Piloting A Drone Is Hell

Drone pilots are remote but not detached.

The cover story for the Atlantic‘s September issue reveals a surprising truth: drone warfare is more like The Truman Show than Terminator. In the future, autonomous robots might fight our battles for us, but for now, war is all too human; we rely on human pilots and human decision-making (plus a ton of cameras).

Military drones, like the RQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, are best known for firing missiles at people and other targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, as part of a targeted killing program. Firing missiles was an upgrade for Predators; they were originally designed to conduct surveillance, flying high above war zones, recording what happens below and relaying that video to pilots located half a world away. That surveillance can be grueling: pilots spend entire shifts watching the same target, and might do so for days or even months. Inevitably, drone operators develop an intimate understanding of their targets’ lives.

Author Mark Bowden’s tour de force on the United States’s drone war includes two first-hand experiences from drone pilots. The first involves a pilot who used a drone to defend Marines under attack on a road in Afghanistan:

Another pilot discusses the longer missions, which are less about supporting fellow soldiers and involve more targeted killing:

Bowden’s entire piece is 10,000 words long, and I recommend every single one of them.

The Atlantic

Kelsey D. Atherton
Kelsey D. Atherton

is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.