” This is the week the world seemingly woke up to the U.S. government’s drone wars. Drones have fired missiles on thousands of targets and flown countless flight hours over battlefields in the Middle East and northern Africa. But last week, the Obama administration’s rationale for the legality of targeting U.S. citizens who are plotting with al-Qaida by means of airstrikes became public, and the administration used the argument to support the killing of U.S. citizen and al-Qaida member Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike in Yemen. Here’s a primer on the current and future use of unmanned aerial vehicles in combat.
What are drones, anyway?
Technically, even the name drone is used in error. The military calls its flying robots unmanned aerial systems, while some holdouts use the old Pentagon name unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The term drone used to imply the lack of a pilot onboard. Most unmanned aircraft have pilots that fly them by remote control, often from bases in the United States, halfway around the world. For example, a three-man crew flies the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper, not including the maintenance and takeoff/recovery personnel.
Some of the craft’s intelligent software allows the operators to set “hold modes” that designate orbits, altitudes, and speed limits. Still, drones can do some things on their own. A Reaper can autonomously auto-balance its draw of fuel from the wings to preserve its center of gravity, report mechanical failures during flights, follow waypoints, and automatically wheel over to a designated rally point if the satellite link to the ground station is lost.
Could UAVs Kill Without Human Permission?
In theory, yes. Here’s how it would work: A UAV would open fire only after clearing a checklist of technical details—its preset rules of engagement—from its sensors. But drone-builders and military leaders are truly wary of allowing this kind of aggression without a human in the decision-making loop. “