This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
For drone freaks (and these days Washington seems full of them), here’s the good news: drones are hot! Not long ago–2006, to be exact–the Air Force could barely get a few armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air at once; now, the number is thirty-eight; by 2011, it will reputedly be fifty, and beyond that, in every sense, the sky’s the limit.
Better yet, for the latest generation of armed surveillance drones–the ones with the chill-you-to-your-bones sci-fi names of Predators and Reapers (as in Grim)–whole new surveillance capabilities will soon be available. Their newest video system, due to be deployed next year, has been dubbed Gorgon Stare, after the creature in Greek mythology whose gaze turned its victims to stone. According to Julian Barnes of the Los Angeles Times, Gorgon Stare will offer a “pilot” back in good ol’ Langley, Virginia, headquarters of the CIA, the ability to “stare” via twelve video feeds (where only one now exists) at a 1.5 mile square area, and then, with Hellfire missiles and bombs, assumedly turn any part of it into rubble. Within the year, that viewing capacity is expected to double to three square miles.
What we’re talking about here is the gaze of the gods, updated in corporate labs for the modern American war-fighter–a gaze that can be focused on whatever runs, walks, crawls or creeps just about anywhere on the planet 24/7, with an instant ability to blow it away. And what’s true of video capacity will be no less true of the next generation of drone sensors–and, of course, of drone weaponry like that “5-pound missile the size of a loaf of French bread” meant in some near-robotic future to replace the present 100-pound Hellfire missile, possibly on the Avenger or Predator C, the next generation drone under development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. Everything, in fact, will be almost infinitely upgradeable, since we’re still in the robotics equivalent of the age of the “horseless carriage,” as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution assures us. (Just hold your hats, for instance, when the first nano-drones make it onto the scene! They will, according to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, be able to “fly after their prey like a killer bee through an open window.”)
And here’s another flash from the drone development front: the Navy wants in. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, reports Jason Paur of Wired‘s Danger Room blog, is looking for “a robotic attack aircraft that can land and take off from a carrier.” Fortunately, according to Paur, the X-47B, which theoretically should be able to do just that, is to make its first test flight before year’s end. It could be checking out those carrier decks by 2011, and fully operational by 2025.