It sees what most cannot see. It ventures where few dare to venture. It fails to shudder at the slew of bullets and is, for the most part, immortal. Created and controlled by man, this daring sketch of the human imagination has solidified into reality through the drone.
With this manifestation comes controversy, perhaps from the complex nature of the drone: composed of a mind that belongs to man, and a body that belongs to robot.
Drones cannot exist or operate without human controllers. Their missions, tactics, and goals are determined by a human, not the robot itself. The power of the drone is derived from its technology: titanium wings that can withstand extreme temperatures, powerful cameras programmed to effectively capture long-range pictures, and propellers allowing it to travel up to 135 mph. The fact that drones cannot operate without a human mind suggests that drones are superhuman once paired with one. A man’s wily nature and the invincibility of metal construct controversy.
This pairing of man’s tumultuous nature and machinery’s superhuman capabilities begins with one particular engineering mastermind: Abraham E. Karem.
“I am a toy man,” he tells Air Space Mag, “what motivates me from the time I was a kid — call it technology, call it whatever — it was play.” A pioneer in unmanned aerial space technology, Karem began building his legacy by working on a radar-fooling drone decoy. After, he was requested to create Amber, a drone that would keep surveillance on drug traffickers in Latin America.
‘Heroic’ seems to be a fitting description for the early chapters of drones’ existence. Drones opened people’s eyes to more efficient method of drug trafficking surveillance, petty crimes, and international peacekeeping. They could also help with food security through precision agriculture, a strategy in which drones will be able to pinpoint deteriorating parts of fields and better care for them. Not only that, drones would have the ability to deliver food and medicine to millions of people in need. Drones would be flying in the sky, fulfilling comic book descriptions of superheroes—protecting civilians and keeping the peace. All drones seemed to be missing were capes and a great jawline.
“He lives to create,” CIA chief James Woolsey says of Karem. However, just as how with every light comes a shadow, with creation comes destruction. And to understand the darker side of drones, we must look back to Karem and his work, the Predator.
Composed of “graphite epoxy composites and lighter than an economy car,” the Predator led the transition from the drone being merely an unmanned utility vehicle to a military necessity. It is skilled and precise, used by the CIA for targeted killings, and has grown in popularity: the amount of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the United States increased from a handful in 2001 to over 8,000 in 2013.
As with any other military advancement, its inception was violently effective. In 2013, Amnesty International estimated that there have been from 330 to 374 US drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013, and that, according to their sources, between 400 and 900 civilians were killed in these attacks, with 600 people seriously wounded. It is no surprise that many would go on to believe that “US drone strike policy appears to allow extrajudicial executions in violation of the right to life, virtually anywhere in the world.” Not only that, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes continue to be focused on domestic buildings and in 2014, the total reported number of people killed from US drone strikes lies between from 2,410 to 3,902 lives. The heroic drone had become the villain.
The reliance on drones for war is worrisome, says Keith Shurtleff, an army chaplain and ethics instructor at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He worries about dissociation, worrying that as war becomes safer and easier and “as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide.”
Such a deterrent is vital, for the deterrent is what forces soldiers to take permanent and impactful actions, such as taking another man’s life, only when absolutely necessary. It is this deterrent that ironically translates into a respect for human life, for soldiers will only take a life when they have no better option. Shurtleff points out a understandable concern, that soldiers will not appreciate the immensity of their actions as drone controllers. And this concern brings about an important underlying question: what we value more. The increased safety of our military and civilians or the utmost respect soldiers should have for human life?
With great power comes great responsibility. And with great responsibility comes great controversy. As we have just seen, the drone’s nature is neither obviously good nor obviously bad, and just as mysterious or complex as the nature of its creators. For what truly powers these drones, is the human controllers, and human nature is not black and white. Humans are infinitely complex, and from that complexity stems the issue of what we should do with our new powers and technology. And while it is difficult to find a truly right answer, we may at least remember that technology is meant to be the means through which we try to achieve a better world for humanity.
We are all defined by our actions, and our creations are held to the same standard as long as we are controlling them. In drones, we manifest human nature with all its complexity; they embody humanity’s vast capability for good, and its insidious capacity for mayhem.