This story is over 5 years old.

Will Data-Spewing Drones 'Save' Us From Data-Spewing Drones?

This is going to hurt to write, but I’ll go ahead and do it, anyway. At this point, in an age where "nearly one in three": American warplanes is a robot, all that’s left to slam the brakes on a...
January 12, 2012, 7:00pm

This is going to hurt to write, but I'll go ahead and do it, anyway. At this point, in an age where nearly one in three American warplanes is a robot, all that's left to slam the brakes on a runaway drone mentality that's speeding wildly toward autonomous horizons may be the drones themselves.

It sounds ridiculous, but it's really not. I’m not talking about the U.S.‘s mushrooming squadron of combat and surveillance drones rapidly evolving into fully aware, fully sentient beings that splinter off into warring factions while also picking off humans from high above – and potentially to no accountability, even if that awful prospect isn’t at all out of the realm of possibility. I'm talking about the great irony behind all the breakneck, leading-edge advances of remotely piloted systems: Because they can be so precise in their killings, and are so stoically capable of gathering mountains of extensive and intrusive information, American drones incubate absurd amounts of data during missions, the durations of which operators and control teams must fend off being buried under endless avalanches of data. Call it information overload via hoggish, voracious robots.

And at Creech Air Base in the Nevadan desert, or Langley Air Force Base in Virginia – two domestic drone flight centers – the stakes couldn’t be higher. Making sense of the right data sets, or plucking out some nugget of intel before it’s swept away in torrents of images and videos and crew correspondence, can mean the difference between successfully knocking out a clutch of suspected terrorists or, in one instance, failing to forward a critical tip that would’ve prevented American attack helicopters from mowing down 23 Afghan civilians. It's a curious twist in the age of digital surveillance. Too much intelligence can be lethal. Too much intelligence can thicken the cloud of war.

Teams ride torrents of drone data, images, video feeds, and personnel correspondence in 12-hour shifts at Langley Air Force Base in Virgina (via Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The thought, then, of a covert CIA drone nailing a "public" Air Force drone, or vice versa, doesn't sound all that far fetched. Both entities fly drones, though the CIA’s doings are more blacked out than the AF’s. Both have separate budgets and answer to separate committees. It’s almost as if the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, under which the AF falls, aren’t on speaking terms. Intelligence historian Matthew Aid tells NPR that in his book Intel Wars he quotes one ODNI official as saying, “It would be nice if the boys over at the Pentagon let us know what they were up to.”

So a non-lethal, friendly-aerial fire between two American sky robots, with at least one vehicle being oblivious to the other’s colors, could actually be what forces officials and contractors to just chill for a minute, because we all know that recently expired 55-day “lull” of American drone strikes in Pakistan was a total joke. If for no other reason but shame and embarrassment over shooting down one of its own multi-million dollar stealth craft, a data-deluge gaffe such as this would force the U.S. to realize that continually ratcheting up the unmanned aerial option is only just clusterfucking more and more data flows, and likely wreaking havoc on pilots’ stress, attention and overall psychological well being.

OK, yeah, it may still sound silly. But go on, tell me the Pentagon, whose freshly slimmed budget does nothing more than put drones front and center of President Obama’s remove-‘em-surgically counterterrorism strategy, isn’t setting its myriad unmanned aerial vehicles on one crash course or another.

Imagine that. A radical, much needed national reevaluation of a fever-pitch drone meme only made possible by robotic pigs flying through the fog of war, missiles blazin.’


Reach this writer at @TheBAnderson