The role of drones in the military--and their move toward autonomy--is rapidly progressing.
Drones have revolutionized warfare. They may soon transform civilian life, too. These machines are already patrolling the U.S.–Mexican border and assisting with other law enforcement efforts. And Congress has voted to further expand the use of drones at home, directing the Federal Aviation Administration to unshackle restrictions on domestic drones by 2015.
As amazing as today's aerial drones may seem, they are merely the "Model T" of robot technology. Most are souped‐up remote‐controlled airplanes, still with a human pilot, though he or she now sits at a military base rather than in the cockpit. Today's drones do not think, decide, and act on their own. In engineering speak, they are merely "automated."
Tomorrow's drones are expected to leap from automation to "autonomy." Those highly sophisticated machines will have the ability to undertake missions with little or no guidance from a human operator. The difficult policy questions raised by today's automated drones will seem pedestrian compared to the issues created by tomorrow's technologies.