This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine features an exclusive excerpt from my book, Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, from Little, Brown and Company, out next month. A brief intro from the essay has been included below; for the full version, visit Harper’s website.
LOITERING WITH INTENT
By William M. Arkin
If you have spent any time thinking about the exponential increase in the use of unmanned vehicles over the past decade, you have probably thought about the Predator drone. Every second of every day, about fifty Predators are airborne. Each weighs more than a ton and has wings that extend the length of four automobiles. They fly at altitudes of 15,000 to 25,000 feet and can stay aloft for more than forty hours. They conduct deadly missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fly quietly over Yemen and Syria, assist law enforcement in Africa and Latin America, patrol borders, monitor oceans, and do civilian and scientific work of all kinds.
Government propaganda, the news media, and Hollywood movies characterize drones almost exclusively as high-flying hunterkillers and all-seeing information machines. In fact, more than 90 percent of the world’s drones are small, short-range, and unarmed. Only about 5 percent of the drones operated by the U.S. government are as large as manned airplanes. Predators, which garner so much of the public’s attention, make up an even smaller subset—there are just a few hundred worldwide. Most U.S. military drones belong to a single type—a 4.2-pound spy machine called the Raven. These and other human-portable devices are all but standard government issue for soldiers these days, like binoculars or radios. They are remarkable, to be sure, but they are remarkable mostly in the way of smartphones: omnipresent, ultraconvenient, annoying, distancing, and subtly threatening to privacy and security. There’s no doubt that they exert an influence on our society, even if the ultimate nature of that influence is unclear.
The civilian market for unmanned vehicles has expanded to serve scientific, industrial, consumer, educational, and entertainment purposes. Drones play an increasing role in industries as diverse as real estate and journalism, weather forecasting and agriculture. They identify forest fires and pipeline leaks, relay radio signals, and assist in archaeological and environmental research. They have also, of course, become popular with local, state, and federal law enforcement. Border agencies and police departments, emulating their military counterparts, have acquired unmanned vehicles not just for bomb disposal and other dangerous missions but also for intelligence collection and surveillance. Advances in information technology, nanotechnology, and even genetics, together with the continued miniaturization of nearly everything, are propelling an astonishing acceleration of drone capabilities. The future promises personal drones of amazing sophistication that weigh just a gram.