A US military unmanned aerial vehicle flies low over the tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in search of its target. 12 000 kilometres away, a young man in a faded Call of Duty t-shirt sits behind an array of dimly lit screens. A can of Mountain Dew rests in one hand, his legs slumped on a box of CDs beside him. Squinting at the displays, he sits motionless and silent, occasionally with his free hand tilting a joystick left and right.
Or so the popular perception would go.
A drone pilot’s working day is enjoyed from the comfort of a chair. With major decision-making issued from above, the pilot need only follow standard procedure with a cool and level head. From ground level, the sound of a drone flying overhead might normally cause fear, except their operation is silent. Their sight might inspire trepidation, only they are too indistinct for the untrained eye. Only when their target is destroyed is the hysteria real.
This is a paradox at the centre of the debate surrounding the ethics of drone combat by the US military. A Pentagon study found that some 30% of drone pilots experience an “existential crisis” during their career. As artificial intelligence reaches the point of “singularity”, military technology approaches a level of autonomy dangerously detached from human moral processes – the future of war is beginning to look like a video game.
So what commercial use could anyone possibly have for a deadly, expensive killing machine? This level of sophistication has in recent years proven useful for civilian application. In the same year that 16 militants are killed in northwest Pakistan in a large scale strike, the Federal Aviation Administration (the US body in charge of regulation of the air industry), last month granted its first ever commercial licenses to two manufacturers (Boeing and AeroVironment).
Enterprising French band Phoenix recently released a music video for their song ‘Entertainment’, shot entirely on a drone-guided camera – the results are unprecedented and breathtaking. Public opinion of the US drone program though has been mixed. Some reports have outlined enormous public support (as much as 59%), while others have not been so favourable. The US government has been fighting a public relations battle on the home front to find a comfortable place for drones in the American public consciousness, where the financial, human and political costs of its last two military engagements overseas remain visible and raw.
Is the commercialisation of high-tech, dangerous military technology though in some way tantamount to civilian profiteering of war? Maybe at a stretch, but for the moment the proliferation of the technology is aiding police, firefighters, freight, and conservation efforts for governments around the world. Detractors meanwhile harangue their dim view of an ‘Orwellian’ future where drones are ominously wielded by the Thought Police of the Obama administration. However, one only need be reminded of the NSA’s recent PRISM scandal to see their relative innocuousness in this regard.
I will be watching with interest as drone use is diversified across whatever industries can find use for them. And of course listening to the rest of that Phoenix album.