Drones: From Afghanistan to Your Own Backyard

Adrienne Erin |

The Pentagon just loves its drones, unmanned planes ranging in size from passenger planes to ̶ if rumors are correct ̶ tiny devices as small as hummingbirds. Despite concerns with crashes, civilian causalities and charges of arbitrary executions, drones continue to play large roles in the Afghan and Iraqi theaters.

Oh yes, and they’re flying in U.S. Airspace as well. Well, I feel safe. And not worried about my privacy one little bit. Because there’s no possible way this could end badly, right? Sure . . .

Types of Drones

Despite the many varieties of drones, the unmanned aircraft come in two flavors: armed and unarmed. Armed drones carry missiles and bombs. Unarmed drones carry surveillance equipment and are used for reconnaissance, a gentlemanly way of saying they spy on people.

Armed Drones and the Nature of Combat

In President Obama’s first presidency, over 41 armed drone strikes took place in Afghanistan, and those are just the ones made public. But that’s okay, because you expect combat in a war zone, right?

Well yes, but not everyone agrees drone use counts as combat. Philip Alston, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur for extrajudiciary and arbitrary executions, refers to drone use less as combat and more as “targeted killing.”

If drone-related rumors are accurate, their strikes don’t even count as targeted kills. Rumors abound of civilians on both sides of the Afghanistan / Pakistan border killed by unmanned drone strikes ̶ but at least a human pilot has a chance of spotting the difference between a marketplace and a military camp.

Videogame Syndrome

Actually, while some drones fly on preprogrammed instructions, many of the armed drones are controlled by flight crews on the ground, far removed from the theater of war. Specifically, drones in Afghanistan are piloted from the Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas.

It’s valid to ask how distance affects a pilot’s judgment. His drone is a world away, and the only information he gets are images on a screen. Images on a screen aren’t people ̶ in fact, they look alarmingly like a video game.

Ever seen a young man play a first person war simulation? The body count is horrendous. That’s fine when the image is just an image, but terrifying when the image is of real people.

Coming to a State Near You

In January of 2012, President Obama signed a bill allowing the use of drones in U.S. airspace. Police have expressed interest in drones, as they would be able to conduct long-term surveillance from a safe distance.

Private industry also has an interest. If you get in a motorcycle accident, you hire a lawyer like Russ Brown. Now imagine the implications if your legal opponent provides drone tapes of the accident. Is such footage, taken without a warrant, legal in court?

Domestic drone use has another tiny problem. No, I’m not talking about flying versions of Robocop diving out of the sky at you, although the possibility of armed drones in domestic airspace is alarming. I’m talking about the disturbing tendency drones have to crash.

The military doesn’t like talking about it ̶ I mean, really doesn’t like talking about it ̶ but combinations of pilot error, mechanical failure and other problems have lead to more than a few drones nose-diving into the ground, some disturbingly close to airbases.

Unlike regular pilots, drone pilots have limited range of vision and no peripheral vision. A manned fighter drifting too close to a passenger jet can detect the problem and make adjustments. A ground jockey flying a drone?

Yeah, not so much.

Adrienne is a blogger at Pongra and aspiring writer. When she’s not blogging about tech and social media, you might find her practicing her French, whipping up some recipes she found on Pinterest, or obsessing over vintage postcards and stamps.