Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
In September 2010 the House Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Caucus held a technology fair. In the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building, dozens of people hovered around tables covered with literature, video screens showing images of the earth’s surface, and models of UAVs—popularly known as “drones.” The crowd was almost exclusively male. Most were conservatively dressed in the dark suits and ties that dominate Capitol Hill, though a handful wore the desert-brown jumpsuits of UAV pilots.
In his opening remarks to the gathering, Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who co-chairs and cofounded the bipartisan caucus, spoke of its mission: “To advocate for unmanned systems and ensure we continue to invest in the future. During these tough economic times, unmanned technology is one of the few consistent and dynamic areas of growth in American industry.” Indeed, one observer at an industry fair the previous month asserted that UAVs are expected to be a $15 billion-a-year industry by 2015. (More conservative estimates peg that figure anywhere from $4.5 billion to $11.5 billion.)
McKeon, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and its likely chair in the upcoming Congress, has been a beneficiary of this striking growth. His district includes California’s Antelope Valley, about 50 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, where the aerospace and military industries employ more than 20,000 people. The top four contributors to his campaign in the last election cycle were all military contractors—Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics.
McKeon’s remarks at the fair focused on non-lethal use of UAVs, which effectively distanced the technology from the weapons his sponsors routinely manufacture. “Reports of ‘drone strikes’ in our fight against terrorists regularly fill the news,” he declaimed, “but less well known is how our scientists are using unmanned systems to track and predict weather patterns, how Customs and Border Protection are using unmanned systems to protect our borders, or how local law enforcement uses drones to keep our neighborhoods and police officers safe.”
McKeon was echoing comments made in August 2010 at the annual show of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the world’s largest nonprofit UAV-advocacy organization. At the opening plenary of the four-day event in Denver, AUVSI Chairman John Lambert took pains to emphasize the benign aspect of UAVs: “Think of the number of lives that can be saved by unmanned systems,” he said.
Although that gathering featured numerous panel discussions, workshops, and technical presentations devoted to the civilian uses of unmanned systems, the emphasis in the 453 exhibitions covering the huge convention-center floor was on military applications. Many of the displays viewed by the more than 6,500 attendees showed images of stern-looking soldiers with weapons, or of unmanned vehicles accompanied by slogans such as “combat proven,” “superior visual intelligence,” and “mission ready.”
Back at the Washington fair, Vaughn Fulton, program manager for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at Honeywell Aerospace in Albuquerque, introduced his company’s T-Hawk, an “eye in the sky” named after New Mexico’s state insect, the tarantula hawk. The bug’s sting is one of the most painful in the insect world, Fulton reported with a laugh. Small enough to fit in a backpack, the T-Hawk has the capacity to “hover and stare”—it can inspect from very close range—as well as to pursue. According to Fulton, about 260 are already deployed with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Honeywell is also marketing the T-Hawk domestically. The Miami-Dade Police Department now has at least two of them. Its T-Hawks will reportedly be used for “tactical” operations or SWAT team situations that involve potentially dangerous individuals, though both are currently grounded pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Honeywell and the many other companies producing micro UAVs hope that other local police departments as well as state cops and the U.S. Border Patrol will soon be their customers—well-founded hopes, given that both U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Sheriff’s Office of Queen Anne’s County, Maryland were represented at the fair.
At this point, domestic UAV operations are extremely limited. But with the astonishing growth of the industry and the efforts of AUVSI, the UAV Caucus, and others to loosen FAA restrictions, we can expect an explosion of use by local and federal policing agencies in the near future. Some of those uses—from fighting fires to locating missing persons—will have nothing to do with killing, border surveillance, or crime control. Still, given the nature of the technology, we need to be giving close scrutiny to how and where UAVs will be put to work. There is every reason to be concerned about how the law enforcement and “homeland security” establishments will take advantage of their new tools.
Like McKeon’s and Lambert’s speeches, Honeywell’s promotional literature emphasizes that the T-Hawk “protects lives”—namely those of the soldiers using them to clear roads, secure perimeters, and search for roadside bombs. Moreover, proponents say, because of their accurate targeting and because of the precise information that unmanned systems provide, the technology not only protects soldiers, but also civilians living near those targeted for assassination.
Such claims serve to obscure the “collateral damage” caused by UAV strikes: a New America Foundation report suggests that hundreds of Pakistani civilians have been killed by U.S. UAV activity since 2004.
Indeed, the very availability of UAVs can increase the likelihood of warfare. At a sparsely attended session on ethics at the Denver show, Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England, spoke to this matter. Sharkey agreed that UAVs are more precise. Using one for a targeted killing, he pointed out, is a lot better than carpet-bombing an area. At the same time, Sharkey noted, their accuracy is somewhat illusory—targets are often in buildings, and targeting relies on frequently faulty intelligence. And the weight placed on precision obfuscates international legal concerns: UAV strikes don’t allow for due process or surrender.
UAVs permit Washington to do things it otherwise wouldn’t. A recently retired CIA operative told Sharkey that, without UAVs, the military wouldn’t be able to attack targets in countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. For Sharkey, this shows that robots are not simply an innovation in weapons. Rather, they create totally new ways to wage war. Robots lead to such asymmetry that war becomes increasingly like terrorism. In the case of the United States, the reduced risk to American soldiers means that public opposition to war will also decrease. In this regard, UAVs are in the long run war-enabling—hardly a recipe for saving lives.
Sharkey’s voice was a rare dissent from the dominant view in Denver and Washington, which holds that UAVs are “just another tool in the toolbox.” From this perspective, any technology has multiple uses—you can drive a nail with a hammer, or break a skull—and is thus inherently neutral in a politico-ethical sense. But as Sharkey implies, technologies can also be transformational.
The domestic concern is similar: will UAVs prove to be just another tool, or will they be transformative? Will they fundamentally alter the way ostensibly free societies are policed?
We may not know the real risks of domestic applications until more UAVs are in use, but that time also may not be far off. Six police departments in Canada and numerous departments in Europe already use the devices. In Canada their deployment is limited to sparsely populated areas for purposes ranging from video recording of crime scenes to patrolling suspected smuggling corridors along the U.S. boundary. In the United Kingdom, local police agencies have used micro UAVs for the past few years to conduct search-and-rescue activities, assist in drug-related arrests, and monitor “anti-social behavior,” such as protests at a gathering of the racist British National Party in August 2009.
U.K. authorities expect to begin using much bigger and more powerful UAVs, and in a significantly expanded fashion, in the near future. According to documents obtained by The Guardian, Britain’s Home Office plans to use military-style UAVs to police the 2012 summer Olympics. In addition, six local U.K. police agencies have joined together for a pilot project to use UAVs for “surveillance, monitoring and evidence gathering.” Officials hope UAVs will be installed in “the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies” across the United Kingdom.
Thus far, the Civil Aviation Authority, the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the FAA, has resisted the licensing of such aircraft in “normal” airspace due to fears of collisions, but the rapid development of “sense and avoid” technology may lay these worries to rest within a few years. Despite the implications of everyday reliance on UAVs, says Stephen Graham, Professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University, “broader concern about the regulation and control of drone surveillance of British civilian life has been notable by its absence.” Graham worries that the needed regulatory mechanisms are not in place in the United Kingdom to “prevent law enforcement agencies from abusing radical extensions in their powers to vertically and covertly spy on all aspects of civilian life 24 hours a day.”
In the United States, strong FAA restrictions regarding access to airspace have led a number of departments, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s, to put their UAV plans on hold. But other federal offices are pushing for expanded use. In 2006 the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research and development arm of the Department of Justice, began helping local law enforcement acquire low-cost aviation devices. Tim Adelman, a lawyer who specializes in aviation matters, was hired to spearhead the program. While manned helicopters are prohibitively expensive for most departments, UASs, Adelman points out, can cost as little as $20,000 to purchase and just pennies an hour to operate.
The Sheriff’s Office of Colorado’s largely rural Mesa County is one of a handful of beneficiaries of the NIJ initiative. Ben Miller, the Sheriff’s quartermaster, began looking into an unmanned system in June 2008; he thought inexpensive airborne surveillance in Mesa County could help find lost persons and keep police officers out of harm’s way.
With guidance from the NIJ and support from colleagues, Miller gained approval from the FAA to use a Draganflyer X6 Helicopter, a mini helicopter weighing less than four pounds, with four spindly legs and two narrow skids for feet.
The county anticipated popular fears of “mission creep,” whereby police powers expand beyond those required to meet stated aims. The Sheriff’s Office reminded locals that “eyes in the sky are not new,” as Miller says—satellites, manned aircraft, and surveillance cameras all have greater surveillance capacity than most micro UAVs. In any case, Miller has assured the public that his office is not using its UAV to spy randomly on the community, but to respond to crime and threats to public safety.
In the worst-case scenario—the device dropping from the sky and striking a dwelling or an individual—its light weight, Miller says, would prevent serious harm. And as for possible collisions with other aircraft, the low altitude at which micro UAVs fly makes concern unwarranted, he contends.
Since August 2009, the department has flown its UAV in a small, approved area of county-owned property, largely for training and testing purposes. To deploy the UAV outside the prescribed area, the department must apply for an emergency Certificate of Operation. Approval takes anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, making the UAV effectively useless when the Department most wants to deploy it. Such cases occur regularly, according to Miller.
Miller says the Sheriff’s Office had its “greatest success” when it conducted eight UAV flights in search of a missing man who was feared lost in a remote part of the county. Although officers did not locate the man—nor was he ever found—they concluded that he was not in the area. Miller praised the valuable experience he and his colleagues gained from the operation.
Both Adelman and Miller are hopeful that the FAA will loosen restrictions on small UAVs soon. “Predators, everyone can agree, need to be regulated,” Miller says, referring to the several-ton UAVs regularly deployed for bombing runs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “A two-pounder is another thing.” Currently the FAA does not make a distinction between the two. Miller believes that part of the problem is a lack of data upon which the FAA can base its decisions—it simply does not have sufficient evidence of micro UAVs being used safely for police purposes. In this regard, Miller says, every time his department gets approval, they obtain new data, which, in turn, provides evidence to the FAA of the technology’s safety and efficacy. Miller predicts that when the restrictions inevitably change, small UAVs will become a must-have tool for U.S. law enforcement agencies: “It’s the next taser.”
Miller’s taser comparison is, perhaps, less reassuring than he thinks.
Tasers first emerged in the 1970s, but their widespread adoption by police agencies in the United States is more recent, with new, more powerful models introduced in 1999 and 2003. Taser manufacturers and thousands of U.S. law enforcement agencies hail them as safer than many conventional weapons for subduing dangerous or combative individuals and claim that they have reduced fatalities by providing officers with an effective non-lethal tool.
But skeptics have raised serious doubts. According to the Amnesty International report Less Than Lethal?, 334 people—about 90 percent unarmed, and many who did not appear to pose any serious threat—died in the United States after being shocked with tasers or similar conducted-energy weapons between June 2001 and August 2008. The report points out that tasers are “inherently open to abuse as they are easy to carry and easy to use and they can inflict severe pain at the push of a button without leaving substantial marks.”
The taser experience speaks to two key issues concerning technologies. First, the outcomes of use are not always apparent at the outset. And, second, as Langdon Winner shows in his classic 1986 book, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, technologies are inherently political, tied to relations of power and authority. Because technologies don’t exist in a social vacuum, they are not mere tools. They become integrated in social systems and everyday life, “part of our very humanity.” As such, their uses tend to reflect the priorities of a society’s dominant forces.
It is thus hardly surprising that the NIJ sells local police on UAVs not only by touting their value in search-and-rescue operations, but also in marijuana eradication and narcotics interception. What they don’t talk about—so as not to scare off the public—are speeding tickets, Adelman says.
So while Miller hopes to use UAVs in Mesa County for rescuing lost children, much of law enforcement UAV deployment most likely will dovetail with Washington’s interlocking wars on drugs, terrorism, and “illegal” immigrants, with all of the disturbing implications for civil and human rights those projects entail. The inevitable coupling of UAVs to these “wars,” combined with insufficient accountability mechanisms, is a recipe both for the normalization of previously unacceptable levels of policing and for official abuse. This past September, for instance, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell was forced to apologize after revelations that a private “counter-terrorism” corporation contracted by the state’s Office of Homeland Security had been spying on antiwar and pro-immigrant activists and environmentalists organizing against natural gas drilling.
Training for the Future
A slew of unmanned systems and related technologies are on the research and development table. New projects include insect-sized surveillance vehicles that can fly through open windows, a machine gun or grenade launcher mounted on a treaded robot, a flying humvee, and a solar-powered UAV that can remain airborne for at least five years without having to land. And then there’s the “snake-bot”—a snake-like electronic robot with sensors that see and hear. Wired reports that this robo-snake can “slither undetected through grass and raise its head to look around, or even climb a tree for a better view. It could be the perfect robot spy.”
Many unmanned surveillance and weapon technologies begin in military labs. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon’s research and development office, is a principal incubator. There’s also the Air Force Research Lab, which, according to a Popular Science report, released a video about micro UAVs that could carry “incapacitating chemicals, combustible payloads, or even explosives for precision targeting capability.” Because the project—named after Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead—is now complete, Sharon Weinberger, the report’s author, speculates that lethal micro UAVs might already be in the field. There are also efforts to capture “thermal fingerprints” from the air and projects aimed at tagging targets with invisible biological paints or micromechanical sensors dropped by UAVs, thus enabling tracking from afar.
If the priorities of the military-industrial complex shape the development and use of UAVs, so too do they shape the pool of future researchers. The military starts young: Navy Admiral Gary Roughead stated in Denver at one of the daily plenary sessions that he could “not stress enough . . . how important it is to get science, technology, engineering, and math in the elementary and middle schools.”
Among those responding to such calls is DARPA. According to the September 28, 2010 edition of the Pentagon’s Armed With Science Webcast, DARPA is investing $10 million in a four-year program called MENTOR (Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach) that seeks to “develop and motivate a next generation cadre of system designers and manufacturing innovators,” and “to reignite a passion for exploration among our nation’s youth.” It hopes to reach a thousand high schools.
An allied effort called Robotour is now a regular feature of AUVSI shows. At the 2010 conference, scores of middle and high school youths were welcomed to their guided tour of the exhibition hall by a video screen reading, “Robots are WAY Cool (And So Are the Humans Who Create Them).”
Daryl Davidson—the head of the AUVSI Foundation, AUVSI’s educational arm, whose mission is “to provide hands-on robotic activities that will interest and challenge students of all levels, and will entice them to pursue a career in the field of robotics”—opened the event. After explaining the foundation’s vision of “a world where human lives are protected by and enhanced by the regular use of robotic technologies,” Davidson introduced an eight-minute video that showed images of unmanned vehicles on the move across land, sea, and air. There were no scenes of combat, and many of the vehicles performed activities that did not appear to be military-related. But images of uniformed soldiers, vehicles painted in military style—some with U.S. insignia on them—and UAVs fixing crosshairs on people and vehicles, along with the adrenaline-pumping background music, seemed to undercut Davidson’s utopian vision.
Far more telling were the words of many of AUVSI’s heavyweight attendees. In a plenary session, Army Brigadier General Jake Polumbo asserted the need “to take the bad guys out.” Similarly, Dyke Weatherington, Deputy Director of Unmanned Warfare at the Pentagon, told the assembled, “The bad guys are not going away.” And Roughead declared, “Our interests in the Navy will remain global.” Military readiness, he said, was critical in a world that is both “dangerous” and “unpredictable.” With calls to support “our warfighters” invoked repeatedly, research and development for UAVs will most certainly help sustain Washington’s global military footprint and profligate defense spending—roughly equal to all the rest of the world’s combined—far into the next decade.
The manufacturers of unmanned systems have benefited handsomely from that spending. The Los Angeles Times reports that in the last ten years the Pentagon has spent $20 billion on unmanned aerial systems, and the CIA and Congress have invested billions more. The AUVSI show itself has grown five-fold in the last decade. In Southern California alone, the UAV industry employs an estimated 10,000 people.
Costs and Consequences
At present there is no reason to fear that flying humvees and grenade launchers mounted on treaded robots will soon end up in local police department arsenals, or even along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Yet because it is impossible to separate the domestic use of unmanned vehicles from the military-industrial complex that has given rise to them (especially in the post-9/11 era), it is highly likely that a number of the military instruments that emerge from the burgeoning unmanned-systems industry will end up deployed within the United States.
Should we worry? What was perhaps most striking about AUVSI 2010 and the UAV Caucus technology fair was the almost total absence among attendees and participants of the sense that there might be a downside—human, financial, or otherwise—to the embrace of unmanned systems and the larger national-security complex which they are a part of. Those downsides are inextricably related to the profound social inequalities and injustices that plague American and global society. They are real and growing, and that is unlikely to change without a shift in national priorities.
International relations scholar and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich argues in Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War that what the United States currently defines as national-security priorities are the basis of endless militarism and a political-economic shipwreck. In addition to facilitating an American policy of global interventionism—with all its violence—these priorities have “allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding attention here at home.”
So even if UAVs were mere tools, such outcomes would still raise an essential question: for whom and for what ends does the toolbox exist?
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.