Drone Home

They fight and spy for America abroad. But what happens when drones return home?

  • Gregg Segal for TIME

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    In 1944 the Navy's Project Anvil tried to adapt B-24 Liberators to take off from the U.K. under human control, crammed with bombs, then continue on to Germany after the pilot parachuted to safety. The program was an utter failure, and it claimed the life of Joseph Kennedy, older brother of the future President, when his B-24 blew up prematurely. The U.S. used drones in Vietnam for reconnaissance, but the Drone Age didn't truly dawn until 2001, on the first night of the ground war in Afghanistan, when the first Predator strike took place. That specific Predator, designated No. 3034, now hangs from the ceiling of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

    Strictly by the numbers, America's drone campaign has been an overwhelming success. According to the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public-policy institute based in Washington, U.S. drone attacks have claimed the lives of more than 50 high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. But the seductive theoretical simplicity of drone warfare — omniscient surveillance, surgical precision, zero risk — has led the nation into a labyrinth of confusion and moral compromise. In 2012 Obama described the government's drone campaign as "a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists trying to go in and harm Americans" that hasn't caused "a huge number of civilian casualties." Whether this is accurate may depend on what the word huge means to you. It's hard to get good statistics: the government's drone strikes in Afghanistan are conducted by the military and are mostly overt, but elsewhere they're carried out either solely or jointly by the CIA and are generally covert, meaning the U.S. doesn't admit that they're happening. There are several nonprofit organizations that aggregate and reconcile reports of covert drone attacks. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a U.K. nonprofit, estimates that since 2004, CIA drone attacks have killed 2,629 to 3,461 people in Pakistan alone, of whom 475 to 891 were civilians. The New America Foundation puts those numbers somewhat lower, from 1,953 to 3,279, of whom 261 to 305 were civilians. (The CIA declined to comment for this story.)

    The morality of the U.S. drone campaign, and its legality under domestic or international law, is the subject of bitter debate. Counterterrorism chief John Brennan and other Administration officials argue publicly that the drone strikes are legal under the 2001 authorization that allows the use of force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and their affiliates. "These platforms ... are an advanced tool that provides in certain cases a clear perspective on what's happening on the battlefield and are what allows us to be precise," a U.S. official told Time. "And that is, of course, the goal of all our operations: to put pressure on al-Qaeda, to take people off the battlefield where that's been deemed necessary and, of course, to avoid any collateral damage wherever possible." But critics, including Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's Center of Democracy, say the government's targets have broadened beyond the scope of the 2001 authorization. The international legal outlook is even murkier: a U.N. special rapporteur has written, "If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos." According to reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, the Obama Administration conducts so-called signature strikes, which are aimed not at specific high-level targets but at any person or people whose behavior conforms to certain suspicious patterns. On Jan. 24 the U.N. announced a special investigation into civilian deaths resulting from U.S. drone strikes.

    The U.S. government's position is that it declines on national-security grounds to declassify the full legal justifications for its covert drone attacks; so far that position has withstood a legal challenge. But whatever their legal validity, the practical effectiveness of drone strikes is undermined by their tendency to outrage and radicalize populations against the U.S. As controversial as it is, there was heartwarming bipartisan agreement in last fall's presidential election that American drone policy wasn't going to be seriously discussed by either candidate. It's possible that the elevation of Brennan to head of the CIA will bring about greater transparency and public accountability. Brennan has pushed for both. Critics of the drone program say his close involvement in the development of the current drone campaign doesn't set a great precedent.

    Bottom line: the U.S. seems to be struggling to adapt its 20th century moral code of warfare to the 21st century practice of sending flying robots into other countries to kill people. It appears that drones are evolving faster than Americans' ability to understand how, legally and ethically, to use them.

    Five years ago the Parrot couldn't have existed; it's an anthology of fresh-off-the-vine technologies. Five years ago there weren't cameras as tiny and sharp or chips as tiny and fast. Batteries weren't as light and didn't last as long. Smart phones and tablets still had a long way to go, as did the hyperminiaturized sensors with which the Parrot is studded: an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer and a pair of ultrasound altimeters. A few weeks ago, Parrot announced an add-on GPS widget that will be available later this year.

    In a way, drones represent the much delayed coming of age of a field that has experienced a prolonged adolescence, namely robotics. For decades robots stumbled along on the ground, slowly and clumsily, rarely achieving even bipedal locomotion. Right now the apex of consumer robotics is that humble domestic trilobite, the Roomba. But it turns out that the earth's surface is simply not the robot's natural domain. When robots take to the air, they're faster and nimbler and more graceful than humans will ever be. All along, robots just wanted to be drones.

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