Drone Wars

In May 2013, President Barack Obama gave a long-anticipated speech at the National Defense University, at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., in which he said it was time to bring the war on terror to a close. “This war, like all wars, must end,” he said, and quoted the 1795 warning by James Madison, who stated, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” It was President Obama’s first war speech of his second term.

In the context of the history of the modern American war machine—the advanced science and technology of which is spearheaded by DARPA—there was significance in the president’s words and symmetry in the locale. It was here at Fort McNair that, fifty-five years earlier, twenty-two defense scientists gathered to produce ARPA Study No. 1, the first of thousands of secret and unclassified DARPA studies outlining which weapons would best serve the United States in coming wars.

“America is at a crossroads,” President Obama said. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle”—meaning the war on terror—“or else it will define us.” Much of the rest of the president’s speech focused on the use of armed drones. He mentioned drone strikes on fourteen separate occasions in his roughly fifteen-minute talk. The summary point reported across news outlets was that President Obama was curtailing the use of drones.

He was doing no such thing, nor, really, did the president say he was. He merely said, “I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action,” meaning that White House and CIA lawyers would continue to be in the loop before individual terrorists were targeted for assassination by unmanned systems, including American citizens living overseas. As commander in chief, the president had twice endorsed significant Department of Defense reports, “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY 2011–2036” and “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY 2013–2038,” which called for the amplification, not the curtailment, of the Pentagon’s pursuit of robotic warfare. These two reports, roughly three hundred pages in total, made clear that Pentagon drones were positioned to lead the way forward over the next twenty-five years of war.

DARPA’s vast weapon systems of the future will involve an entire army of drones. They will include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned ground systems (UGS), unmanned surface vehicles (USV), unmanned maritime systems (UMS), and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), weapons that reach from the depths of the ocean into outer space. At present and in the future, the Pentagon’s drones will fly, swim, crawl, walk, run, and swarm as they conduct missions around the globe. Some of these drones will be cyborgs, or what DARPA calls “biohybrids,” which are part animal and part machine. And the technology, which has been building for decades, is closer than the average citizen might think.

In the very heart of Washington, D.C., across the street from the White House, sits a public park called Lafayette Square, so named to honor the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. The park has a storied history. It briefly housed a graveyard and for a while a racetrack. Slaves were sold here. During the War of 1812, the seven-acre park served as a soldiers’ encampment. In the modern era it has become home to war protests. It was here, during an antiwar rally in the fall of 2007, that Bernard Crane, a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney, saw one of the strangest things he had ever seen in his life.

“My daughter had asked me to take her to the demonstration, so I did,” Crane explains. “I certainly wouldn’t have been there on my own. I was half-paying attention to what was going on onstage and half-looking around when I saw three incredibly large dragonflies overhead,” says Crane. “They moved in unison, as if they were in lockstep. My first thought was, ‘Are those dragonflies mechanical? Or are they alive?’”

Nearby, someone shouted, “Oh my God, look at those!” Many people looked up. Vanessa Alarcon, a college student from New York, recalled her reaction. “I’m like, ‘What the hell is that?’ They looked kind of like dragonflies or little helicopters.” But she felt certain about one thing. “Those are not insects,” Alarcon said.

Likewise, Bernard Crane surmised that the creatures were not hatched of this world. “All three moved together,” says Crane. “They would move to the left together, then they would move to the right together.” It was bizarre. “I had just returned from a two-week vacation at a lake house in Maine,” Crane says. “I’d spent a lot of time lying on my back watching dragonflies. I’d become familiar with how they move. How they hover. How they generally fly alone. Dragonflies are not like carpenter ants. They don’t do the same thing as the next dragonfly over, certainly not at the same time.”

At the protest in Lafayette Square, Bernard Crane scrutinized the flying objects. Around him, protesters led by the antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan waved signs that read “End the War!” Onstage, the Libyan-born surgeon and president of the Muslim American Society, Dr. Esam Omeish, railed against the U.S. government and insisted that President Bush be impeached. “We must prosecute those who are responsible!” Omeish shouted. “Let us cleanse our State Department, our Congress, and our Pentagon of those who have driven us into this colossal mistake!”

The war in Iraq was at a boiling point in 2007. Despite the recent U.S. troop surge there, violence, mayhem, and death had reached astonishing new levels. One month earlier, in a single day of carnage, terrorists detonated multiple truck bombs in public places, killing 500 people and wounding 1,500 others—the worst coordinated attacks of the war by a factor of three. From the podium in Lafayette Square, Omeish blamed this kind of horror—the “blood of the Middle East people”—on the Bush administration. “Impeach Bush today!” he shouted again and again.

Dr. Esam Omeish was a controversial figure. He served on the board of directors of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, the Virginia mosque where two of the 9/11 hijackers prayed before the terrorist attacks. Omeish reportedly played a role in hiring the mosque’s imam during that dark time, a radical cleric named Anwar Al-Awlaki. By 2007, Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, had fled to Yemen, where he was revealed to be a member of the Al Qaeda leadership. From Yemen, Al-Awlaki encouraged Muslims around the world to commit terrorist attacks against the United States. (Some would, including Major Nidal Hasan, who killed thirteen people and injured at least thirty more in a mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009.) Al-Awlaki also served as imam at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, from January 2001 to April 2002. Not for another four years would Anwar Al-Awlaki become the first U.S. citizen officially assassinated by the U.S. government, in a drone strike on a desert highway in Yemen. Dr. Esam Omeish had been an associate of Anwar Al-Awlaki, through Dar Al-Hijrah, but association is not a crime. Were the dragonflies in Lafayette Park insect-inspired drones sent to spy on the doctor and the antiwar crowd? Or were they just unusually large dragonflies?

The month after the Lafayette Square rally, the Washington Post reported a handful of similar sightings of insect-shaped spy drones flying overhead at political events in Washington and New York. “Some suspect the insect-like drones are high-tech surveillance tools,” wrote Post reporter Rick Weiss. “Others think they are, well, dragonflies—an ancient order of insects that even biologists concede look about as robotic as a living creature can look.” No federal agency would admit to having deployed insect-sized spy drones. “But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying,” wrote Weiss.

By the time of the 2007 antiwar protest, DARPA had been actively developing insect-inspired drones, called micro air vehicles (MAVs), for at least fourteen years. The first DARPA micro air vehicles feasibility study was conducted in 1993, by the RAND Corporation. “Insect-size flying and crawling systems could help give the United States a significant military advantage in the coming years,” the RAND authors wrote. Shortly thereafter, DARPA began soliciting scientists and awarding grants under its Tactical Technology Office.

DARPA’s original insect-drone prototype, called Black Widow, was built by AeroVironment, a defense contractor in Simi Valley, California. The six-inch mini-drone weighed 40 grams and had wings fashioned from plastic model airplane propellers, cut and sanded for better lift. For years, scientists with AeroVironment struggled to get Black Widow to fly with a payload, and by March 1999, with help from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, DARPA finally had its first-generation micro air vehicle able to fly reconnaissance missions. Powered by two lithium batteries, this 56-gram variant of Black Widow carried a black-and-white micro video camera, had excellent maneuverability, and could even hover, or loiter, for up to twenty-two minutes before returning to its base. Black Widow “cannot be heard above ambient noise at 100 feet,” reported scientists in the field, “and unless you’re specifically looking for [it] you can’t see it.” Even birds were fooled. “It looks more like a bird than an airplane,” the scientists wrote. “We have seen sparrows and seagulls flocking around the MAV several times.”

DARPA was enthusiastic; remember, this was March 1999. “The Black Widow MAV program has been quite successful in proving that a 6-inch aircraft is not only feasible, but that it can perform useful missions that were previously deemed impossible,” read an after-action report. Then came the more important idea. A RAND analyst named Benjamin Lambeth concluded that mini-drones like the Black Widow had enormous potential, not just in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, but ultimately as a means of assassination. Mini-drones disguised as insects, Lambeth wrote, could one day be outfitted with “micro-explosive bombs… able to kill moving targets with just grams of explosive.”

DARPA expanded its micro air vehicle program to include at least three research efforts, or “thrusts,” each of which relies on the animal kingdom for inspiration and ideas. The results of these programs are called biosystems, biomimetics, and biohybrids. Biosystems involves the use of living, breathing insects or animals trained for military use. During the Vietnam War, German shepherds were trained to track Vietcong fighters tagged with chemicals. During the Iraq war, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico trained bees to locate buried IEDs. These are two examples of biosystemic programs.

Biomimetics research is a field closely related to bionics. In DARPA’s biomimetics programs, scientists build mechanical systems to imitate creatures from the natural world. DARPA designed biomimetic drones, like the Black Widow MAV, including ones that appear to be hummingbirds, bats, beetles, and flies. If DARPA has dragonfly drones, they would fall under the rubric of biomimetics. Biomimetic drones have been used by the intelligence community since at least 1972, when the CIA built a prototype dragonfly drone it called “insectothopter.” A miniature engine powered the drone’s wings to move up and down. Insectothopter ran on a thimbleful of gas.

Biohybrids tread on entirely new ground. DARPA’s micro air vehicle programs are built on decades of aviation technology, aerospace engineering, computer science, and nanotechnology, which is the science of making things small. Then at the turn of the twenty-first century, a new field called nanobiology, or nanobiotechnology, came into being. Once relegated to the pages of science fiction, this burgeoning new discipline allows scientists to “couple” biological systems with machines. In 1999 DARPA awarded grants for biohybrid programs. The stated goal was to create cyborgs—part living creatures, part machines.

DARPA’s biohybrid programs remain shrouded in mystery. Biohybrid military applications are largely classified, but a few prototype programs have been unveiled. As nanobiotechnology advanced in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiny machines could realistically be wired into animals’ brains, bodies, and wings. Starting in 2002, DARPA began periodically releasing incremental information into the public domain.

That year, news of an early prototype emerged from a DARPA-funded laboratory at the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, led by researcher Sanjiv Talwar. Scientists implanted electrodes in the medial forebrain bundle of a rat’s brain, a region that senses reward. Wires the size of a human hair connected the electrodes to a microprocessor sewn onto the rat’s back, like a backpack. From a laptop 500 meters—a third of a mile—away, Talwar and his team of scientists sent electronic pulses to the rat’s medial forebrain. After using Pavlovian techniques to train the rat to respond to stimuli, DARPA scientists were able to control the rat, steering it left, right, and forward through a maze via brain stimulation.

Animal rights activists cried foul. “The animal is no longer functioning as an animal,” lamented Gary Francione, an animal welfare expert at Rutgers University School of Law. But for the majority of Americans, lab rats are synonymous with scientific experimentation. The idea being it’s okay to experiment on rats, to control their brains, in the spirit of progress. The rat was not generally perceived as a cyborg per se. It was just a lab rat hooked up to a machine.

Over the next five years, DARPA’s biohybrid programs advanced at an astonishing pace. Microprocessor technology was doubling in capacity every eighteen months. By June 29, 2007, when Apple rereleased its first-generation iPhone, Americans could now carry in their pockets more technology than NASA had when it sent astronauts to the moon.

One of the first insect cyborgs was unveiled in 2009. Inside a DARPA-funded laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Michel Maharbiz and his colleagues coupled a green June beetle with a machine. The scientists implanted electrodes into the brain and wings of a 2-centimeter-long beetle and sewed a radio receiver onto its back. By remotely delivering electrical pulses to the beetle’s brain, they were able to start and stop the beating of the beetle’s wings, thereby steering and controlling the insect in flight.

In 2014, DARPA scientists working at North Carolina State University again broke new ground, this time with the Manduca sexta moth, or goliath worm, an insect with a metamorphic life cycle that lasts forty days. During the late pupa stage, DARPA scientist Dr. Alper Bozkurt and his team surgically inserted an electrode in the dorsal thorax of the moth, between its neck and abdomen. “The tissue develops around the implanted electrodes and secures their attachment to the insect’s body over the course of a few days,” explains team member Alexander Verderber. “The electrodes emerge as a part of the insect’s body in the final adult stage as a moth.” By “taking advantage of the rebuilding of the insect’s entire tissue system during metamorphic development,” says Verderber, the scientists were able to create a steerable cyborg, part insect, part machine. “One use of the biohybrid would be for use in applications such as search and rescue operations,” Bozkurt says. DARPA scientists working on such cyborg programs invariably describe the programs as designed to help society. Certainly, subjects like free will, ethics, and the consequences of manufacturing cyborgs are worthy of and ripe for discussion. Another question: What are DARPA’s plans for augmenting humans with machines?

By 2014, DARPA had handed over many of its micro air vehicle programs to the military services. An unclassified in-house 2013 U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory animated video revealed the burgeoning new role that biosystemic, biomimetic, and biohybrid micro air vehicles would play in future weapons systems. The video begins with hundreds of mini-drones, shaped like living creatures, being dropped from a much larger drone. The MAVs rain down onto an urban center below. At ground level, a man parks a van in front of a cement-block safe house. Across the street, a pigeon sits on an electrical wire.

“The small size of MAVs allows them to be hidden in plain sight,” says the video’s narrator. A close-up of the “pigeon” reveals that the bird is a surveillance drone, its head a high-resolution video camera. “Once in place,” the narrator explains, “an MAV can enter a low-power, extended surveillance mode for missions lasting days or weeks. This may require the MAV to harvest energy from environmental sources such as sunlight or wind, or from manmade sources such as power lines and vibrating machinery.”

The pigeon drone transmits information to an Air Force technician sitting at a desk in an information operations center at a remote location. Using biometrics, the technician confirms that the man driving the van is a terror suspect.

The man exits the van and walks down an alleyway. The pigeon takes flight, now joined by a beetle-shaped drone. The pigeon falls away and the beetle MAV follows the suspect through a maze of alleyways. “MAVs will use micro-sensors and microprocessor technology to navigate and track targets through complicated terrain such as urban areas,” says the narrator. As the terror suspect enters an apartment building, the beetle drone follows along. “Small in size, agile flight will enable MAVs to covertly enter locations inaccessible by traditional means of aerial surveillance,” the narrator says, but “MAVs will use new forms of navigation, such as a vision-based technique called ‘optic flow.’ This remains robust when traditional techniques such as GPS are unavailable.” The drone can navigate and see on its own.

In the video, once inside the building, the beetle drone hovers near an apartment, loitering above the doorway, out of sight. When the door opens, a man steps out into the hallway and looks around before exiting the apartment. He closes the door behind him, but not before the beetle drone is able to slip surreptitiously inside. Now, a swarm of additional flying insect drones join in the mission. “Multiple MAVs, each equipped with small sensors, will work together to survey a large area,” the narrator explains. “While some MAVs may be used purely for visual reconnaissance, others may be used for targeting or tagging of sensitive locations.” Inside the apartment, a terrorist with a high-powered sniper rifle is seen setting up a kill shot. As the enemy sniper prepares to fire his weapon out an open window, one of the beetle-sized micro air vehicles flies toward him and hovers near the back of his head.

“Individual MAVs may perform direct attack missions,” says the narrator, “can be equipped with incapacitating chemicals, combustible payloads, or even explosives for precision targeting capabilities.” As the beetle hovers near the sniper’s head, its payload explodes. The sniper falls over, dead. The animated video ends.

In addition to missions that involve targeted kills, DARPA’s vast weapon systems of the future will involve an army of drones on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The MAVs are but one element. DARPA has scores of programs for biologically inspired robotic systems that fly. While micro air vehicles will fly slow and low, DARPA’s hypersonic stealth drones will fly high and fast. The armed Falcon HTV-2, launched from a rocket, will travel at Mach 20 (13,000 miles per hour), or twenty-two times faster than a commercial jet. According to DARPA documents, “at HTV-2 speeds, flight time between New York City and Los Angeles would be less than 12 minutes.” The Mach 20 drone will be able to strike any target, anywhere in the world, in less than an hour. As the Defense Department grows increasingly reliant on satellite technology, DARPA must provide the Pentagon with “quick, affordable and routine access to space,” says DARPA. The XS-1 experimental space drone, announced in the fall of 2013, is DARPA’s seminal hypersonic low-earth-orbit drone, designed to be able to fly faster on consecutive around-the-world missions than any other drone in U.S. history. Specifics about the weapons systems on board the XS-1 are classified.

The oceans are vast, and DARPA’s plans for unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are equally immense. One program is Hydra, an undersea system that includes a fleet of baby submersibles combined with a mother ship. The baby UUVs are being designed to deploy from the mother ship into shallow coastal waters and harbors, and then return. Integrated into this underwater system will also be airborne drones, with encapsulated UAVs able to eject from the Hydra mother ship, surface, launch, become airborne, and fly reconnaissance or combat missions. In this way, Hydra will serve as a submarine, a transport aircraft, and a communications center in one. In another undersea DARPA program, called Upward Falling Payloads, unmanned sensor systems are placed on the deep-ocean floor, where they lie undetected for years at a time, gathering intelligence. “These deep-sea nodes could be remotely activated when needed and recalled to the surface,” according to DARPA; hence “they fall upward.”

Ground robotic systems are advancing with equal pace. There is Atlas, a high-mobility humanoid robot, strong and coordinated enough to navigate rough outdoor terrain, climb stairs, and manipulate environments with its hands. Atlas’s head, made up of sensors, includes stereo cameras and a laser range finder. Similarly anthropomorphic is the six-foot-two Valkyrie robot, built by NASA for the DARPA robotics challenge. It opens windows and wears clothes. NASA hopes to send Valkyrie to Mars as a humanoid avatar and one day assemble structures there.

Accompanying the humanoid robots are Unmanned Ground System robots, many of which resemble animals. The AlphaDog robot, which is about the size of a small rhinoceros, is able to traverse rugged terrain with the ease of a four-legged animal while carrying 400 pounds of military equipment. It can recognize its squad leader’s commands and right itself after falling over. The MIT cheetah robot, presently the fastest legged robot in history, can run twenty-eight miles per hour and jump over obstacles in its path. Cheetah runs on a quiet electric motor, giving it stealth like a cat. Other land-based robots roll over terrain on continuous track treads. There is the Talon SWORD (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System) robot, one of the fastest in the fleet, and a next-generation incarnation of the bomb disposal robots fielded to EOD technicians in Iraq. The Talon SWORD carries an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon and a 6mm rocket launcher, each of which can be remotely controlled from half a mile away. Its more powerful cousin, the MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System), is designed to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance missions, and then to kill human targets from almost two miles away. In addition to firing machine guns and grenade launchers from their robotic arms, the MAARS robots are equipped with motion detectors, acoustic sensors, siren and speaker systems, nonlethal laser dazzlers, less-than-lethal grenades, and encryption technology to make the robotic killer “extremely safe and tamper proof,” according to unclassified DARPA documents.

DARPA’s LANdroids (Local Area Network droids) program is one of the smallest of the tread-borne robotic ground systems. LANdroids are “small, inexpensive, smart robotic radio network relay nodes” that work in a fleet, or swarm, says DARPA. These hand-size robots are dropped by dismounted soldiers as they deploy into urban combat zones, capable of leveraging their stealth and mobility “to coordinate and move autonomously” on their own. If one of the LANdroids is destroyed in battle, the others rearrange themselves accordingly. The LANdroids program aims to develop “intelligent autonomous radio drones,” a concept that is critical to understanding where the Pentagon’s army of robots is headed over the next twenty-five years.

“The program seeks to demonstrate the capabilities of self-configuration, self-optimization, self-healing, tethering, and power management,” according to DARPA. In this sense, DARPA’s LANdroids program is a prototype for future robotic systems that aim toward autonomy, or self-governance. Autonomy lies at the heart of the Pentagon’s newest revolution in military affairs. To be clear about what “autonomy” is, the concept is spelled out by the Pentagon, using a drone as an example: “When an aircraft is under remote control, it is not autonomous. And when it is autonomous, it is not under remote control.” It governs itself.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James A. Winnefeld made this explicit in the Pentagon’s drone warfare report: “The autonomous systems are self-directed toward a goal in that they do not require outside control, but rather are governed by laws and strategies that direct their behavior.” The nontechnical term for an autonomous drone is a hunter-killer robot, a robotic system “intelligent” enough to be shown a photograph of a person and told to return when the target has been killed.

This is science, not science fiction. It is also Pentagon policy. Department of Defense Directive 3000.09, “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” released in 2012, mandates that “autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed.” And like all advanced scientific endeavors, the technology must evolve, from vision to reality. It is DARPA’s job to lead the way. “DoD envisions unmanned systems seamlessly operating with manned systems while gradually reducing the degree of human control and decision making… with an ultimate goal of full autonomy.”

According to the Defense Department’s 2011 “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap,” the progression from semiautonomy to full autonomy over the next twenty-five years would be a fourfold process. To begin with, unmanned systems would be “human operated,” or entirely controlled by man, as they are today. The second step involves “human delegated” systems, with drones learning how to “perform many functions independently of human control.” The third level involves “human supervised” systems, in which the machines perform tasks independently after being given “top-level permissions or directions by a human.” Finally, the robotic systems would become “fully autonomous,” whereby “the system receives goals from humans and translates them into tasks to be performed without human interaction.” A note accompanies the level-four goal: “A human could still enter the loop in an emergency or change the goals, although in practice there may be significant time delays before human intervention occurs.” Time is everything. It still takes only 1,600 seconds for a nuclear weapon to travel halfway around the earth.

The world has reached an epoch-defining moment the magnitude of which has not been seen since the decision to engineer the thermonuclear bomb. If we give machines autonomy, the potential for unintended consequences is unparalleled. Some civilian-sector robotics experts say the technology for self-governing machines is simply not there, and won’t be for decades. That autonomous machines require true artificial intelligence, and AI capabilities are not yet anywhere near the threshold of self-governance. But at least one very powerful individual at the Pentagon disagrees. “Dramatic progress in supporting technologies suggests that unprecedented, perhaps unimagined degrees of autonomy can be introduced into current and future military systems,” Ashton B. Carter, then undersecretary of defense, wrote in 2010 in a letter tasking defense scientists to study the technology. “This could presage dramatic changes in military capability and force composition comparable to the introduction of ‘Net-Centricity.’” In February 2015, Ashton Carter took office as President Obama’s secretary of defense.

So what is the status of artificial intelligence? Are hunter-killer robots right around the bend? In order to discern DARPA’s AI capabilities, I traveled to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It was here, starting in 1943, that U.S. defense scientists engineered the world’s first atomic bomb. And it is here, in the spring of 2014, that DARPA scientists were working to create an artificial brain.

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