The three people driving out of Miranshah, a small town in the northern tribal region of Pakistan, on Oct. 31, probably heard a distant buzz before the deafening explosion that sent their car tumbling off the side of the road.
The passengers, later described as suspected militants by the United States and Pakistan, were incinerated, their remains left inside the charred vehicle.
Their fate began more than 7,000 miles away when two pilots sitting in a pretend cockpit at an Air Force base in Nevada, spotted the car on their screens. With the push of a button, they watched as a Hellfire missile took out its target.
Drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are the next big thing in contemporary warfare and are fast becoming the central pillar of the Obama administration’s ongoing war on terror.
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But while the world debates the legal and ethical implications of unmanned combat, there is little acknowledgment that these weapons are anything but unmanned.
“At the end, it’s always about people, no matter what,” said Asaf Gilboa, a former UAV operator for the Israeli Air Force who is now the CEO of Themis, an international UAV consultant firm.
The drone itself consists of five or six parts that can be dissembled, packed into a container known as “the coffin,” and deployed anywhere in the world. But inside that container is a lot more than just a vehicle: it’s an entire system, with satellite communication equipment, cameras and sensor systems, lasers, rangefinders, moving target indicators, and more.
The journey of the drone, operated by either the military or the CIA, begins in the hands of civilians.
“The military is like a rich kid with a trust-fund,” said Ricardo Valerdi, a professor of engineering at the University of Arizona who works with defense contractors on UAV development. “It wants to buy the finished product, and its interest is more in maintenance and operation than in actual development. So it hands over the money to the private companies.”
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Product development is led by contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing or General Dynamics — together capturing about 80 percent of the UAV market in the United States — which construct the drones from start to finish.
Building the drones, however, is only the first step. Testing a drone is the hard part, and presents a whole new set of problems from, say, testing a manned fighter jet.
“It is a human controlling an autonomous robot,” Valerdi said. “By the nature of this autonomy, they have a lot of divergent behaviors.”
In other words, a lot can go wrong. Pilots on the ground, for example, lack the same situational awareness and physical cues they would have in the cockpit of a jet.
“A bunch of sensors are trying to find each other in an environment where there may be no GPS or no radio,” Valerdi said. So, if something abnormal happens in the air, hovering over Miranshah, there’s not much the pilots sitting on the ground can do about it.
Once the companies are sure that the drone, with sensors and all, is safely and soundly up and running, they can deliver the final product to their customer, usually the U.S. military. From here, the military synchs the drone with the two other key components of the operation: the cockpit on the ground and the data system that glues the whole mission together.
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UAV pilots on the ground fly the drone as if it were any conventional aircraft, ready for takeoff with the joystick in their right hand.
“It’s the same as the environment of the typical cockpit, but the pilot is displaced,” Gilboa said. So, when the vehicle takes off, instead of seeing the field through a windshield, the pilot is looking at the rolling image streamed from a camera on the drone’s nose.
The information being relayed from the drone is fed to not only the pilot in Nevada, but a host of other people as well.
UAV missions “are about the movement of data instead of people,” Gilboa said.
And this is exactly what makes them so appealing. The pilot can be sitting anywhere, out of danger, and the images received in flight can be streamed anywhere — from legal advisors, to CIA personnel, to ground troops in Pakistan, and beyond.
And thanks to this mobility of data, the decision-making process in UAV combat is a lot more complex, and involving a lot more people than in traditional air warfare.
“Pilots are looking at the screen, but they do not have ultimate decisions to do everything that they’re capable of. Other people looking may be people parked on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Or it could be people at the Pentagon who are making the real decisions,” Valerdi said. “Say we are going to send the drone with a bunch of weapons on it, and depending on how that looks, there will be a bunch of people involved in that decision — and all of the social and political risks that it comes with.”
Once the drone is in flight, videos of the field are streamed live. The target — a vehicle filled with suspected militants, say — is identified on the ground. The pilot is given the go-ahead to fire.
And at the sound of 5-4-3-2-1, a missile launched by a drone piloted from Nevada hits its target in Miranshah, Pakistan.