October 25, 2011:
The mass media is having a good time with the idea that several hundred Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk herald an unprecedented age of robot surveillance and destruction. Actually, it's a practice that has been present for thousands of years, and one that, like everything else in the last century, is taking advantage of new technology.
It's all about information. Warfare grew out of hunting, and hunting was all about information. Namely, where the prey was and where it was headed. To this day, hunters who have learned to read the signs (detect spoor, the term for the signs any critter leaves behind) and follow it, are more likely to bring home the fresh meat. As hunting evolved into warfare, the ability to track gave your side an edge. This evolved into espionage, but it was all about correctly noting and interpreting signs that were, well, just there. Be they footprints, bent grass, marks on trees or rocks, or gossip in a market place, those who could collect and sort out the spoor, had an edge.
The military first saw aircraft as a better way to collect information. Combat (shooting at other aircraft and bombing ground targets) came later. What UAVs do is allow you to keep aircraft over an area of interest more cheaply. But just because these aircraft are unmanned does not mean they are robots. They are controlled from the ground. In the past, the pilot and observer were on board, which required a larger and more expensive aircraft, which could not stay in that air as long as an unmanned one. What made the modern UAV possible is cheaper, smaller and more reliable cameras, computers and communications gear.
Commanders have always wanted more aerial reconnaissance, and until UAVs came along, it was too expensive to put as many recon aircraft up there as were needed for "persistent" (continuous) surveillance. Now that they have it, those ignorant of history see something sinister. That's nothing new, but that's another story.
What you will see evolving out of the current UAVs is more software to handle the tedious job of constantly scanning the ground for something useful. This software has been around for over a decade, and is slowly being incorporated into analyzing all sorts of digital video feeds. In factories, it looks for unsafe work habits. In stores, it looks for shoplifters, and shopping patterns. In hospitals, it monitors patients, especially unconscious ones, for signs of trouble, or improvement. In police work, the software can scan through thousands of hours of video for clues and suspects. On the battlefield, scanning software looks for signs of the enemy, and what they are up to.
But people still create the software, and interpret the results. People still fly the robotic aircraft, with the help of the same kind of automatic pilot software long used in manned aircraft. Thus it's not an ominous development we are witnessing, just history in action. Trends happen more quickly these days, and not just for consumer electronics.