Fourteen years later, the drone is the quintessential weapon of the American military, which now boasts roughly a thousand Predator pilots. At any given moment, scores of them sit in darkened trailers around the country, staring at the bright infrared camera feeds from drones that might be flying over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, or Somalia. Between August 2014 and August 2015, a single Predator squadron—the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Nevada—flew 4,300 sorties and dropped 1,000 warheads on ISIS targets. By enabling the White House to intervene without committing troops to battle, the drone has transformed US foreign policy. ... The Predator as we know it—with its capacity to be piloted from thousands of miles away and its complement of Hellfire missiles—wasn’t developed with the expectation that entire wars might one day be fought by pilots sitting in trailers. As a matter of fact, most military planners at the time regarded the Predator as pretty much a technological dead end. ... The lethal Predator wasn’t a production vehicle. It was a hot rod, built for one all-out race against the clock. Of course, in those months before September 11, 2001, none of its designers knew the nature of the clock they were racing against. And most Americans have no idea quite how close they came to beating it.
Drones—or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), as they are known in the military—have quickly become one of the Pentagon’s tools of choice for precision surveillance and attack, and Holloman is responsible for training new pilots and sensor operators in order to meet swelling demand. This year the base will produce 818 RPA operators, more than double the number of projected F-16 trainees. All told, over 20,000 military and civilian personnel are currently assigned to the RPA program, representing nearly 5% of the Air Force's total capability. ... Base and squadron commanders say the RPA program is on track to become one of the Air Force’s largest divisions. In fact, for the first time ever, drones were responsible for more than half of the weapons dropped by the U.S. on Afghanistan last year. New recruits and pilots transferring to the drone program from other aircraft all pass through Holloman, sooner or later. ... If the pilot of popular mythology is intuitive and independent, the pilot of the RPA era must be analytical and collaborative. He (or sometimes she) must be comfortable multitasking, effective at communicating within and across teams, and capable of continually learning on the job. He or she may have a family to support, and the desire to be present at Little League games and piano recitals. ... Indeed, the daily reality for RPA pilots, as well as sensors, stands in stark contrast to the Maverick of myth. ... The new Maverick represents the future of work in a fully global world dominated by complex machines, complex communications, and fluid, remote teams.
In the booming economy of drone technology, North Dakota has been an early and enthusiastic adopter. The Federal Aviation Administration chose it as one of six official drone test sites, and the entire state permits unmanned flights at night and at altitudes of 1,200 feet (as opposed to daylight and up to 200 feet, as per the rest of the nation). The U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, and border patrol all pilot drones from Grand Forks Air Force Base. Adjacent to that, Northrup Grumman is building a facility as the anchor tenant at the Grand Sky unmanned aerial systems business and aviation park—the nation’s first. And the University of North Dakota launched the nation’s first undergraduate program in drone piloting in 2009. ... as oil prices plummet and production drops off, North Dakota sees drones as its chance to develop a bust-proof tech sector. ... This flat state’s chief selling point as a nascent drone industry, though, might not be what it has, but what it lacks: There are fewer people and things to collide with should your craft, as one airman put it, “come into contact with the ground.”
One afternoon this spring at the United Nations in Geneva, I sat behind Wareham in a large wood-paneled, beige-carpeted assembly room that hosted the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a group of 121 countries that have signed the agreement to restrict weapons that “are considered to cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or to affect civilians indiscriminately”— in other words, weapons humanity deems too cruel to use in war. ... The UN moves at a glacial pace, but the CCW is even worse. There’s no vote at the end of meetings; instead, every contracting party needs to agree in order to get anything done. (Its last and only successful prohibitive weapons ban was in 1995.) It was the start of five days of meetings to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS): weapons that have the ability to independently select and engage targets, i.e., machines that can make the decision to kill humans, i.e., killer robots. The world slept through the advent of drone attacks. ... Yet it’s important to get one thing clear: This isn’t a conversation about drones. By now, drone warfare has been normalized — at least 10 countries have them. ... LAWS are generally broken down into three categories. Most simply, there’s humans in the loop — where the machine performs the task under human supervision, arriving at the target and waiting for permission to fire. Humans on the loop — where the machine gets to the place and takes out the target, but the human can override the system. And then, humans out of the loop — where the human releases the machine to perform a task and that’s it — no supervision, no recall, no stop function. The debate happening at the UN is which of these to preemptively ban, if any at all.
For the teams of students involved in this year’s RoboMasters tournament, the stakes were clear: 350,000 RMB (roughly $53,000) in prize money, more than four times the average salary of a Chinese worker. Winners achieve celebrity status among the 6 million fans who watch the action stream live online, as well as a shot at landing a job at at DJI, the Chinese drone maker that created this competition. Over the last two years the company has hired around 40 engineers out of the tournament. ... For DJI, the stakes are reversed. It is battling to win top talent in some of technology’s hottest fields: computer vision and autonomous navigation. Over the last three years, the company has emerged from obscurity to become the market leader in the booming consumer drone market, setting the pace for innovation in the category. ... The city became the heart of the world’s supply chain for consumer electronics. But while it conquered the business of manufacturing for others, the quality of products designed and engineered in Shenzhen were largely inferior to those with roots in the West. Over time, however, that dynamic began to change. ... DJI epitomizes that evolution. In 2006, Frank Wang, an engineering student obsessed with remote-control helicopters, started Dà-Jiāng — which roughly translates to "without borders" — Innovations Science and Technology Corporation. His target market consisted of professionals who used remote-control aircraft for filming and photography, and hardcore hobbyists who built their own flying machines for fun. At the time, everyone built their units from scratch, there was no casual consumer market, and few people used the word "drone." ... Like many early Shenzhen companies, at first DJI made just a single component: flight controllers. ... PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the drone industry will grow from a few billion dollars this year to more than $120 billion by 2020.
But a disastrous 2015—including the flubbed launch of a new camera—punctured that enthusiasm. Revenue for the first quarter of 2016 was down year over year, and a much-anticipated drone release was delayed. When Woodman arrives at the GoPro Games, the company’s stock is flirting with all-time lows, down almost 90% from its peak. ... It’s a ride that could make even the most seasoned extreme-sports enthusiast dizzy. Woodman takes a seat on an off-duty ski lift, the high Rocky Mountain sun behind him. And then he dives into his plan for reviving the company he loves. He says that a trio of new products being released this fall—including that delayed drone, called the Karma—will help win over a swarm of fresh consumers. New software will make video editing easier and content even more shareable. He is relentlessly optimistic. ... Woodman sees GoPro as a sort of mini Apple, a hardware company that is evolving into a software platform with social networking features. Its business model will even include monthly subscription fees alongside steady hardware upgrades.
For years now, social media has been where people go to find out what’s happening during a crisis; even aid agencies and emergency managers have come to rely on hashtags and live video to form a picture of how an event is playing out on the ground. But the hail of updates can be rapid and incoherent. ... sometimes there’s no information coming out of a disaster zone—because the internet has gone down, as happened in large parts of New York and New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy landed in 2012. This is another fundamental problem that Facebook is, almost by coincidence, working to solve. For the past two and a half years, the company has been developing a program to deliver the internet via drone to parts of the world that don’t have it. The business reason for this fanciful-sounding project is pretty straightforward: It will speed up Facebook’s efforts to expand globally and serve ads to even more people in what is already the world’s largest audience. But the team has always had the idea that the same technology could be vitally important in, say, an earthquake zone. ... This new incarnation of Safety Check begins with an algorithm that monitors an emergency newswire—a third-party program that aggregates information directly from police departments, weather services, and the like. Then another Safety Check algorithm begins looking for people in the area who are discussing the event on Facebook. If enough people are talking about the event, the system automatically sends those people messages inviting them to check in as safe—and asks them if they want to check the safety of other people as well.