Why you should care
America’s stealth war on terror is going to get stealthier and more terrorizing.
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Drones have finally come full circle. No, the drones aren’t operating us…not yet, at least. But linguistically speaking, the unmanned aerial vehicles that were originally nicknamed “drones” in the 1930s after the British “Queen Bee” line of radio-controlled aircraft are now actually being developed to resemble their insect brethren. Just down the road from the pasture where the Wright brothers conducted some of their first manned flights, the 4,000-square-foot “micro-aviary” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is abuzz with the flight tests of micro-sized drones.
The goal is nothing less than a swarming army capable of patrolling streets, peeking through windows and, yes, administering a lethal blow.
Current battery technology limits the flight times of this generation of drones and will likely do so for another decade. But what researchers at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have done to make drones that mimic the behavior of bugs and birds is quite impressive. For example, moths with wings made of carbon fiber run on piezoelectric motors. The goal is nothing less than a swarming army capable of patrolling streets, perching on buildings, peeking through windows and, yes, administering a lethal blow. They are essentially “bugs with bugs,” says Peter W. Singer at the Brookings Institution, who wrote Wired for War.
The prospect of insect drones pursuing terrorist foes abroad may not sound so bad, and may reduce collateral damage from drone attacks dramatically. But drones’ potential domestic use—by the government or even terrorists, criminals or private citizens–should have you screening in your backyard. Border protection agencies already use predator drones to spot illegal immigrants, Hezbollah claims to possess drones acquired from Iran, and last year a Massachusetts man received prison time for a plot to use drones containing C-4 explosives on Washington, D.C. And with a new law that allows the Federal Aviation Administration to open up American airspace to drones by September 2015, the private manufacturing and use of drones is about to take off as well.
But, if you think the growing ranks of drones mean the decline of human actors in the military and police forces, think again. Someone has to watch all the footage the drones are shooting, after all. And while about 19 analysts per drone is sufficient today to monitor the 1,500 hours of video being captured by drones on combat air patrols, with the proliferation of drones, including those with “Gorgon stare” technology, somewhere along the lines of 2,000 analysts per drone may be required.
There’s still plenty of time before the drone invasion. But perhaps it’s time to start adding carnivorous flowers to your garden or to re-evaluate how you feel about investing in that insect zapper.