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Is Drone Maintenance Our Last Stand Against Going Off 'the Loop'?

As cold, unfeeling and rogue a Predator or Reaper may come off, drone upkeep is markedly human.

by Brian Anderson
Jan 22 2013, 4:15pm
Mechanics tend to a US Reaper drone at dusk (via Battlespace Flight Services)

One of the bigger fears over the increasing reliance on semi-autonomous hunter-killer drones is that humans are being pinched off "the loop"--and that's if we haven't already been phased entirely out of deciding when to launch the things, where they should go, how they should get there, and finally, what they should do when they get there. It's often a slippery slope to talk of full-on loss of control to errant, self-starting ghost drones and, let's be real, of jobs. 

This simply is not the case. As these technologies continue pervading seemingly every last branch of the armed forces, perhaps the greatest irony of the fear-of-being-unlooped (and of the dawn of a new era of shadow wars waged from afar) is that the so-called "dull, dirty, dangerous" rationale for using militarized drones implies a staggering reliance on sheer manpower. As cold, unfeeling and rogue a Predator or Reaper may come off, drone upkeep is markedly human. 

Case in point: Battlespace Flight Services. The usual suspects of drone R&D--SoCal giants like General Atomics, whch builds both the Predator Reapers, and Aerovironment--may be the show stoppers. But it's maintenance and technical support firms like Battlespace that for better or worse keep the whole show up and running.

To wit: Battlespace just received a $13.7 million contract modification to its MQ-1 (Predator) sensor operations and maintenance services at Creech Air Base in Nevada, Whiteman Air Base in Missouri, and "deployed sites worldwide." All told, between 2007 and 2013, the Arlington, VA-based provider (who's hiring) will have been awarded some $575 million in maintenance contracts from the US Air Combat Command's Acquisition Management and Integration Center at Langley Air Base in Virginia for both Predator and Reaper system upkeep. 

And that's just to get the things ready to fly. Once they're good to roll, pilots at air bases overseas will see to it that the drones are launched and cruising safely, at which point the controls are handed over to operators inside the US (at Creech and Langley, namely) to carry out the bulk of the mission before controls are handed back over to on-site crew for landings. Loop concerns are legitimate, and should be heeded. But this side of things, too, is still decidedly human-driven. It isn't a two-person job, either. A single Global Hawk spy mission requires a crew of well over 100 people from front to back, from maintenace to mission to data-mining everything pulled in by the massive spy drone. 

Which is to say, even if man is veering irreparably close to the fringes of being either "on" or "in" the drone loop--it may be too late to stop that--we're still around to control the skid. 

Reach Brian at @thebanderson