by Cora Currier, ProPublica.
Everyone is talking about drones. Also known as Unmanned Arial Vehicles, or UAVs, remote-piloted aircrafts have become a controversial centerpiece of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism strategy. Domestically, their surveillance power is being hyped for everything from fighting crime to monitoring hurricanes or spawning salmon. Meanwhile, concerns are cropping up about privacy, ethics and safety. We’ve rounded up some of the best coverage of drones to get you oriented. Did we miss anything? Let us know.
A Little History
The idea of unmanned flight had been around for decades, but it was in the 1990s, thanks to advances in GPS and computing, that the possibilities for drones really took off, as the New Yorker recently recounted. While hobbyists and researchers looked for uses for automated, airborne cameras, the military became the driving force behind drone developments. (This history from the Washington Post has more details) According to the Congressional Research Service, the military’s cache of U.A.V.’s has grown from just a handful in 2001 to more than 7,000 today. This New York Times graphic shows the variety of drones currently employed by the military — from the famous missile-launching Predator to tiny prototypes shaped like hummingbirds.
This February, Congress cleared the way for far more widespread use of drones by businesses, scientists, police and still unknown others. The Federal Aviation Administration will release a comprehensive set of rules on drones by 2015.
The Shadow Drone War: Obama’s Open Secret
As the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the Obama administration has escalated a mostly covert air war through clandestine bases in the U.S. and other countries. Just this week, the administration’s drone-driven national security policy was documented in this book excerpt by Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman and a New York Times article.
Both the CIA and military use drones for “targeted killings” of terrorist leaders. The strikes have been an awkward open secret, remaining officially classified while government officials mention them repeatedly. Obama admitted the program’s existence in an online chat in February, and his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, gave a speech last month laying out the administration’s legal and ethical case for drone strikes.
The crux of it is that they are a precise and efficient form of warfare. Piloted from thousands of miles away (here’s an account from a base outside Las Vegas), they don’t put U.S. troops at risk, and, by the government’s count, harm few civilians.