, could do targeted assassinations with god-knows-what-all (polonium, ricin), the possibilities are endless. And they’d be comparatively cheap. Thousands could be sent out.

    A very dystopic future, in which you couldn’t even trust the dragonflies.

    Maybe the spiral of stupid environmental disaster has its good sides. People will be too busy surviving and too poor for drone wars. (Knowing us, humans will just fall back on people wars then. Also double plus ungood.)

  5. Very interesting and informative, Peg. Thanks, I’m playing catch up on a week’s worth of SkyDancing and marking this one for a second, more-thorough read tomorrow! I am so glad you are writing for Sky Dancing…