Flying killer robots used to be a nightmarish sci-fi fantasy—something that only existed in James Cameron movies or Michael Crichton novels. These days, not so much. Not only is drone warfare close to two decades old, but innovations to this lethal technology are being developed all the time.
Case in point: New Scientist magazine recently unearthed a contract between the U.S. Air Force and a little known defense firm that shows the government is using reconnaissance and surveillance drones equipped with facial recognition to aid in special operations missions. While the magazine notes that those smaller drones aren’t typically armed (unlike, say, their big siblings, the Predator and the Reaper), they clearly present dizzying new possibilities for America’s most shadowy and deadly cadres. The Air Force’s provider is a Seattle-based firm, RealNetworks, which sells a platform dubbed Secure Accurate Facial Recognition, or SAFR. The government paid $729,056 for SAFR, which will be deployed “on an autonomous sUAS for special ops, ISR, and other expeditionary use-cases,” according to the contract. While not a ton is known about how the U.S. is using this technology or how long it’s been using it, one thing is certain: it’s creeping people out.
“Big huge NOPE to everything here,” tweeted Jake Wiener, a lawyer with the digital privacy organization EPIC, in response to the news.
Another critic, Nicholas Davis, of the University of Technology Sydney, told Newsweek: “There are innumerable ethical implications, from the way such devices might redistribute power or threaten groups within a society, to the ways in which they threaten established international humanitarian law in conflict zones.”
Skeptics have dutifully noted the horrifying nature of this particular integration. Given the fact that special operations units are most well known for their clandestine and lethal activities (read: assassinations and raids), the deployment of an AI-powered airborne robot affixed with face recording tech means America’s goon squads now have a powerful new tool to carry out their dark deeds. Motherboard notes that such drones could easily be used for “intelligence and target acquisition,” meaning that anybody being trailed by these little contraptions is probably in deep shit.
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The scariest thing about this development, frankly, is that it’s clearly only the beginning of the race to make drones faster, smarter, more sophisticated and, potentially, more lethal. From the Navy’s planned drone swarm warfare to the surge in drone use in the Russo-Ukrainian war, to the specter of flying robots that could come equipped with chemical or biological payloads, get ready for your worst sci-fi nightmares to come true.