Uh Oh, Drone Operators Can't Tell a Weapon From a Shovel

You know how it feels to squint at a pixelated video. Now imagine if being able to tell what you're looking at were a matter of life or death. According to a searing first-hand account in The Guardian, that's a situation drone operators face all the time.

Heather Linebaugh, a former imagery analyst in the US Air Force's drone program, writes a searing account in about the uncertainty of piloting a drone. It's frightening to hear that life-or-death decisions can be made on such fuzzy images:

What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure. One example comes to mind: "The feed is so pixelated, what if it's a shovel, and not a weapon?" I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian's life all because of a bad image or angle.

Linebaugh, who has been publicly speaking out against the drone program, also writes of the psychological toll of working behind drones. While operators and analysts are sitting thousands of miles away behind a screen, the consequences of their decisions are real. That's what makes the uncertainty of it all so horrifying. Piloting a drone can be a bizarrely immersive experience, and drone pilots experience PTSD at the same rate as other pilots. It might sometimes seem like a real-life video game; it's actually anything but. [The Guardian via @AdrienneLaF]

Photo: MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles via USAF