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Drones 1, McKiernan 0: The Limits of Robot Warfare

The Firing of General McKiernana Shows Limits of Drone WarfareThe U.S. military budget has started to tilt toward sustainability, and in part that means putting more focus on leaner, lighter aircraft, namely drones.  But as the abrupt firing of Afghanistan commander General Kiernan shows, sometimes sustainable technology is only as good as its user.  So, how much did the use of drones – which we’ll classify as robots, for our purposes – have to do with the end of a military career?

Drones, Robots and Sustainability

First, the good news.  Advances in military technology have a way of paralleling civilian life or even, as in the case of the Internet, propelling the civilian world into a new technological age.  That can be a good thing when it comes to the role of drones and other robots in our sustainable future.  Just a few recent examples: drones are flying over Greenland to measure its ice sheet, robotic fish are cleaning up water pollution, and climbing robots are inspecting wind turbines.

War with the Robots

Now for the dark side.  Drones have rapidly emerged as Public Enemy #1 in the Afghanistan war.  This was supposed to be the “good” war, at least compared to Iraq.  Now it’s not.  As uninvolved as we statesiders can be, it’s only a matter of time before the anger overseas shows up on our radar.  For a generation raised on Star Wars and Terminator (ok, you can throw in Stealth), robot warfare touches a lot of nerves.

McKiernan, Drones, and Robots

McKiernan’s firing came about with practically no explanation, so for now we can make up our own.  From a technological point of view, it wasn’t just  about Afghanistan.  McKiernan pushed robot warfare too far, too fast, to the point where public revulsion could threaten the U.S. military’s robotics programs overall.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the announcement but our new Commander-in-Chief’s fingerprints are all over McKiernan’s firing and the message that it sent: when it comes to drones and robots, tread lightly.

Image: techburst at

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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