09 June, 2013



Seems there remains not much new under the sun. Concepts for and actual drones have existed at least since the days of World War II. Granted, these were not the surgically precise death-dealers of today, but drones they were.

Historically drones have been used (or designed to be used) for multiple purposes, among them:

  • Flying active or passive decoys to draw attackers away from "real" aircraft
  • Primitive air-deployed cruise missiles armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads
  • Aerial photography or spy systems
  • "Sniffers" to fly through or around nuclear detonation clouds to sample radioactive debris 
  • Remote control targets for air or ground-based gunnery and missiles. It remains common that conventional aircraft past their prime are converted into drones for this purpose and several of them have lived to perform numerous flights, seemingly unkillable.
Modern drones capitalize on the confluence of technologies that allow them to be more autonomous; higher, faster, longer, and farther flying; reusable; multi-faceted; more perceptive in terms of the sensors they employ; and more accurate and lethal because of the weapons they carry.

Drones can be less intrusive (i.e., quieter and smaller) than a conventional manned aircraft and they can generally be counted on for more persistence over or near a specific location. They certainly ought to be less costly than manned airplanes and, minus the human element, can execute maneuvers that would disable or injure a human pilot. Losing a drone either to accident or enemy fire is not as problematic as losing a human pilot in enemy territory (although recent examples highlight the technological risks of such losses). Most drones today are remotely operated by human pilots. The pilots can be half a world away and their degree of involvement can vary from intensive "stick and rudder" control, setting objectives for a mission, overseeing execution of the mission, to giving final consent to fire a weapon.

Newer and more capable drones can fly their missions completely autonomously, including identifying and selecting targets and making the shoot/don't shoot decision. Therein lies the big moral issue with this new way of waging war: combat without casualties -- except for the bad guys, of course. Recent progress has been made in integrating drones within the hectic and exquisitely coreographed operations of aircraft carriers. Another concern with drone operations is how nicely they can interact with the existing air traffic control system and infrastructure.

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