How do unmanned flying robots detect and kill their targets? What is life like for the men and women of the US military controlling robotic airplanes in Afghanistan from a command center in Las Vegas?

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The Rise of Drones

We've heard a lot about drones, but less about how they really work — or who works them.

Missy Cummings is intimately familiar with drones. She’s a professor of Aeronautics atMIT, director of the Humans and Automation Laboratory, and was one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots. And though drones are relatively new to the headlines, Cummings says they aren’t new to the military — unmanned vessels have been playing a role in warfare for at least 20 years.

“[Drones have changed] the way we conduct warfare in general,” Cummings says. “I would tell you it’s also revolutionizing the way we do border patrol, and that coming soon to an airport near you it’s going to revolutionize the way we do commercial air operations.”

Drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — may not be a new part of the military's toolbox, but they’re being used more than ever before. Cummings notes that countries like China, the United States, and Iran are all in a race to create more precise and far-ranging drones. In the Air Force today, more people are trained to fly drones than fighter jets.

“For the longest time, the fighter pilot community has reigned supreme,” Cummings explains. “They were in charge of all big operations … and you had to have command of a fighter squadron to make these advancements in your career. But now that’s all changing, because now it’s the nerdy, geeky Xbox gamer who is, in fact, the better pilot.”

Are Drones Changing Warfare?

Could this increased use of drones create political vulnerability? In a recent NOVA documentary, "Rise of the Drones," experts from the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Councilexpressed concern that flying unmanned vessels into countries like Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia allows the United States to carry out warfare under a different name.

Cummings says that the question is not just whether flying a drone into a country constitutes an invasion— what about collecting information about a country from a drone that’s flying from a nonthreatening distance? There are precedents for conducting military acts from a distance without declaring war, like the use of the tomahawk missile, which can be fired 1,000 miles from its target.

“There’s no consensus yet about where we should stand in terms of international law or declarations of warfare,” she explains. “I do think it’s important to have those conversations, except that it’s not going to be as black and white as people would like it to be.”

Under Inspection

For those worried that advancement in drone technology will create a “Big Brother” effect, allowing the government to patrol our movements from the sky, Cummings says not to worry.

“We can talk about what’s technically possible and what’s probable,” she says. “There are some sensor technologies that can sit over a city, for example, and give very precise information if the person chooses to look into that grid … We don’t have to worry about whether that technology exists. It does exist, and it has existed for a while. The question is: what are we going to do with it?”

Right now, Cummings says, the Air Force can’t evaluate all of the data drones collect — 90 percent goes, unseen, into an archive. She also notes that if you’ve ever traveled to London, you’ve been on more cameras than you ever would be in the United States.

“There’s nobody processing this data,” Cummings reassures. “Nobody’s looking for you. We don’t have enough people interested in your life who could actually follow you around.”