While military forces, police/intelligence agencies and interior ministries have set their sights on drones for missions spanning the full spectrum from terrain mapping to targeted killings, today’s unmanned vehicles remain reliant on human controllers who are often based hundreds, and sometimes thousands of kilometers away from the theater of operations. Consequently, although the use of drones substantially increases operational effectiveness — and, in the case of targeted killings, adds to the emotional distance between perpetrator and target — they remain primarily an extension of, and are regulated by, human decisionmaking.
All that could be about to change, with reports that the U.S. military (and presumably others) have been making steady progress developing drones that operate with little, if any, human oversight. For the time being, developers in the U.S. military insist that when it comes to lethal operations, the new generation of drones will remain under human supervision. Nevertheless, unmanned vehicles will no longer be the “dumb” drones in use today; instead, they will have the ability to “reason” and will be far more autonomous, with humans acting more as supervisors than controllers.
Scientists and military officers are already envisaging scenarios in which a manned combat platform is accompanied by a number of “sentient” drones conducting tasks ranging from radar jamming to target acquisition and damage assessment, with humans retaining the prerogative of launching bombs and missiles.
It’s only a matter of time, however, before the defense industry starts arguing that autonomous drones should be given the “right” to use deadly force without human intervention. In fact, Ronald Arkin of Georgia Tech contends that such an evolution is inevitable. In his view, sentient drones could act more ethically and humanely, without their judgment being clouded by human emotion (though he concedes that unmanned systems will never be perfectly ethical). Arkin is not alone in thinking that “automated killing” has a future, if the guidelines established in the U.S. Air Force’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047 are any indication.