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Death by Remote

Drones ­or unmanned aerial vehicles herald a new era of warfare, one that grants long-range impunity, devastating killing power and unprecedented surveillance to its privileged combatants. Peter Popham charts its long and storied history.


Illustration by Rashmi Gupta | Dev Kabir Malik Design

he world's first glimpse of a killer drone in action was over the English Channel: a Royal Navy patrol boat reported "a bright horizontal flame" in the sky. The device emitting the flame had stubby wings and was shaped like a rocket, and was travelling from the French coast at more than 200mph. Too small and too fast to be intercepted, it arrived in England's Home Counties without warning, as it plunged earthwards the low drone of the motor cut out and there were three seconds of silence before the massive explosion. Where it exploded, the human beings at the epicentre simply disappeared, vaporised.

Of course, for all the similarities, this was not a Reaper or a Predator, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) used in action by the British and the US militaries today. This was the Vergeltungswaffe, the V-1, known affectionately to its German makers as the Maybug and to its terrorised British targets as the 'doodlebug'. The Nazis had experimented with making it radio-controlled, but in the end its navigation system was crude. Yet this PAC (pilotless aircraft) – Hitler's last, desperate throw of the dice as the Allies swarmed towards Berlin – marked the start of a new era in warfare as decisively as did 'Fat Man' and 'Little Boy', which plummeted towards Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few months later.

The Predator and the Reaper and their rivals and relatives, some developed at Cranfield Aerospace in Bedford, are crucially different from the Maybug because they target their victims so precisely. Drones in service or development today have a 400ft wingspan, intended to cruise non-stop for five years, to tiny microdrones powered by miniature batteries. Some are the size of a Boeing 727, while the Predators and Reapers used in Afghanistan are comparable in size to model aircraft. But whatever their shapes or sizes, all of them are designed for one of two purposes: spying or killing.

Even some very sophisticated modern drones look like toys and you can even build one at home – like the Japanese-American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who has been building a surveillance drone at his home. Famous for coining the phrase 'The End of History' to describe the global situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he wrote about it recently in the Financial Times. "The drone is a remotely controlled quadcopter – a small helicopter with four rotor blades that looks like a flying X, with an onboard video camera that sends a live feed back to my laptop base station... In future, I plan to equip the aircraft with an autopilot system that will allow it to fly from one GPS-specified location to another without my having to pilot it."

For all the technological refinements, the device in Fukuyama's video (on YouTube) seems like something you could buy at the local toy shop. But it's also a fiendishly efficient killing machine, the ultimate spy weapon, and a tool of potentially vast utility to police forces, farmers, estate agents and journalists.

The first major use of killer drones by the US was when Predators attacked a convoy in Yemen in 2002, killing the Al-Qaida leader in the country. Since then, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, their use has increased exponentially

It is in the US, of course, that the possibilities are being most energetically explored. Rural Louisiana has a problem with feral pigs, which breed rapidly and root up farmers' crops: new state rules are planned to permit their hunting. Last year, a local electrical engineer called Cy Brown devised a labour-saving approach to the problem. Equipping a model plane with a heat-sensing camera, he sends the 'Dehogaflier', as he calls it, up over his brother's rice farm and the craft sends images of the pigs back to a computer on the ground, enabling hunters to locate them and head to the spot to shoot them.

If feral pig hunters can find a use for such devices, so can many other people: often it is the courts more than the technology that set the limits, and a law signed by President Obama in February prevents the Federal Aviation Administration from stopping the use of drones for many commercial purposes. For a real-estate agent to seduce potential clients with aerial movies of his most expensive properties would, until recently, have required a camera crew, a full-sized helicopter and a Hollywood-sized budget to pull off. But now that the strict rules controlling private use of the skies have been rolled back, it can be done for next to nothing, by a drone equipped with a camera. Other uses in the planning stage include, crop dusting, monitoring oil spills and wildlife, and surveying damage from natural disasters.

Steven Gitlin, a spokesman for AeroVironment, a California-based drone manufacturer, spelled out some of the possibilities of drone use for police forces. "Think of a toddler wandering away from home, or an elderly person with Alzheimer's wandering off in a city," he said. "Think of an office hostage situation where exits and entrances need to be watched or a hazardous-material incident at a chemical plant where it's too dangerous to send in people. Think of traffic accidents. How useful would it be to have a system that can fly 100ft above and piece together a picture of what happened? These systems can be kept in the trunk of a car and deployed in five minutes."Image 2nd

George Orwell was the first to describe the possibilities, in his novel, 1984. "In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and dashed away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people's windows..." he wrote in the novel's first chapter. The technology was not all that far behind him. The first drones capable of subtly controlled movement were a spin-off from the Cold War space race. By the time the US was fighting in Vietnam, the utility of the new devices had become plain. "Vietnam was decisive to the development of drones, as the perfect tools to perform dangerous missions without the risk of losing a pilot," according to aviation historian David Cenciotti. By the time America pulled out, their drones had flown some 3,500 ISR – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – missions.

"It was in May 2010 that I first spotted the flying drones that will take over the world," Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate magazine earlier this year. In a video shot in a robotics lab in the University of Pennsylvania, "an insect-like, laptop-sized 'quadrotor' performs a series of increasingly difficult tricks," he wrote. "The drone can fly through or around pretty much any obstacle. We see it dance through an open window with fewer than three inches of clearance...It gets a claw-like gripper that allows it to pick up objects, and then it learns to 'co-operate' with other drones and pick things up together." The tiny drones fly through obstacles, land clumsily and recover, get together in a team to build structures, flying in a coordinated ballet.

This is the latest and perhaps most hair-raising development: "They're built," Manjoo writes, "to automatically, instantly collaborate in the air. The behaviour is modelled after insects like ants – it happens without a central coordinator, via the drones' ability to sense their distance from one another as they fly. By the time you've stopped staring (at the video), you've opened another browser tab to look for good deals on bomb shelters."

In a few weeks, the US Army is expected to deploy in Afghanistan its latest helicopter-style drone, the A160 Hummingbird, equipped with 1.8 gigapixel colour cameras. Able to hover, unlike current drones, it will have "unprecedented capability to track and monitor activity on the ground", the Army says. Able to track people and vehicles from above 20,000ft, and with a 65sq-mile field of view, it will have 65 steerable "windows" able to follow separate targets. More modest surveillance drones may be used to enhance police monitoring of London's Olympics.

The first major use of killer drones by the US was when Predators attacked a convoy in Yemen in 2002, killing the Al-Qaida leader in the country. Since then, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, their use has increased exponentially. The US is now believed to have 19,000 Predator and Reaper drones in war theatres. Britain's Reaper drones have carried out 200 strikes in Afghanistan, 3,000 alleged terrorists are said to have been killed by them, along with many hundreds of non-terrorists unlucky enough to have been in the way.

President Obama has proved a big fan of drones: the US has made 200 drone strikes on Pakistan, compared to the 44 ordered by his predecessor. Under George W. Bush, around 400 died in such strikes, while under Obama the number is believed to be around 1,600. His expanded use of the devices, despite the obvious and glaring moral issues that remote-control murder poses, has proved politically canny: their use has attracted a derisory amount of criticism. Protesters haven't yet succeeded in making their voices heard over the silence of the politicians and the snores of the majority.

The reason is not hard to find. Drones allow the US to kill "bad guys" in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan where no US troops are committed. And at the same time they ensure that these obscure, undeclared battlefields yield no body bags to trouble the sleep of America. That's no doubt why US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has called drones, "the only game in town".

They will doubtless continue to enjoy a large degree of impunity in our mass media, either until a lot of people come to see the ordinary inhabitants of places such as Pakistan's North West Frontier as human beings who deserve to be left in peace; or (and this is likely to happen sooner) some of our nastier enemies get hold of similarly terrifying technology and start to use it. Then, and the day cannot be far away, we will suddenly see the other side of the story.

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