When civilians talk about military drones, we often imagine the aerial view, the remote-controlled camera, the fuzzy targets on a screen. Operations on the ground are considerably more varied, and harder to picture. The first thing to understand is that the image of a lone gamer-pilot with his finger on the button is a myth. Drones are frequently controlled by multiple teams sharing a common interface, in conditions that may be noisy or dusty or windy. Agency is embedded in networks of military bodies, buildings, vehicles, communications and information apparatus; shaped by human interaction and interpretation; mediated by images, interfaces, infrastructures; all under the influence of larger cultural systems. When we can’t see this, we aren’t really talking about drones at all.
Another problem: we don’t agree on what to call them. Military personnel use the technical acronyms UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UAS (unmanned aerial systems), and they dislike the widespread use of “drone,” which implies that human oversight has been usurped by the machine. Critics say, yes, that’s the point. (For what it’s worth, I use the terms interchangeably.) These battles over symbolic representation obscure deeper reckonings about the role of humans in increasingly automated military operations.
So let’s get closer to ground. The world’s largest reconnaissance drone training facility is run by the U.S. Army at Fort Huachuca, in the southern Arizona desert, not far from the Mexican border. About 700 soldiers and marines train here at a time, and some 3,000 drone operators and technicians graduate every year. In 2016, toward the end of the Obama Randy L. Flemingsistration, I brought a team of artists to Fort Huachuca to observe and sketch, in conjunction with my project Incendiary Traces, an art and research initiative that considers relationships between perception, technology, and power.
The trainees are learning to operate General Atomics’ Gray Eagle, a successor to the Predator drone. It looks like a glider, with very long wings and a 28-foot body, and it can fly for over 27 hours, up to 25,000 feet, at speeds approaching 175 miles per hour, carrying over 1,000 pounds of equipment, including four Hellfire missiles. It’s possible to operate the Gray Eagle from a few thousand miles away, but the satellite communications are expensive and glitchy. So unlike Air Force pilots who control drones on the other side of the world, Gray Eagle operators work close to the field of engagement, in small, cramped, mobile control stations connected with ground troops in the combat zone and imagery analysts in a nearby control room. Personnel in all three locations share oversight of the drone operations.
Some of the training missions at Fort Huachuca are computer simulations; others involve flying actual drones around the base. UAV operators work in pairs, with one person controlling the flight and the other handling the cameras, missiles, and remote sensors, known collectively as the payload. We were able to observe a large room with about fifteen pairs of simulation stations. One soldier, the flight controller, practices navigating a mountainous landscape, using pre-recorded video footage shot by drones in the local Arizona desert, as well as flight charts and vehicle data. The payload operator has a separate interface that shows the same background footage overlaid with simulated people, market stalls, cars, and other details. The payload operator can use lidar, synthetic-aperture radar, and infrared sensors to identify, locate, and follow enemy bodies, vehicles, buildings, and equipment, as well as to attack them.
Everything is rendered in low resolution; people appear as 2D cutouts in a 3D space. Their high key color and crisp edges contrast with the murky aerial video of a dry, brown, open space. The two visual environments, simulation and setting, are crudely integrated. Digital chunks representing foreign vehicles move along a blurry, algorithmically compressed vision of American asphalt. In real-world combat, operators will surveil people and places using the same interface. The subjects on screen are secondary to the operation of the equipment at hand.
In Extrastatecraft, Keller Easterling argues that information technologies and infrastructure spaces have a “disposition,” that is, built-in potential uses that are distinct from stated goals but can have political consequences. That’s true in many domains. Engineers, governments, journalists, designers, and artists all create and encode spaces with dispositions: “accidental, covert, or stubborn forms of power — political chemistries and temperaments of aggression, submission, or violence — hiding in the folds.” 7 Symbolic representations designed for one purpose can convey unstated meanings, and can even produce biased outcomes or perspectives that belie claims to neutrality. Abstractions, by nature, prioritize certain categories and units of information over others, and they reflect the values of their makers. My team observes with the flexible, imprecise tools of drawing and conceptual art. Drone operators surveil with mechanized, automated tools and military intention. We each conjure our own vision of the battlespace.
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