Drones aren't robots. And to prevent civilian casualties, let's keep it that way.

Science, technology, and life.
April 25 2011 8:08 AM

Predators Need Editors

Killer drones aren't robots. And to protect civilians, let's keep it that way.

Now that NATO is using unmanned aerial vehicles to destroy Libyan artillery—now that drones are a mainstream global weapon—it's time to clear up a misconception about them. Drones aren't robots. They're remotely piloted by humans. And our challenge is to keep it that way.

A man pilots an MQ-9 Reaper drone.
An Air Force officer remotely pilots an MQ-9 Reaper aircraft
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

Some idiot in Slate called U.S. drone patrols in Pakistan a "robot proxy war" and now frets about "Terminators to Tripoli." Oh, wait—that's me.

The robot metaphor implies that drones reduce the human judgment that goes into each firing decision. The opposite is true. Drones increase our ability to scrutinize targets before we hit them. Our job is to exploit that ability.

The British report explains this paradox. It notes

the greater situational awareness provided by the sensors on a persistent unmanned aircraft that observes the battlespace for long, uninterrupted, periods which enables better decision making and more appropriate use of force. This is enhanced by the fact that the decision-maker is in the relatively stress-free environment of an air-conditioned cabin instead of in a fast jet cockpit.

In other words, a drone pilot can think more clearly and at greater length before firing, precisely because he isn't there.

In today's Washington Post, Walter Pincus highlights another way in which drones can increase human input. Summarizing a conference on unmanned air power at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Pincus reports:

Lt. Col. Bruce Black, program manager for the Air Force Predator and Reaper aircraft, noted that some 180 people are involved in each drone mission. The result, he said, is that "there is more ethical oversight involved with unmanned air vehicles than with manned aircraft." At the same conference, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden described how, with a Predator circling overhead, those involved in ordering use of its missiles from thousands of miles away can call up computer maps that show the potential effects of each weapon. Before any of the Hellfire missiles are launched, he said, the back-up team asks for the "the bug splat" of the attack—a readout of the impact the missile would have on its ground target. Nothing comparable can be done with ground-supporting manned aircraft, he said.

Everything these British and American officials say makes sense: Drones can give us more time, more composure, more eyes on the screen, and more voices in the weapon command and control chain to avoid civilian casualties. And that's exactly what's happening in Libya, according to a NATO statement issued Sunday: