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<nettime> Unmanned
Jordan Crandall on Wed, 27 Jul 2011 19:22:05 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Unmanned


Dear Nettimers,  Here is some of my new work on drones.  The work is very
much in development, and your comments and suggestions are very welcome. 
Jordan


On a recent clear evening in December, as the sun was setting over the
Texas horizon, a Mexican drone entered U.S. airspace and crashed into a
backyard in El Paso.

In another time and place, a drone falling from the sky could have
elicited a high degree of alarm. In this particular border neighborhood,
however, it is not much of an event.  Flanked by an army of surveillance
cameras, floodlights, thermal imaging systems, inspection apparatuses,
ground sensors, and mobile surveillance units -- fortifications that,
together with an enormous barricade of cement, steel, and barbed wire,
define the border with Mexico -- the region is home to a cavalcade of
mysterious machines that populate the skies:  reconnaissance aircraft,
relentlessly prowling for illegal activity, extending ground patrols into
the air.  As the doomed drone lay tangled in the desert scrub brush and
softly blowing sand, its processing ability weakened and its connective
capability disabled, the resident calmly picked up his phone.  He did not
call emergency services.  At the onset of this particular catastrophe, he
did what any vigilant citizen in this part of the world would do:  he
called U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Drones -- also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) -- are prone to
system failures and pilot mistakes.  Bad weather can bring them down;
relatively small and vulnerable, they can be felled by something as simple
as a gust of wind.  The source of this particular El Paso crash was
revealed to be a mechanical malfunction.  It caused operators, who always
operate at a distance, to lose control of the pilotless plane.  As is
often the case with unmanned vehicles, it was not clear who those
operators were.  A Mexican Attorney General spokeswoman denied her
country's involvement with the drone, but later that same day, another
Mexican official said it was being operated by the Ministry of Public
Security and was following a target at the time of the incident.  A
spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in the United States said that the
drone, while belonging to Mexico, was part of an operation in coordination
with the U.S. government.

The impact had opened up more than just a small hollow in the sand.  It
disrupted and opened the rituals of neighbors, the connectivities of
machines, the routines of public agents, and the choruses of desert
cicadas.  It destabilized the coherency of the crashed drone itself,
which, far from sitting intact, was now distributed into the routines and
spaces of the various agencies that were engaged in parsing its failure,
sustaining its role, or coordinating its return. At the onset of its
weakened capacities, phones were dialed, conversations started.  A
collection of material and discursive components, it was now available for
reassembly.  At the international level, the accident brought into play
the governmental agencies concerned with the maintenance of relations
between the two countries, along with the global Israeli company
Aeronoautics Defense Systems, agent of the drone's manufacture, all of
whom sought to maintain the perception that the drone "works," whether in
terms of mechanical infrastructure, data, or public relations.  At the
national level, it brought into play the investigative agencies of the
National Transportation Safety Board, concerned with regulation of the
skies in which UAVs travel, and the Department of Homeland Security, chief
enforcing agents in the area of border protection and regulation.  These
arbiters of the safe and legal passage of people, traffic, and goods
harnessed the drone as a case study, distributing its components within an
investigative landscape of national security discourse, drug smuggling,
gang violence, public health, and private commerce.  At the city level, it
brought into play the El Paso Fire Department, attender to the emergency
and modulator of its material risk, along with the local Police
Department, dispatched by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency
whose presence in the region, along with its brother agencies in
immigration and drug enforcement, is considerable.  Unlike the Police
Department, it operates its own drones.

The return of the UAV was a humble affair.  The U.S. Border Patrol, in the
capacity of several agents and a van, pulled up to an international bridge
in a cloud of smoke and dust.  They stepped out of the vehicle, extracted
the drone from the rear, and handed it back to Mexican officials.  Perhaps
a ceremony of some kind was involved, but the handing over of the drone
was, in terms of physical exertion, fairly easy, since it was in the
"Mini" class -- an Orbiter Mini UAV -- with a total wingspan of about
seven feet.  The entire system, disassembled, fits into a backpack.

The recovered drone, relatively intact, might have been reassembled
quickly.  According to the manufacturer's specifications, this takes about
ten minutes.  Yet, the UAV was dismantled by an array of forces that
violated its coherency in a deeper, more long-lasting sense.  Between the
drone's destruction in a backyard and its delivery at a bridge, the
component agencies necessary to operate and maintain it became newly
revealed.  Dislodged from their mainframe and rendered vulnerable, these
component agencies, however operational, institutional, or discursive,
become newly active in their negotiations and attachments.  Phone calls
are made, conversations started, extensions orchestrated.  At the same
time as they are distributed, however, they are consolidated -- resolved
to a territorial or ontological specificity.  Escaping abstraction, they
become embroiled in a geopolitics that may have been overlooked or erased.

In the onset and aftermath of the catastrophe, the coherency and
centrality of the drone is destabilized, its deceptive unity revealed.  It
cannot be reassembled in quite the same way.

--
UAVs made their appearance on the world stage just after September 11,
2001, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The U.S. now relies on them
heavily, most notably for surveillance and bombing missions across the
Middle East and North Africa.  Primarily due to their perceived success in
these military operations, their potential has come to be widely
recognized in many sectors of the U.S. government, and pressure has been
growing to allow them into domestic skies.  The Department of Defense and
the Department of Homeland Security have besieged the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) with requests for the flying rights of a range of
pilotless planes into civilian airspace for the purpose of domestic
security operations, law enforcement, and disaster relief.  So far, they
have obtained FAA permission to operate unmanned planes along limited
zones, including the Southwest border from California to Texas.  In the
case of large-scale catastrophes, drones can be operated nationwide in the
search for survivors.

While many countries across Asia and Latin America -- Israel, Japan, South
Korea, Brazil, and Mexico, to name a few -- already allow UAVs for
domestic use, and while the E.U. is planning to have them integrated into
civilian airspace by 2015, the process of developing regulations in the
U.S. has been slow and fraught with complication.  FAA officials are
concerned that, in domestic skies, there is a greater danger of collisions
with smaller aircraft than in the war zones in which UAVs have been
tested.  The fact that UAVs come in such a wide range of scales -- the
Global Hawk is as large as a small airliner, while the hand-launched Raven
is just 38 inches long and weighs four pounds -- makes matters worse.  The
FAA is are worried that drones might plow into airliners, cargo planes and
corporate jets at high altitudes, or plunge into low-flying helicopters
and hot air balloons.  (Raven drones, in fact, have been known to collide
with manned helicopters in the crowded skies over Baghdad.)  The rapid
growth of unmanned planes of all sizes not only threatens safety in the
skies but on the ground.  With UAVs coming as small as the 13 inch Wasp,
it is easy to imagine a tiny drone, malfunctioning or wavering offcourse,
crashing not into a border-town backyard but through a living room window.

One of the FAA's key concerns is that remote operators can lose
communications with the aircraft.  In the world of drones, loss of
communication with the aircraft can lead to loss of control.  Many UAVs,
when they lose a connection to ground stations, are programmed to fly off
to a safety zone and try to regain contact.  But often, this does not
work.  The plane goes renegade, disappears or plummets to earth.  Loss of
communication and control can occur from a systems failure, a software
glitch, or, as in the case of the Mexican drone crash in El Paso, a
mechanical malfunction.  The drone can also be cut off by an atmospheric
disturbance, a hostile interception from the ground, or an enemy hack.  In
one way or another, human error often plays a role, whether in the form of
a faulty program, mechanical oversight, or coordination mistake.

Human error was revealed as the cause of a yet another crash into the
backyard of a border town residence -- this time, in a neighborhood much
like El Paso but about 300 miles west, near Nogales, Arizona.  The
catastrophe, which occurred before sunrise in the early morning hours, was
caused by a ground operator's failure to follow procedure.  The failure
set forth a cascade of collapse.  It caused the ground control console to
lock up, which caused the UAV?s engine to shut down.  On loss of its
engine, the Predator began turning off its electrical systems to conserve
power.  It then descended below the minimum altitude, turned north into
Arizona, and awaited further commands.  

No such commands came.  Operators had completely lost contact with the
plane.  It floated about the desert night, abandoned, aimless, and
invisible.  Air traffic control operators, faced with the danger of an
unlocatable, headless robot lurking in the air somewhere, quickly closed
off large chunks of airspace.  Tucson International Airport was nearly
affected.  The out-of-control and powerless Predator then dove into an
area of upscale ranch homes and crash-landed in the backyard of a large
house.

The accident was reported when residents of the neighborhood, sleeping
quietly amid the sounds of insects, television hum, and soft rustling
leaves, were awakened by the explosion.  The scale of this pilotless
plane, a Predator B built by the California-based company General Atomics,
is as large as some commuter airliners -- nearly ten times larger than
that of the Mini UAV in the El Paso incident -- and undoubtedly, its
resounding crash at this hour elicited no small degree of alarm.  The
plane missed two houses by about 200 feet.  Abruptly catapulted from their
beds in a violent crescendo of machine grind, metallic crush and earth
upheaval, these homeowners may have first called emergency services. 
However in this case too, a call to U.S. Customs and Border Protection
might have been most appropriate, since this was the agency that was
operating the plane.

The downed drone, smoldering amongst the cactus, scrub brush, and sand
sage in a cloud of smoke and dirt, was most likely a peculiar sight.  A
twisted geometry of spilt forms and unmasked roles, of networks sought and
broken, it now offered itself to connection, continuity, and salvage. 
Among the spilled cables, machine parts, microprocessors, storage units,
and sensors that were dislodged by its slam to earth there would have been
little trace of human presence.  In the place of a cabin, within which
pilots, sitting amongst angular consoles, molded door panels, and worn
seats, work the controls that are sculpted around them, there is only a
solid, bulbous mass teeming with hardware and data flows.  The violent
spray of metal, electronics, rubber, and engine fumes that is released by
the impact would have contained few shards of glass, for there are no
windows that line the plane's dense hollow and no monitors within its
confines.  There are only the tiniest portals of cameras and sensors,
peering downward out of its underbelly, sucking in data from the ground
below.


Drone Desire

The demand for unmanned vehicles is not limited to the military, homeland
security, and law enforcement.  Civilians, too, want their drones! 
Tornado researchers want to send them into storms to gather data.  Energy
companies crave their use for geological surveying and and pipeline
monitoring.  Security companies want to send them up for new surveillance
applications.  Commercial upstarts yearn to service them and train their
operators.

Perhaps the most visible drone desire is that of the everyday consumer. 
Homegrown drones sprout up everywhere, their production and operation
facilitated by an expanding network of hobbyist groups and blogger
communities.  Ignited by their prominent roles in sci-fi literature,
television, and film, drones populate social and cultural imaginaries. 
They appeal to generations of gamers, who relate to the control interfaces
through which they are operated and the first-person-shooter style images
that are streamed from them, often accessed on the very same computer
screens upon which these games are played.  Flying a drone is like playing
a game, and drones often populate games.  User-generated websites like DIY
Drones, information resources like Dronepedia, and drone applications for
mobile phones that allow actual drones to be controlled and virtual ones
gamed together function as social networking platforms, recreational
outlets, and learning environments.  They serve as catalysts for the
development of shared, distributed forms of thinking and practice,
bringing into play new knowledges and skills.  Building and flying a drone
might require one to learn principles of aerodynamics, airframe
engineering, robotics, photography, and piloting via radio control.  It
requires awareness of regulations on the ground and in the air, however
social or environmental, and the skillful management of one's identity and
stature within groups.  The need to display knowledge, talent, and agility
is often a driving force, whether in competition or cooperation.

There is an erotic dimension to this sharing, acquisition of expertise,
and display of prowess.  One might build drones because, as one suburban
teenage DIY blogger puts it, they are a "chick magnet."  Drone display
flourishes out of backyards, streets, abandoned lots, and open fields, and
in the consequent posting of video and photographic documentation on
social networking sites.  Nestled amid the sagebrush along the California
side of the U.S./Mexico border is even a small DIY drone airfield. 
Makeshift and unkempt, devoid of pavement and infrastructure, it is
unremarkable in the absence of the gathered assemblies of amateur pilots,
planes, and spectators for which it is intended.  One might well overlook
it, yet perhaps in some way it serves as a model of sorts, a harbinger of
airports to come:  a preview of what drone airfields might look like, writ
large, in their absence of traditional control platforms and optical
infrastructures.  Much like this one, the unmanned airport would contain
no centralized control tower presiding over the runway and no lighting
tracks reflecting its contours.  There is no need for a commanding view
from above.  The distributed and windowless drone, devoid of any interior,
requires no human sightline for its flight.  In an operational sense, its
trajectory is not visual.   Geometries of looking, whether from a cockpit
or a control tower, have been replaced by networks of sensing, some
visually oriented, but most not.  Interior/exterior relations, at least in
any conventional, spatially-continuous sense, diminish in their
structuring relevance.

If the drone were to provide a model of subjectivity, it would not be
defined by a logics of enclosure.  There is no incomplete interiority to
be recuperated.  There are no external objects to drone desire, only
internal parts of its distributed architecture, opaque to observation. 
So, too, with those who would harness the drone's allure for the purpose
of erotic display:  there are no counterparts to an erotics within which
all desiring agents are immanent.

--
For the drone aficionado of all sorts, drones are curious, kick-ass, and
cute, a potent combination of menace and allure, and in this combination,
one might embody in them the workings of the sacred or the sublime.  Hence
the erotic potential of the image of the shiny drone, glowing against a
clear blue sky, as well as the smashed one, twisted amongst the desert
brush.

The erotics can spill into the realm of politics, mobilizing civilian
groups in the pursuit of social and political causes, united under the
sign of the drone.   Of the vigilante groups who now fly drones along the
U.S./Mexico border, the most visible and technologically advanced is the
American Border Patrol.  Its UAV, a ramshackle plane called the Border
Hawk, is operated from a ground control station on a private ranch
situated on the Southeastern Arizona borderlands.  Endeavoring to provide
public access to transmissions that are usually shrouded in secrecy, the
group streams all of its drone video footage live on the web.

The plane's inaugural flight took place over the San Pedro River, a
popular site of cross border activity.  To ensure that the drone proved
its effectivity in spotting actual, living people, volunteers from the
American Border Patrol masqueraded as illegal border crossers.  Jutting to
and fro, stealthily wending their way across the harsh desert borderland,
conscious of the view from above, they mimicked the very people they aimed
to target, adopting their renegade behavior in a caricature of
criminality.  The complex pleasures of crossing over in this manner,
through appearance, disposition, and demeanor, are well known to the
deviant maneuvering to "pass," with whatever degree of conformity and
sacrifice this might entail.  These pleasures are often undetectable to
those who man the optics:  visual mastery is privileged over groundlevel
display, at the expense of any awareness of the correspondences of self
that the targeter finds reflected, extended, and propagated in the scope.

As glimpsed in the amateur officiality of their nomenclature, groups like
these straddle the line between governmental and non-governmental agency. 
Aiming to assist the Border Patrol in the apprehension of illegal
immigrants, they see themselves as providing a valuable public service,
filling in the gaps among the limited number of Border Patrol agents that
are available to patrol the entire 2,000-mile stretch.  At the same time,
they regard themselves operating as government watchdogs.  Suspicious of
their state apparatus and disillusioned by the ideologies of their
generation, these groups, dominated by retired military and security men,
patrol the border as if in search of something far more than illegal
activity:  the recuperable myth of white male privilege.  Situated far
from the contemporary sci-fi imaginary, they seem to embody, instead, the
genre of the Western -- the pre-technological harbinger of its
cyber-frontierism.  Drifting about the desolate landscape, drones at the
ready, they guard their version of the American Dream.

--
Allowing unmanned aircraft into domestic space heightens a number of civil
liberties concerns.  It expands the government's ability to surveil its
citizens -- adding to its already substantial patrol arsenal of sensors,
night vision scopes, video surveillance systems, directional listening
devices, and data mining systems.  The cameras on drones like the Predator
can read a license plate from two miles up; the electro-optical sensor
systems of the Global Hawk can identify an object the size of a milk
carton from an altitude of 60,000 feet.  And while domestic drones are not
presently armed, they can be easily outfitted with weaponry -- as they
were after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Predators were quickly
armed with Hellfire missiles (fired, frequently, at the wrong targets). 
Drone strikes often slip into the cracks between regulatory domains; their
responsible parties, often combinations of actors working across the
boundaries of national governments and domestic agencies, are difficult to
pinpoint.  Among the hundreds of deaths -- some say thousands -- that
America's drone strikes abroad have caused there is little accountability.

Many of these concerns are superseded by the drone's allure.  Even when
considering social costs and ethics, the use of drones is widely supported
by the general public.  Guarding the border is understood to be paramount
to U.S. national security, and the practicalities of domestic security
loom large.  Politicians do not want to risk appearing "soft" on border
security.  They argue that UAVs could operate as "force multipliers"
allowing the Border Patrol to deploy fewer agents and improve coverage
along remote and sparsely patrolled sections.  The synthetic-aperture
radar, infrared sensors, and electro-optical cameras on a UAV like the
Global Hawk can provide the capability to survey over 60,000 square miles
a day.  According to Homeland Security, UAVs have proved their
effectivity, helping to intercept thousands of illegal immigrants and
pounds of drugs.

In a more general sense, it is widely understood that unmanned systems,
for both military and domestic security operations -- considering, for the
moment, that this distinction still stands -- are the wave of the future. 
The Department of Defense has invested aggressively in their development
and use, and by Congressional mandate, this investment must continue to
increase.  The perceived advantages are many.  As with many robotic
systems, drones are unhampered by the physiological and psychological
limitations of humans; they can easily take on jobs that are dirty,
dangerous or dull.  They can stay aloft and loiter for prolonged periods
of time, persisting on targets over ten times longer than piloted
aircraft, at far less cost.  The human risk factor, at least on the U.S.
side, is vastly reduced.  As a general rule, drones do not result in the
injuries and deaths of their crews.

But they do crash.

They crash frequently -- many more times than manned aircraft.

They crash not only into American border regions and backyards but into
global hotbeds of military activity.

They have slammed into Sunni political headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. 
Nose-dived into the Wales airport runway.  Struck power lines and cut off
power in Alberta Canada.  Vanished into Pakistan's tribal region in North
Waziristan.  Plummeted into uninhabited terrain near Ghanzi, Afghanistan
and the Indian/Pakistani border.  Collapsed into the Gaza Strip.  Plunged
into the Mojave Desert.  Disappeared into Turkey?s desolate Mardin
province.  Cannonballed into the coast of Spain.  Ditched into the Iraqi
countryside.  Rolled with scrub brush across the rough desert terrain near
Indian Springs, Nevada.  The Italian Air Force has discovered one of its
downed drones floating along the surface of the Adriatic Sea, its body
glistening in the sunlight like the bleached skin of a whale.

If a demo reel of Oscar-worthy drone crash moments were assembled --
perhaps in order to pitch the drone for a starring role in the ubiquitous
action-adventure movie -- it would be composed of clips like these.  In
true commercial fashion, it would seek to harness the drone's menace and
its allure, its potent combination of desire and threat.  Like any good
object of desire, it would give us what we want and what we fear.  As a
conduit of identification and affect, it would allow us to extend
ourselves, in all our sensory acuity, into a landscape devoid of everyday
political rationales and ethical or moral judgments:  to plunge headlong
into the melee.

The resulting drone crash action-adventure documentary would be geared for
the everyday viewer primed for the economies of disaster, of pleasurable
violence transmitted on private screens -- sites where drone games are
played and drone missions consumed.  Its trailer might go something like
this.  Ground control operators have suddenly lost control of an armed
Reaper flying a combat mission over Afghanistan.  A manned U.S. Air Force
fighter is dispatched to shoot down the renegade drone before it flies
beyond the edge of Afghan airspace.  (In the world of robotic warfare,
human pilots are apparently still good for something:  shooting down
wayward drones.)  The tension builds:  disciplined man against chaotic
unmanned.

The fighter plane arrives too late.  The renunciant Reaper, speeding
headlong into its own future, crashes into the side of a mountain. 
Abstracted in a shower of engine oil, smoke, lost data, and crushed metal,
its dissipating fuselage drops.  Amplified in a rush of sensation and
adrenaline, its absorbing body elevates.


Salvage Operations

When UAVs crash, they provide a bounty of potentially valuable information
and parts.  Their databases are rendered vulnerable to access, their
components susceptible to retooling -- absorbed into affiliations that can
enhance the warfare capacity of foes.  In order to prevent enemies from
obtaining sensitive materials, almost every drone crash involves an
intensive recovery operation.

It can be difficult to secure the wreckage.  When a Canadian UAV crashed
around three kilometers from the U.S. military base at Ma'Sum Ghar in
western Kandahar province, American military forces were too late:  within
22 minutes, the drone had been fully stripped and hauled away by locals. 
If a recovery is not possible in time, a drone may be destroyed by its own
government:  British special forces once bombed a Reaper that had crashed
in Afghanistan, in order to prevent its parts falling into the hands of
the Taliban.  Smaller drones like the Raven often simply disappear into
the hands of enemies, as they have frequently in Iraq.

A U.S. Predator crashes in Jahayn, a remote village in Yemen.  Local
residents, who frequently complain of the noise that the widely-used
drones make as they relentlessly circulate in the skies overhead -- some
say it sounds like a lawnmower -- most likely meet this downed drone with
some degree of relief.  Discovering the wreckage, they call the police. 
The felled drone is recovered, hauled away from the oil-stained sand.  As
the convoy heads back, however, it is intercepted by gunmen.  The armed
rebels, reported to belong to Al-Qaeda, hijack the plane.  The Yemeni
Ministry of Defense dismisses these reports as baseless rumors.  How solid
is its claim?  According to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, the
Yemeni government deliberately covered up the crash of a previous American
drone, the Scan Eagle, claiming that the aircraft, which washed up on the
coast of Hadramout, was an Iranian spy plane.

Unlike the smooth coordination of agencies involved in the El Paso
incident, which resulted in the crashed UAV's return to Mexico, there is
no handing over of the drone by the Yemeni government.  It scatters into
the routines and spaces of renegade agencies.  Its parts, however material
or discursive, are absorbed into other systems of meaning and affect,
however straight or wayward, countered or modulated, amplified or
diminished.

The dispersion, more the rule than the exception, is always accompanied by
gathering, a consolidation.  As the drone's material parts, each endowed
with a distinct spatial boundary, are assembled in a coherent, stabilized
form, its discursive components are often consolidated into a linear
narrative -- outfitted with a beginning and an end.  Which story to
believe and invest in?  One will most likely prevail:  a descriptive
phrase, like a material part, seeks consistency, endurance, and relevance,
of which those that work best for the task at hand, or become most useful,
achieve a higher degree.

At the onset of the El Paso crash, Mexican officials were pressed to
speak.  Citing national security concerns, they dodged the inquiries --
replying, as most government officials do, that all information related to
unmanned aircraft systems is classified as restricted.  The dodging is
typical.  Governments will disclose the nature and quantity of their UAV
operations and arsenals only when hard pressed, and only when drones drift
-- or rather, plunge -- into the public sphere, often in the form of an
accident.  The CIA has a highly active but covert drone program -- its
bat-winged Sentinel stealth drone played a role in Osama bin Laden's
capture -- but while drone crashes are publicly acknowledged by agencies
like the U.S. Air Force, its accident figures are never released.  Crashes
in the "Mini" and "Micro" classes are seldom if ever reported by anyone.

Even when UAV failures are acknowledged, the technical details are often
obscured in bureaucratic maneuverings.  Officials of the National
Transportation Safety Board, who are still parsing the cause of the El
Paso incident, say that a typical investigation can take almost a year. 
Even when finally released, the accident reports of military institutions
can be difficult to decipher.  Inquiries regarding drone crashes in the
testing and marketing stages fall into the cracks between private
companies and client governments.  When pressed about the details of a
catastrophe, manufacturing companies often reply that they were ordered by
governmental officials not to discuss the details, as Lockheed did when
asked about the crash of its Polecat UAV.

In spite of these maneuverings, the crash, as an event, cannot be
contained, and this is precisely the source of its compelling power. 
Destabilized, its parts scattered, it cannot be reassembled, however
hastily, in quite the same way -- in spite of the considerable rhetorical
power that might be mobilized to accomplish this feat.  Fault lines
appear, allowing new discursive openings.

Stories develop coherence, weaving together disparate parts into a whole,
yet they also create separation where there was none.  Conversations
gather around the event as it reverberates through its discursive agents,
whether official agencies through their portals or gathered friends at a
social settings.  As there are entire websites devoted to the drone's
fetishization as an object, there is a growing body of interest in its
destruction and disappearance:  drone crash lore.  Stories are woven
around downed drones and their sites however accurate they might be or
outrageously fabricated they might seem.   As drones are outgrowths of the
histories of UFOs and robotics, as they have been integrally tied to
warfare, war technology, and anxieties of invasion, however real or
fictional, at least since the mid-twentieth, the inevitable corporate and
national spin that is woven around the accident and its aftermath is
often, as with mid-century UFO crashes, seen as a coverup or conspiracy.  
As with many news reports, intentions are interpolated in ways that
conform to one's own beliefs, and in a world of viral media, even reports
that seem ridiculous are given legs.  At one time three U.S. drones were
reported to have been deliberately flown into the dome atop the Iranian
nuclear reactor at Bushehr.  The reports of this event can still be found
online with a simple search.  Such stories propagate with little or no
verification, especially as they activate the imaginary, affirm
ideological orientation, and offer easy munitions in wars of attention.

Conversations intersect with or spin off into others, amplifying or
diminishing in scale and intensity as they become harnessed to personal
concerns, anxieties, and desires, aligned with group imaginaries and
ethical codes, and enabled by communications platforms.  They might
involve the particularities of technology and impact site, the vagaries of
luck and community governance, or the generalities of warfare, nationhood,
freedom, and oppression.  They might stabilize into stories, some
propagating and enduring, some vanishing by sunrise.  They might create
new conflicts or fuel existing ones, produce new images and dreams,
rearrange or reinforce existing routines.  They might obscure specific
details, overlook obvious connections, or forge entirely new ones.

As these conversational actors magnify or wane, speed up or decelerate,
and accumulate relevance, influence, and intimacy, so, too, does the
material event that they draw from -- the material occurrence with which
they have entered into affiliation.  Agential networks and events are
intricately tied together and mutually influencing.  At the most basic
level, even causality and temporality are up for negotiation.

In this way the narratives that are woven around the drone's fate --
circulated around crash sites, dinner tables, cookouts, online forums and
board rooms -- have a vitality.  They are social actors that negotiate
realities even as they are negotiated by them.  Yet the fate of the
drone's carcass is but one narrativized outcome of a much larger and more
vital function that the catastrophe performs.  The crash is important
because it destabilizes the coherency of the drone and embroils it in a
politics that was heretofore invisible or diminshed.

At the onset of the catastrophe, the drone and its component material and
discursive actors, occasioned by the reverberations of the event, are
catapulted into a more public space, rendered newly exposed and available
for affiliation.  The agential components of event and drone become newly
active in their negotiations.  The catastrophe reveals an agential
dispersal:  the network of the negotiation.

Yet at the same time, revealing the elements with which actors and events
affiliate in order to maintain their centrality and force, the catastrophe
orchestrates a consolidation.  It stabilizes relatively coherent or
consistent forms -- however spatial, linguistic, affective, or rhythmic --
that embody or heighten the specifics of the crash site, the actor, the
part, rendering it singular, bounded, and unique.  The drone crash, both
materially and discursively, is an event that both disrupts and congeals
the dynamic.  It provides an exception, but also an amplification.

--
The El Paso crash, in its dispersions, helped reveal the specific details
of Mexico's UAV program.  Until then, it was not publicly known that
Mexico was using drones along the border.  To maintain this level of focus
on the drone is to amplify its history, its manufacture -- how it came to
exist in a specific built form.  Mexico operates a fleet of drones
purchased from three Israeli companies -- Aeronoautics Defense Systems,
Israel Aerospace Industries, and Elbit Systems.  The Heron UAVs that it
has purchased from Israel Aerospace Industries have also been sold to
Canada, Turkey, and Ecuador, where the company now has a branch office, in
addition to its offices in Brazil, Colombia, and Chile.  Elbit Systems, in
addition to selling its UAVs to Mexico, has also sold them to the U.S.,
U.K., Singapore, Croatia, Georgia, and Brazil, where it has a subsidiary,
AEL Sistemas.  Drones are marketed to these countries for a variety of
purposes including jamming signals, locating enemy satellite dishes,
spotting drug plantations or cartel hideouts, or monitoring police forces
for corruption.  The specificity of drone manufacture, when pursued, opens
out into multiple corridors, each of which can be followed to reveal
others:  networks of affiliation that operate at a number of scales,
magnitudes, and degrees of stability, from research to assembly to testing
and marketing.  Zooming out to the largest consolidating scale, the
production and consumption of UAVs is a global phenomenon, with about 60
manufacturers operating in at least 48 countries.  The U.S. military is
the single largest consumer.  Along with their manufacture and selling,
drone operation is also a trans-national endeavor:  the Turkish Herons
that Canada owns, for example, are flown and operated in Afghanistan by
the Australian Air Force.  So, too, with drone training and logistics.

The geographical specificity of the material event reveals the distinct
spatial politics in which these distributed drone economies are embroiled
-- economies that, in their vast scale and speed, and in their
considerable rhetorical arsenals, blur impact at groundlevel.  The site
tells its own story.  The Mexican Orbiter drone crash in Texas occurred in
a specific spot on the earth, its collision etched onto the ground of a
unique El Paso backyard, its temporal streams collapsed into a singular
date and standardized time.  The impact occurred on December 14, 2010
around 6:25pm.  The site is located on Craddock Avenue near South
Yarborough Drive, in the city's Lower Valley neighborhood.  It is just
over the border from Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico's key epicenters of
violence.  The drone could have easily landed there, amidst the very
region that it was clearly intended to monitor -- a region where rival
drug cartels battle for control over smuggling and drug trafficking
routes, their caches filled with American weaponry, and thousands of
killings occur each year.

The contrasts of these two sites could not be more extreme.  The operation
of American and Mexican drones along this stretch of border -- often only
glimpsed in terms of their failures -- reveals its specific geographical,
social, and political climates, as it is sliced through with a border
barricade, surrounded with a surveillance apparatus, and embroiled in
discourses around domestic security and drug use.  For politicians, ever
more intricately connected to the global economies of done manufacture,
sales, and operation, the "force multiplying" factor of UAVs saves lives,
increases manpower, improves coverage, enhances relations, and reduces
crime.  It draws a harder line in the soft desert borderland.

However hardened, the line is breached ever more intricately by the trade
of weapons, people, and narcotics, much of it driven by U.S. demand.  The
violence in the Juarez region is of such a scale and nature that it has
been analogized to that of an insurgency.  (The Mexican Army has been
known to go into the city bearing artillery.)  If, indeed, this is true,
then perhaps, like others of its kind abroad, this insurgent force has the
capability of jamming the signals that UAVs rely on, causing them to go
astray or out of control.  The material specificity of the event reveals
its technological infrastructures, however actualized or latent.  The GPS
signals necessary to steer drones and locate their targets are weak and
easily interfered with, as are the electromagnetic waves generated by
radio signals, computers, electronic equipment, and various other
machines.  Spurious, unidentified signals can cause engines to
mysteriously shut down (as they have with Bell Helicopter's Eagle Eye UAV
-- a signal whose mysterious source has never been identified).

Perhaps the Mexican Orbiter went off course into Texas because it was
hacked.  The drone's devices and communications are vulnerable because
many of its software and electronics components are "off the shelf,"
riding on existing structures.  About 95% of the military's communications
travel over commercial telcom networks, including satellite systems.  The
DIY drone jammer may have a political aim, but, as with its hobbyist
counterpart, there is a creative and erotic dimension to this acquisition
of expertise, skill, and display of prowess.  It can amplify stature and
social currency.  As drones populate the imaginary through games, sci-fi
literature, television, and film, so, too, does the hacker ethic, often
embodied in the agency of the hero.  Bringing down a drone can engender as
much affective thrill as launching one:  the jouissance of the crash
reverberates across the body that it helps render social, firing up
electro-chemical connections and igniting its sensorium.  In keeping with
the ethos of DIY cultures, the "stupidity" or simplicity of homegrown
solutions is prized:  a quotidian "know-how" that resists the dictates of
commercial knowledge production regimes.  The underdog sweeps in to score
-- the resurgent rebel fighter who, in the nick of time, shoots down the
vessel of the oppressor.

--
As the material specificity of the event reveals its deeper technological
substratum, the renegade force that is the drone's undoing may be buried
within the machine, in a site where human agency is much harder to locate.
 A U.S. Air Force Global Hawk, the largest unmanned plane in the
military's arsenal, was once brought down by a small, renegade part.   An
investigation of the crash revealed that the plane's rudder had become
loosened during a previous mission.  It was not detected on routine
maintenance checks.  During the fatal flight, it began flapping
uncontrollably.  Though comparatively small, this particular part plays a
crucial role, and its flailing was persistent enough to destabilize the
mammoth plane and send it plummeting to earth.

Failures of the Global Hawk are not uncommon.  The Air Force had lost two
of them just before the excessively flapping rudder catastrophe.  The
first crash was due to a simple input error:  the plane was programmed to
taxi at 178 miles per hour.  The second was due to operators inadvertently
engaging a self-destruct code while the plane was aloft.  Ooops!

Inquiries into the maintenance of the rudder, the programming of the
mission, and the writing of the code reveal the drone's concealed
infrastructures -- its systems of operation, logistics, and maintenance. 
For most American drone operations abroad, ground crews service the
mechanical systems of the planes at regional bases in war zones, as flight
crews operate them thousands of miles away, out of converted trailers at
air force bases in Nevada (and soon to be joined by bases in Arizona,
California, and Texas).  The material realities and infrastructures of
these bases, along with their geographical and institutional embeddedness,
play a large role, as do the highly specific, routine practices they
register and call forth.  The single-wide trailers out of which drones are
operated are oddly humble, given the considerable expense of the UAV
program.  They sit isolated amid the vast desert landscape, parked amongst
the scrub brush.  If not for the barbed wire around their peripheries, one
could mistake them for the typical mobile home encamped at any trailer
park in the American southwest, replete with enormous satellite dishes and
cables that link them to the world beyond.

A typical UAV requires a flight team of four.  A pilot maneuvers the plane
and is the chief person responsible.  A sensor operator manipulates
cameras and sensing devices.  A mission monitor receives requests from
"customers" and sends them required images or information.  A flight
engineer monitors the status of the aircraft.  While the ground crews
wrestle with the vagaries of small parts, the flight engineer monitors
their operational states in the form of technical data arrayed on one of
the crew's displays.  Another display contains navigational data:  GPS
signals and other locational data downloaded via satellite transmission
and translated as coordinates on a GIS, for use in directing the plane and
positioning targets.  Another display contains image data:  the drone's
view from above.

Data flows through satellite transmissions link the assembled flight crew
to the plane, as data flows through radio transmission or otherwise
connect the flight crew to intelligence teams and arrangements of
commanders and troops on the ground.  These links and flows are determined
through existing connections, platforms, and procedural agencies, yet at
the same time, they help instantiate them.  Transmitted signals are
modulated and rendered discrete as code, in concert with the actors --
programs, hardware, organizations, personnel -- that rely on them.  As
they flow through actors, they are filtered, constrained, related, and
interpreted, and in the context of this activity, actors acquire rhythm
and articulation.  They configure, and are configured, through limitation
and correspondence.

Most of the algorithmic and machinic operations necessary to operate the
plane and negotiate its trajectories across geographical, national, and
institutional territories are those that bypass the corporeal agency of
personnel.  The plane flies as an affiliation of maintained and monitored
states through the activity of a multiplicity of actors, however human,
mechanical, informational, environmental, or institutional.  These actors
operate at various scales and levels of complexity, whether at the level
of hardware, software, image, data, controls, flight or ground crews, or
at the scale of logistical support, service, or operator and maintenance
training.

Through it all, the rudders remain stable.  The transmissions are cleared,
the connections maintained.  Collective intelligence and skill emerges for
operation.   Hardware, personnel, and supplies are integrated into
tactical formations.  Communication protocols and pathways fit together in
stable systems.  Ideas fit together in doctrines.  These actors stabilize
and cohere because of the procedural structures, standards, and programs
of the higher-order affiliations into which they fit -- affiliations that
might exist at the level of algorithm, hardware, or logistics, or at the
local, the regional, or the national.

The component actors within these affiliations are relatively discrete and
stabilized.  Yet they are active:  they band and disband, accumulate and
release, extend and consolidate.  Some links are weak and some more solid.
 A dispatch is simple while a doctrine is complex.   Even internally,
composites that would seem to be solid and enduring are embroiled in
bandwidth battles and interservice rivalries.  All must be actively
maintained, with varying levels of frequency and force.

The "salvage operation" -- the "recovery" of the drone's sensitive
materials -- begins by disengaging these component parts from conventional
ontological categories, and instead, regarding them in terms of their
performative functions or roles.  What these actors are is what they do in
the environments of the affiliations in which they bond and circulate. 
They do not sit idly, severed from the world of their making, but
affiliate and perform in active, systemic and routined fields through
which their ontological distinctions and functions are redistributed.  To
understand individual actors in terms of their relevant practices -- the
functions they perform in the organization of the affiliation -- is not to
minimize their singular materiality.  The "recovery" operation, in
"restoring" actors to their performative activity, places specificity and
distribution, part and practice, consolidation and multiplicity, together
on the same analytical plane.

Since affiliations, and their component actors, come to perform in certain
ways, at various scales and speeds, with varying degrees of reliability,
influence, and intimacy, the next step in the salvage operation is to
explore how they come to perform -- the relational structures and
organizing principles through which they are coordinated and combined
together at various scales, magnitudes, speeds, and levels of complexity,
and the mechanisms through which this is sustained.  The next step
involves opening up the possibility that these components can be hacked,
retooled, reprogrammed -- appropriated into new patterns of use.  The
operation is not primarily reductive and critical but affirmative and
constructive:  the production and mapping of new ontological platforms,
epistemological itineraries, and political possibilities.


Ontologies of the Drone

Consider the rudder, excessively flailing on the luckless Global Hawk --
the renegade part that was the cause of the drone's undoing.  As the
hulking, ungainly vehicle roars through the sky, resembling a strange sea
creature with no eyes on its disproportionately large head and no features
on its vast, smooth stretch of luminous white skin, the rudder swerves
back and forth at the ass end, lodged within the plane's fin.  Its smooth,
curved form is the material outcome of the need to harness the properties
of moving air:  to maximize the efficiency of the interactions between air
and the solid bodies that move through it.

Essentially, this part is rather dumb:  a surface that awaits control. 
The control is provided by an actuator.   The rudder is attached to its
output hub and secured in place with hinges.  Basically, an actuator
consists of a motor that drives a control surface -- in this case, the
rudder.  The actuator-rudder coupling can be regarded with a degree of
autonomy:  one can, when necessary, isolate the mechanism, regard it in
terms of its material and functional specificity, marvel at the contours
of its design.  The task that it must perform is relatively simple when
understood at the level of each scale of its operation.  At the most basic
scale, its job is to move back and forth along a determined range of
motion in accordance with received instruction.  At a larger scale, its
job is to change the shape of the tail fin's surface and subsequently vary
the amount of force generated by it.  At a still larger scale, its job is
to control movement of the plane about its vertical axis -- to change the
horizontal direction in which the nose is pointing.

These tasks, while crucial, are pointless when done alone.  In order for
the plane to maneuver in space, the rudder must work in conjunction with
the plane's other directional control surfaces.  It cooperates with the
elevators, the horizontal control surfaces on the tail section that
control pitch, and the ailerons, the control surfaces attached to the
wings that impart roll.  Cooperation occurs across a number of scales and
fronts.  Actuators drive control platforms at their own local scale, in
ways that alter their aerodynamic characteristics, and these movements, in
turn, alter the aerodynamic characteristics of the larger-scale platform
-- in this case, the plane.   Larger-scale actuators -- such as the
propulsion system, including engines and propellers -- may also effect
smaller-scale platforms.   The overall cooperative job is to provide
stability for the aircraft -- to keep it straight in flight.

In order for the aerodynamic characteristics of their platforms to be
altered, the motors of the actuators must drive their control surfaces in
accordance with received operational commands.  Data must be sent to them,
singly and collectively.  In order for the correct information to be
input, environmental conditions must be sensed -- changes in states
detected and measured.  These measurements might take place within media
that are mechanical, electrical, magnetic, or chemical.  They might
involve rate gyros for the various axes of motion.  They might involve
direction, air speed, and altitude.  They might involve the distance to
nearby objects.  They might involve activity on the ground below.  Once
these conditions are sensed, the data is processed by the flight
computers.  The necessary information is exchanged via transmitters and
receivers.  The flight computers transmit relevant information to
operating crews and other teams of actors.  They drive the actuators to
adjust relative position, speed, and attitude and steer the vehicle
accordingly.  A cohesive flight is produced.

These actuator-control surface affiliations, then, are only able to
perform their tasks accurately by connecting to affiliations with these
sensing, processing, and linking functions -- affiliations that might take
the form of pressure transducers, range finders, digital compasses, or
electro-optical and infrared cameras.  Understood in this way, the UAV --
or as it is increasingly coming to be known, the UAS (Unmanned Aircraft
System) -- is an affiliation of components and systems that includes
sensors, computers, communicators, actuators, and control platforms.

The affiliation, both material and informational, necessitates the use of
common frameworks, parts, and communicative programs.  In order for a
context to be created for the information, communication among components
facilitated, and inferences from the data drawn, the system overall must
function in terms of common standards.  The tasks performed, whether at
the small scale of control surfaces or the large scale of control
infrastructures, are only accomplished by linking to other affiliations
and functioning in accordance with them in the terms of common programs. 
It is a matter of the modality of this linking across multi-scaled
components and systems.  It is a process of bonding, synchronization,
calibration, and agreement that does not simply involve a conventional
relationality.  The difficult question is not how actors relate to one
another as separate entities, but how they gather together to stabilize in
cohesive wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.  It is a matter
of how, once sufficiently stabilized, they replicate, become redundant and
standardize, at various scales, across various platforms of endeavor.

The functions of sensing, processing, communicating, and actuating are
distributed, shared, and consolidated across a number of ontological
platforms.  Many biological and machinic assemblages perform all of them. 
At the most basic level, all component actors are sensors and transmitters
of energy.  They transmit and absorb electro-chemical signals and electric
or nervous impulses, and they emit and receive vibrations whose different
frequencies they process in terms of language.  These transmissions
traverse the kinaesthetic and kinetic dimensions of experience:  between
movement that is sensed, experienced, and perceived internally and
external environmental forces like gravity, momentum, speed, and phrasing.
 Transmitting agencies filter and calibrate flows, modifying one another
at the level of affect, rhythm, and code, in ways that increase or
diminish their ability to act, apprehend, relate, and materially exist. 
Within the exchanges and modulation of these flows, they acquire rhythm
and articulation.   The foundational structure of this relationality is
not primarily based on difference.  Actors may consolidate as discrete
entities, yet they also vibrate in terms of constrained transmissions and
modulated thresholds, however approached, attained, or crossed, at various
frequencies or rhythms.   Relationality involves the correspondence of
elements, yet also involves the limitation of flows.

In the terms of the "recovery" operation, it is a matter of suspending
recourse to conventional ontological categories and instead, regarding
agencies in terms of their performative functions -- the roles they
perform in affiliations at various scales of operation.   Functions are
always consolidated and embedded in the specificities of actors, which
might be human, institutional, technological, spatial, or atmospheric in
nature -- a fuselage, a microprocessor, a rudder, a communication link, a
tag, an engine, a crew member, a military base, a controller, a program. 
These actors achieve a level of discreteness -- functional and agential
specificity -- in concert with other actors that rely on them.   But the
recovery operation is one of holding specificity and the distribution
together -- placing consolidation and multiplicity, part and practice,
component and system, together on the same analytical plane.   The
rudder's direction in manned aircraft was once manipulated with the
movement of a pair of foot pedals by a pilot.  While most of the Global
Hawk's operations are now the result of programming and commanding the
autopilot's computers -- a rudder command is sent encrypted via fiber
optic overseas cable and satellite, and takes about three seconds to reach
the plane -- this does not mean that the agency of the pilot has been
fully replaced by a program or relocated in one human crew member at one
site.  It a matter of looking at the distribution and embeddedness of the
piloting function:  of understanding how its capacities have been
redistributed in sensing, processing, and actuating affiliations at
various scales and consolidated in new clusters of ontological
significance.

As with all affiliations, the further one zooms in, the more complex
matters become.  Often the necessity of the zooming is only revealed in
the advent of the failure, the crash providing the impetus for the probe.

--
At the onset of the Global Hawk catastrophe, the investigation was set
into motion.  It located the rudder-actuator:  its failure, its
uncontrolled, excessive flapping, was pinpointed as the agent of the
plane's demise.  The fault could have been located deep within the
actuator itself -- in the input shaft/crank mechanism, electromagnetic
brake, stainless steel gearing, or servo valve -- or in a defect of its
lacquered, controlled surface, flailing in the sky.  It could have been
located in the canals that regulate the coursing of fluid or the flow of
wind.  As it is not just a matter of the functional makeup of the
affiliation itself, but also that of the affiliations within which it is
embedded and with which it functions in accordance, the fault could have
been located in the agency that commanded the actuator.

These agencies, as with all component agencies of the drone, can be
material formations consolidated in space or scalar zones distributed in
time.  They can exist as configurative instantiations or transmissive
fluctuations:  elements related or flows constrained.  The UAV is a rigid
flying platform, yet it is a dynamical system that is also defined by the
atmospheric, technological, and institutional systems that it moves
through -- air, informational transfers, protocols.  The faulty agency of
the actuator's command, then, could have been located in the signal that
was sent to it, in the instructions themselves, in the program through
which these instructions were mobilized, or in the agency that programmed
them, however located in the information flows within the vehicle or
between the vehicle and its larger command networks.

The functioning of the actuator's output hub is monitored by a sensor
connected directly to it.  The sensor provides a position feedback signal.
 Because the loosening of the rudder-actuator complex was not detected,
the fault could lay in the sensor's performance.  There could have been a
loss of accuracy through a small bias in measurements, or a slow-drifting
of them.  Or, the sensor could have become stuck on one particular value. 
These faulty measurements alter the measurements required by controllers,
and, depending on their severity, may scale up to degrade the UAV feedback
loop.  The UAS, like all complex affiliations, is built of a collection of
components functioning at different levels of physical scale and
organization.  The output of each level provides units of assembly for the
next level up the scale, in ways that can also rebound back to effect
lower levels.  The sensor's data could have been transmitted and processed
correctly at one scale but processed incorrectly at another -- even at the
level of the crew unit (another type of information processing machine).  
Communications are subject to environmental intrusions, however
atmospheric or manufactured, that interfere with the signals and block
their paths, introducing echoes, noise, and jamming.  The actuator could
have failed completely and become unable to respond to any command.  Or,
if its output hub had indeed become loosened, the attached rudder could
have responded only partially, or not at all, to the instruction sent to
it, no matter how correct the command.  One contingent fault may lead to
another, cascading upward through the levels of the system to effect its
overall performance.  Small-level inaccuracies may have the larger-scale
effects of destabilizing the overall flight path.  The small-scale fault
can lead to the large-scale failure -- the malfunction of a system
component or function to its complete breakdown.

Actors relate as discrete entities, yet they also modulate and constrain
flows at various thresholds of experience.  The threshold might be that of
scale, magnitude, or frequency.  It is determined by affiliative
complexity:  the extent of bonding, synchronization, and agreement across
populations of actors.  It is determined by the nature and influence of an
affiliation's organizing principles:  the programs through which actors
gather together to stabilize in cohesive wholes that are more than the sum
of their parts, and through which they can replicate and standardize.  A
failure is a fault that, having accumulated a higher level of affiliative
complexity, has crossed a critical threshold.  As there are no
hard-and-fast boundaries between actors, or between affiliations, there
are no hard-and-fast boundaries between fault and failure.  But there is a
transition point.  It is a matter of developing a control system equipped
with a sufficient degree of robustness to fault.  It is a matter of the
efficient, enduring management or maintenance of sufficient stability
against instability.  The overall "health management" of the UAV -- one
dimension of its control system -- is designed to absorb faults.  If the
control system is not equipped with some form of fault tolerance, or if
the fault-tolerant control system is not capable of providing sufficient
recovery to the fault, the component or function may lose stability and
exhibit an unpredictable pattern.  Loss of stability at one scale can lead
to a loss of continuity and cohesiveness at another -- perhaps to
catastrophic ends.

It is also a matter of catching faults in advance through routine system
checks.  However, the checking itself could be faulty, the blame located
in the quality and frequency of the particular system test in question,
whether it might involve position accuracy, torque, speed, stiffness, or
frequency and step response.  The ability of a test to accurately detect
fault is due to the quality and enduring relevance of its assumptions and
procedures.  It is due to its effectivity within changing conditions,
including anomalous behaviors and abrupt environmental shifts.  It is due
to the agencies of its application.  A test, like a text, is nothing
outside of the modality of its usage, its constitutive agential
positionings and enacted routines.  Like any actor, it is a matter of its
functional role in the system.  It manifests by way of its action and
maintenance:  through the ways it comes to perform, at various scales,
magnitudes, speeds, directions, and degrees of complexity.  The action of
the test is neither internally nor externally decided:  it courses through
its attendant actors, as these actors perform within the dynamics of the
situation.   It is a question of how the situation matters -- its shared
priorities that come into play, as they are sustained in practices: 
recurrent composites of action, stance, and form.

The drone's component parts and systems take shape in degrees of
coalescence and disruption, at various frequencies, rhythms, magnitudes,
and scales of endeavor.   They subject to external forces, to the
environmental stress placed upon them.  How much can a part take before it
fails, decouples from its job, spins out of synch?  Forces of temperature,
mass, and vibration conspire against it.  The pressure is also discursive.
 The plane flies as an affiliation of maintained states, and adequate
performance is a matter of maintaining sufficient stability at numerous
scales of practice, whether these might involve software, hardware, or
institutional and public dialogue.  The drone works as a platform because
the agents that it helps assemble, however organic or inorganic, material
or discursive, "agree" that it works.

It is a matter of how these "agreements" come to exist, how they bond and
calibrate, how they endure over time.  In order for actors to move and
endure, they must find their way from one moment to the next by drawing on
available resources.  They must modulate flows and facilitate
correspondences, however affective, rhythmic, or linguistic in nature, as
well as cultivate their own availability for the modulations,
calibrations, and correspondences of external agents -- increasing or
diminishing their potentials to materialize and endure.  They must
cultivate their modulation in affiliations that can maintain them,
offering consistency and coherence, and the gaining of influence,
relevance, and intimacy.  In so doing, they must negotiate adherence to
the demands for movement and attendance that these affiliates maintain. 
It is a matter of the setting of the terms -- the common organizing
principles, or programs, through which sustained affiliation is achieved.

--
On a brisk winter evening in Southern Arizona, a Shadow UAV plowed into
the earth near Fort Huachuca, about fifteen miles north of the U.S./Mexico
border.  A volatile mix of colliding metal, electronics, engine fuel, and
dry air, the drone violently destabilized, its energies cascading outward
and out of control.  The violent expansion sparked a flame.  Gathering
momentum, it began to ravage the countryside.  Awash in combustible
greenery, the fire burned across two acres of land.  As with any incident
that ignites a large blaze in the arid, forested landscape of this part of
the country, where wildfires can easily burn out of control, the
catastrophe was met with no small degree of alarm.  However in this
particular military base, home to the largest UAV training center in the
world, catastrophes of this scale are generally no big deal.  Drones slam
into the earth here on a regular basis.  Their resulting explosions and
fires, blazing fiercely across the terrain, are simulated with ease.  A
cavalcade of drone wrecks can be called up at will, their burning remains
smoldering in storage.

The burgeoning global UAS market relies heavily on companies and
organizations that provide service, logistics, and training for the
unmanned vehicles that proliferate across the skies.  Facilities like
those at Fort Huachuca must accelerate their output of skilled operators
to meet the growing demand for drones.  Since access to national airspace
is largely restricted, much of the training is done on simulations.  The
interfaces of these simulations are familiar to any aficionado of games,
roleplaying environments, and high-tech adventure films.  Like the control
panels of actual flight crews, sitting in their Nevada desert trailers,
they bear the traces of the commercial game formats from which they are
derived.  One can detect the influence of Xbox controls, used by the Army,
and the engines of games like Halo, upon which Raytheon's UAV control
system is based.  Even simulations like the Marine Corps's Virtual
Battlespace 2 are based on commercial game engines that are boldly
reflected in their titles.

Like the actual drones of which they are a component, the coherency and
discreteness of these interfaces and applications dissolve upon scrutiny,
scattering into arrays of component actors that are shared by other
affiliations.  These component actors -- visual and rhythmic motifs,
behavioral conventions, perspectival formats, software codes, tags,
controllers, users, corporate procedures, game architectures, rules --
circulate and bond across multiple domains of experience, traversing the
divides between corporation and government, combat and entertainment,
simulation and reality.  The particular applications in which they
accumulate, largely developed by the commercial game industry and
influenced by commercial formats of cognitive and affective engagement,
are made to excite the gamer, with characters that run faster and jump
higher than is humanly possible, and explosions and flames that burn more
fiercely than normal -- much brighter and more intensely than that which
actually occurred in the wake of the crashed drone outside the Fort
Huachuca facility, which surely would have disappointed the seasoned
player.  The problem is not that people, environments, and behaviors are
un-lifelike, but that they are more than lifelike and must be downscaled,
along with the expectations of their human accomplices, to calibrate with
the velocities, magnitudes, and textures of the real world.

The component actors of these gaming, control, and simulation affiliations
relate as discrete entities, yet they also modulate and constrain flows at
various scales of experience.  They are relatively stabilized,
consolidated platforms but also dynamical systems defined by the
atmospheric, technological, and institutional systems that they move
through.  As they configure and fluctuate in their relations and
modulations, they require continuous adjustments across the various
scales, rhythms, and magnitudes at which they are active.  The agency of
this adjustment traverses the bounds of the interface, neither fully
internal nor external to any ontological divide.   In the world of the
simulation game, action emerges in a shared landscape of participation: 
one wants to get into the flow, carried forth by the activity, responding
to situations in direct ways that bypass the mechanisms of thought. 
Differentials, commonalities, and alignments are negotiated, discrete
changes or shifts in scale responded to, but in ways that do not involve
hard and fast separations between user and action:  one endeavors to get
fully absorbed, to cease being aware of oneself as separate from the
actions one is performing.  The activity into which an actor is "swept up"
is initiated neither fully internally nor externally, but courses through
all of the actors in attendance, as these actors perform within the
dynamics of the situation.  It emerges in a shared field of endeavor.  It
is a matter of being attuned to the situation property, so as to be
alerted to its priorities:  the movement, stance, and positionality that
it summons as most opportune.

Agency manifests by way of its action and maintenance:  through the ways
it comes to perform, at various scales, magnitudes, speeds, and degrees of
complexity, and the extent to which this performance is recognized,
valued, and maintained.  An actor endeavors to be an adequate player of
the game.  It is a matter of what is deemed adequate performance:  the
shared priorities that come into play, as they are sustained in recurrent
composites of practice.  It is a matter of maintaining sufficient
stability at numerous scales of practice, to the extent that shared
formats, agreements, and standards can come to exist -- programs that can
be allied with, offering propagation and endurance over time.  The
adjustments and calibrations required are entraining:  actors are
acclimated to one another within the terms of these specific formats,
programs, and practices.  Agential form is a matter of adjustment and
compromise, across the various frequencies, rhythms, magnitudes, and
scales of experience in which affiliation occurs.

Simulations often require nothing more than a joystick and personal
computer -- a laptop can run all of the vehicle dynamics, including the
sensors.  Rendered portable, the same high-end environments that are found
in stationary systems can be brought home for practice or taken directly
into the field.  Further narrowing the gap between rehearsal and mission,
some simulations are plugged directly into the ground control stations
that are used to manipulate real UAVs, allowing for training and operation
to be done together, with operators toggling between simulation and
actuality within a functional crew station.

The integration between gaming, simulation, and mission happens not only
at the scale of the crew station but at the level of the command
structure.  Simulations like Virtual Battlespace 2 allow data that is
gathered by UAV sensors within the gaming environment to be fed directly
to command and control systems for a commander's strategic planning.  It
is said to provide a more comprehensive view of the battlefield, with real
participants vying with simulated ones for evaluation, engagement, and
participative hands on training, in networks that amplify access to
knowledge, situational awareness, and collaborative endeavor.  It also
provides analysts with simulated back-end processing of the raw data
collected by the sensors.  Ground base operations, inter-service and
multi-national training events, and game based training situations
together become essential precursors to deployment, increasingly
integrated into command and control systems and actual operations in
realtime.

Ground control stations, training simulations, and video games occupy a
common economic, affective, and cognitive terrain:  sites of data rendered
actionable.  Together they constitute an interlocking, visual, rhythmic,
and orienting complex, harnessing the imaginary, that conditions
orientation in the world.  Like the material realities and infrastructures
of the bases and training facilities within which it unfolds, however
virtually, geographically, or institutionally embedded, the enacted
routines of this complex play a large material and materializing role. 
Their transmitted signals, electrical and vibratory, are modulated and
rendered discrete as coded meaning, in concert with the software and
personnel that channel them.  The relations and modulated transmissions
are mutually generative:  they configure agency, and are configured by
agency, through their limitations and correspondences in the enacted
routines of practice.  They course through their attendant actors, as
these actors perform within the dynamics of the various situations that
arise, in various degrees of attunement to the shared priorities that they
may reveal:  priorities acted upon and inhabited, in various degrees of
frequency, scale, and magnitude, in stance and position.

The situation matters in stances and positions.  It matters in the
evaluative alignments and postures that are taken in communicative
encounters, however expressive, referential, or material, as they traffic
between routined physical activity and larger social structures.  It
matters in the dynamic agential roles that are instantiated in
communicative encounters, which help to give directional form to
experience.  The mattering might accumulate in values, tastes, desires and
dispositions.  It might involve body alignment, pace, expression,
stylistic action, voice, shift of footing, poise, manner, affinity, or
mood.  In order to matter, it must be sustained in practices -- recurrent
composites of action, stance, and form.  Actors are integrated with, and
instantiated through, these composites, registered and enacted at the
level of one or more platforms of affiliation, primed in various patterns
and integrated into coordinated response systems.  They emerge from the
dictates of a developing structure, but are neither fully internally or
externally decided.   Flows are absorbed and released, constraints
enacted, forms negotiated, correspondences staged.  Data from the
environment is absorbed, contexts created for that data, internal and
external communication facilitated, inferences drawn, and appropriate
physical response output.  Action is catalyzed, guided both from within
and without the staged confines of the actor.

As the material agency of trained crew members coalesces an affiliation of
maintained states, in alliance with a multiplicity of actors -- however
human, mechanical, informational, environmental, institutional -- so, too,
does the material agency of the drone that is flown.  Through practices,
they are maintained in continuities, cooperating and competing for
endurance, in whatever degree of simulation or actuality.  They do not
always conform or affect one another in linearly causal terms.  The
affiliations of the pilot and plane are connected, in resemblance and
limitation, to a degree and scale that they can be stabilized and
sustained:  they exist in the world, inform and influence one another,
with some degree of reliability, relevance, and intimacy.

Some routine practices stabilize into organizing principles, or programs. 
While programs are dynamic sites of social negotiation and organization,
some achieve a higher degree of endurance, influence, and intimacy.  Some
work more efficiently or better than others, some have more allies, some
more relevance.  They perpetuate their standards such that other actors
come to move in accordance with their terms.  Actors necessarily adjust
themselves in accordance with the programs of the gatherings with which
they affiliate, acquiescing to their terms of negotiation.  They entrain,
and are entrained, in accordance with the programs through which sustained
affiliation is achieved.  Things fall into place.

Across these dynamic, entraining affiliations, functional organizations of
knowledge and skill -- capacities enacted and roles played in the
organization of the system -- are redistributed and re-constrained, along
with positions, categories, and divisions of labor.  As agencies circulate
and bond across multiple domains of experience, traversing the divides
between corporation and government, combat and entertainment, research and
commerce, affiliations composed of unlikely bedfellows are brought
together through economic need.  If the "unmanning" of systems moves
soldiers off the battlefields, it brings technology companies directly
into them, in search of groundlevel feedback for updating existing
products and developing new ones, in an increasingly competitive global
industry.   The redistribution of manpower in the "unmanning" -- the shift
from soliders in battlefields and fighter planes to those in double-wide
desert trailers and high-tech command centers -- challenges the stances,
positions, and qualifications that have defined previous generations.  
The values, tastes, and dispositions of unmanned warfare do not always
align with the gendered roles, imaginaries, and concepts of adequacy that
were present in the noble, heroic ideals of the past.   The Air Force now
trains more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.  The
"top gun" archetype is on the wane.  Yet, as past ideals of heroic
masculinity are threatened new ones are created, embroiled in new forms of
agility, knowledge, and prowess display.  They might be manifest in the
subtle alignments of the body, its pacing, expression, stylistic action,
inclination, or mood.  Warrior archetypes migrate into alternative
geometries of privilege, however gendered -- myths of male identity
wrestled with in the reinventing, rather than resuscitating, of a fading
ideal.

With these redistributions comes a retooling of notions of skill and
expertise.  As intelligence migrates into unlikely, shared sources, even
those spatial and atmospheric, and agency is understood to be distributed
and embodied in all manner of organic and inorganic actors, a concept of
skill emerges whose source is in negotiation rather than domination:  an
alliance with material actors rather than an assertion of command over
them.  Here an actor works with a material rather than against it,
cultivating an existing, emergent meaning rather than externally imposing
one -- a "knowingness" that is not simply categorical but affective and
rhythmic.   It transforms objects into situations, their contours not
determined in advance but arising within the terms of the encounter.  When
an object becomes a situation, one cannot assert one's authority over it
so easily.  The benefit comes not from taming so much as listening:  it
becomes an occurrence to be learned from, patiently.  This is about
proximity rather than power, an "excessive closeness" to that which cannot
be contained or possessed, and over which the impulse to control
diminishes.  It requires a break of routine, a more flexible notion of
practice that can accommodate that which is revealed in the negotiation,
often unexpectedly and outside of preoccupation.  An affiliation's
enduring relevance is not just due to competition but cooperation, often
in subtle, sensory ways:  it is not just influence but intimacy.  In the
face of these concepts, analytical notions of power and desire diminish in
their relevance.

The situational event of the crash reverberates across a dynamic agential
field.  It is a matter of being attuned, to a sufficient degree, to what
matters there.  Occasioned by the dynamics of the crash, drone ontology
bleeds into epistemology.


Amplifying Expertise

It is a crisp October day in Afghanistan, in the midst of Operation
Enduring Freedom.  A U.S. Predator has just taxied and departed from
Kandahar Air Field for a routine reconnaissance mission.  The plane is
assigned to an Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and
operated by crew members at March Air Reserve Base in California. 
Suddenly, during the flight, the crew receives a direct task order from
the Combined Forces Air Component Commander:  they are to provide
immediate air support to U.S. and Afghan ground forces that are under
siege.  The enemy fighters, numbering about 300, appear to be carrying out
a large, coordinated attack.  Given the intensity of the battle on the
ground below, the circumstances of the attack, and the immediate and
critical need for support -- U.S. soldiers were being killed -- the
Predator crew is consumed with a high-degree of urgency.   Their attention
fully focused the battle, their awareness of the bigger picture
diminishes.  The pilot's distraction leads to a fatal mistake:  he fails
to see that the UAV is headed toward a looming, 17,000-foot mountain.  
The drone smashes into it, abstracted into a cloud of black smoke, its
parts scattering into the desolate terrain below.

Human attention can be too tightly focused along one zone of experience,
to the exclusion of wider expanse of contextual information -- what the
military calls "situational awareness."  It can also be too scattered: 
not focused enough on anything.  In order for it to be effective, a
dynamic between stabilization and destabilization must be actively
maintained.   Yet however vigilant it might be, human attention it is
faulty and undependable -- ill-equipped to keep up with the demands placed
upon it.   As drones gain the ability to "dwell and stare" -- recording
activities on the ground over much longer timeframes -- the vast amounts
of data they absorb can easily outrun the capacities of personnel.  (On a
single day the Air Force must process nearly 1,500 hours of full motion
video and another 1,500 still images.)  Cameras and sensors become ever
more sophisticated, yet they are of limited value unless they can be
accompanied by improved human intelligence and skill.  The task of
interpreting what the UAV is seeing falls partly into the hands of the
flight crew, who always has access to the aircraft's live video feed; they
may also be joined by an image expert trained precisely for this purpose. 
The video is also sent to image analysts at other bases -- analysis and
dissemination sites like the Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, inside
of whose cavernous rooms image analysts sit, filtering vast streams of
data arrayed on constellations of monitors.  They, too, are hard-pressed. 
Staring for hours on end, nearly inert at their chairs, they try to ferret
out the singular target -- the single, telling deviance in the normalized
flow.  Armed with the skill of extracting relevant data from image flows
and information arrays, they attempt to organize that data into patterns
of affiliation from which further extrapolations can be made.

The UAS, as an affiliation of components and systems, relies on analysis
and dissemination sites like these.   They are vital platforms of the
drone in its shared perceptual and analytical capacities, its sensing,
processing, communicating, and actuating functions -- nodes through which
its data is streamed, formatted, tagged, and rendered searchable across
networks of datasets.  The platforms and nodes of these affiliations are
many, from personnel bases in Nevada to storage facilities in Iowa --
repurposed shipping containers within which arrays of servers, tasked
solely to house the video data generated by Air Force drones, quietly hum,
as unremarkable as the double-wide trailers in which their operating crews
sit.  As the image data is organized and stored, it becomes the primary
site through which correlations can be made and inferences drawn. 
Databases, activated through search algorithms, become the primary
repository of knowledge.  A backlog of replayable events is generated,
seen from above:  a searchable, historical record of a region's activity,
as viewed from the UAV.

This movement that is detected, however geographically understood, is not
necessarily causal and continuous:  a history inscribed upon ground or
air.   It is rather a result of calculations calibrated across datasets: 
correlations among relatively stabilized and standardized elements that do
not move across space so much as flicker or fluctuate within it.  Movement
is less a continuous transfer -- over ground, land, or spatial volume --
than a configurative interpolation.   It is a trajectory assembled in
retrospect, piecemeal as a correspondence of points:  a behavioral
composite into which movement and intention are inferred.

A typical drone requires 19 analysts.  A single drone outfitted with
"Gorgon Stare" technology -- which can capture live video of an entire
city -- requires 2,000 analysts.  This advanced video capture system,
paralleling the teeming array of snakes emerging from the head of the
mythical creature referenced in its title, has a spherical array of nine
cameras -- five electro-optical and four infrared -- emerging from the
underbelly of its platform.  Its software compiles the various camera
views into a broad, continuous mosaic, of which personnel on the ground or
elsewhere can simultaneously grab slices -- its analytical requirements
farmed-out, in real time, to a network of analysts and computing
platforms.

Like the winged fusion of human, beast, and machine that is its namesake,
with claws of steel, bulbous head, and large unblinking eyes, the gorgon
drone is equipped with a deadly, commanding stare:  it looks at you, but
you cannot look back, lest you be turned to stone.  Although menacing in
its demeanor -- fangs bared and nostrils flared as it readies to inhale
and consume -- it is understood to have protective qualities for its
deployers.  Heir to the symbolic apparatuses of myth, its figures are
everywhere present on objects, documents, ideologies, and units of value
exchange, manifesting hopes of warding off evil.  Its potential for
domestic protection is not lost on the U.S. Departments of Defense and
Homeland Security, who are exploring its panoptic potential for border
security:  Gorgons now joining the cavalcades of machine beasts flying
high over the desert borderland, with no illegal activity going unchecked,
be it immigration, drug trafficking, or the very flows of terror.

The technology is not without its substantial problems.  While it may
"see" over a wider swath of territory, it does not necessarily understand
the significance of what moves within it.  The challenge remains that of
tracking vehicles, objects, and humans on the ground with a higher degree
of precision, in ways that lessen the demands on human personnel.  The
challenge with UAS in general is to amplify the overall intelligence of
the system -- heightening the level of skill and expertise that the
affiliation can engender.  This often takes the form of enhancing the
capacity of tracking and search algorithms, along with the network
processing capability required to parse and coordinate the data.  It
involves increasing the ability of UAVs to sense, reason, learn, and make
decisions, and to collaborate and communicate, with a minimal degree of
direct human involvement.

In popular terminology, this is called automation or autonomy.  When
approached within the terms of the "salvage operation," however, where
agency is situated in shared composites of intelligence and skill --
affiliations among all manner of actors operating at various scales,
magnitudes, and degrees of complexity, whether at the level of hardware,
software, flight crews, or institutions -- these discourses of autonomy
are resisted.  The unmanned system does not eliminate the human so much as
redistribute the agencies of warfare.  The capacities of sensing,
dispatching, analyzing, and alerting -- the intelligence and skill
required to interpret and store information and act on the results -- are
shared by an affiliation of actors, however algorithmic, organic, or
systemic.   The focus is on their performative practices within the
functional organization of the system.  It is a matter of how they are
maintained as dynamically stable entities -- sustained, naturalized, and
rendered discrete -- and the programs through which this is accomplished.

--
Image analytics software is used for the recognition of objects, vehicles,
and people.  Even the most rudimentary drones, such as the Orbiter, have
some form of algorithmic tracking, even if it is only basic motion
detection.  The software takes input from cameras, then recognizes and
identifies the objects in each frame to learn what activity normally takes
place within the area under observation.  With the norm firmly in place,
the software then aims to detect activity that deviates from it:  the
exceptional occurrence that stands out from the domain of the ordinary. 
Algorithms screen out non-critical movement activity and foreground the
critical, in order to maximize the attention spans of observing experts. 
Once alerted to aberrant movement activity, its nature and intent is to be
inferred by these experts, who then decide what action to take.

The norm is based on the practiced rhythms and regularities embedded in
everyday space -- the patterns inscribed in the timespaces and
infrastructures of observed populations through travel routines, social
habits, building configurations, and communication forms, as these are
aligned with the rhythms and regularities of the observing institutions of
the UAS, cohering through flight patterns, transport timetables,
interchanges, regulations, monitoring systems, base locales, and operating
habits.  It is a calibration among systems and data derived from both the
object of observation and the observing institution itself -- the
stabilization of dynamic fields that have been limited and brought into
correspondence with each other.  The UAS learns the everyday norm as it
co-constitutes it.  Embedded regularities coalesce in the "air" and on the
"ground":  embodied practices respond to the regularities that they help
sculpt, in ways that can further stabilize or destabilize their defining
platforms and programs.

It is always a question of the priorities that come into play:  the
patterns and flows that are deemed most appropriate to the circumstances,
as they are stabilized and maintained in practices.  Some aspects of
practices, prioritized as such, stabilize into higher-order principles,
and once sufficiently stabilized, they replicate, become redundant and
standardize, at various scales, across various platforms of endeavor.  
The endure as programs -- dynamic sites of social negotiation and
organization.  The terms of these programs, potentially, are equal, though
they are always hierarchized, however temporarily:  some are more
enduring, influential, and intimate than others, some more effective and
relevant, in part because they have more valued affiliations.  Their
standards, perpetuated, set forth the terms of social negotiation, and in
so doing, they compel external actors to move in accordance with these
terms.   Movement is affiliation, and affiliation happens in program.

The norm is constituted through the categorization and standardization of
information.  A logical grid is summoned on which categories are made. 
The phenomena that appear in algorithms and databases must pass through
this logical grid:  they must pass through the standardized forms of
information that the system, as a whole, admits.  A particular scaffold
gains influence over others, and in so doing, sets forth the terms of
engagement and interpretation.   Things fall into place.  Objects are
classified according to pre-programmed definitions and specifications, and
rules are established that are tailored to these objects within the
observed scene.  Moving phenomena are stabilized, constrained, and defined
in accordance with these database associations and the programs through
which they are ordered.  An object is disengaged from its maintaining
network and a form, atmosphere, space, or force is normalized, no longer
understood in terms of these operations.

The normalization of activity is what makes possible the detection of
abnormal movement  -- an event.  An actor is taken up within the arena of
attention as an exception because that which surrounds it has been
standardized, regularized -- transformed into atmosphere.

Advanced-stage UAVs now incorporate cognitive architectures and machine
learning capabilities that allow them to recognize and identify objects
with a more complex and integrated capacity of expertise.   The parameters
for the algorithms to recognize behavior or objects need not be set in
advance.   A learning engine gathers information about dominant object
content -- tracking, for each object, features like size, color,
reflectivity, sheen, shape, and level of autonomy -- and forges object
classifications without any pre-programmed definitions or specifications. 
 The software analyzes the scene to learn and identify normal and
anomalous behaviors by way of a constant study of the types of objects
that exhibit those behaviors.  It learns from experience, internally
adapting to changes in the observed environment, detecting and classifying
activity that was not previously defined or anticipated.

Drones like Teranis, developed by the British firm BAE -- among the
world's largest military contractors -- combine these cognitive analytics
with vehicle control systems.  Integrated flight control systems are
already in use with the Global Hawk, which, after its launch, carries out
a pre-programmed mission by downloading GPS coordinates via satellite. 
However BAE has developed a comprehensive mission-handling system that
combines image analytics with flight control.  Its MANTIS and HERTI drones
are said not only to fly themselves, but to conduct target searches on
their own -- reducing the risk of human distraction and error as well as
communications and data link requirements between the vehicle and the
ground.

Lockheed Martin's Polecat drone was also said to be a fully autonomous
system.  Its prototype, however, crashed upon its unveiling.  It plunged
into a Nevada test range after a failure in the ground equipment caused
its automatic, fail-safe flight termination mode to activate.  The
fail-safe mode is intended to minimize danger to civilians should the
plane deviate irrecoverably outside its range boundaries.  It is designed
to prevent human operators from recovering control of the UAV.   Perhaps
the true meaning of an autonomous system can only be achieved in such a
state of complete and utter relinquishment.  Rendered powerless, the
operators could only watch as the drone plummeted to earth.

The tailless, 90-foot wing-long Polecat looks like something straight out
of science fiction.  Had it not crashed -- as did its predecessor, the
ominously named Dark Star -- it could have well been the flagship of
advanced drone lust.  Its material constitution was exemplary.   It was
built of composite materials rather than metal.  It was comprised of less
than 200 parts, many of which were built in rapid prototyping.  The
digital models of these component parts were produced with a
computer-aided design system and output to a 3D printer, inside of which
two powerful laser beams, steered by a computer, were finely focussed at a
composite powder -- sintering it, layer by layer, to form complex, solid
volumes.  Until now, this technique was only used in the industry to make
test parts, to assess their adequacy for the final job; the strength of
parts produced in this way has improved to such an extent that this
intermediate stage is not necessary.  A wing strut, formerly only a
prototype, becomes the real thing.

These 200 component parts were not riveted together but glued with
adhesive.   When the Polecat slammed to the ground, its identity
abstracted in a burst of composite materials, electronics, sensors, and
smoke, the original contours of these component parts would not have been
visible.  They were, in any case, only provisionally-stabilized platforms
in a larger process -- one whose origin might just as well be located in
composite powders or programs.  Like all parts they coalesce as
affiliations at various scales, magnitudes, and spans of endurance, their
geometries abstracted and opened in the advent of their collision with
other affiliations of more solidity, permanence, and force.   Offered up
anew in a spray of oil and dirt, burnt rubber and wire, recovery logistics
and salvage discourse, their negotiations and consolidations continue.

Lockheed Martin did not divulge whether the source of the crash was human
error or technological malfunction.  The company did however attest to the
reliability of the flight termination software, which according to them,
performed exactly as expected.


Jordan Crandall


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