But more imporantly, remotely operated combat drones have a critical weakness: against any reasonably sophisticated opponent they are vulnerable to electromagnetic signal jamming. An enemy can simply flood the radio spectrum to sever the control link. That’s a powerful incentive to develop autonomous drones that pursue their missions in radio silence without the need (or vulnerability) of following external instructions.
Add to these pressures the deployment of automous drones by geopolitical rivals or non-state actors who might not be so concerned about ethical issues. Lethally autonomous drones on the opposing side will argue for rapid deployment in response.
One last factor will encourage drone autonomy: deniability. If no signals are going to or coming from the drone, and both its hardware and firmware are commonly available, even a captured drone will reveal little or nothing to an enemy, providing the essential ingredient for anonymous war.
There are some scattered reports about the use of mobile or satellite phone device-ID’s, that are transmitted to the network, as target designators in drone-based assassinations. Currently the targeting process seems to involve manual interception of the phone call, locating the phone and then shooting rockets-- airplane or drone based - to the location. The logical next step would be to directly program target phones ID’s as target into a drone directly. How far are we away from this?
Technologically we’re most likely there already - although I think the system will be more sophisticated than simply locating a cell phone’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI). Like cyberwar munitions, several methods will be used to acquire targets. For example, and IMEI will only bring a drone to within fifty meters or so of a target phone. From there it will most likely hone in on other identifiers (facial recognition, thermal signature, license plates, etc.). Successful implementation of such systems will be another matter entirely - but again, it depends on the sensibilities of those implementing the technology. A nation concerned about human rights and rule of law, would be very careful indeed in deploying automated systems for killing (as well they should be). However, rogue nations, criminal organizations, extremist groups, short-sighted leaders, and many others might not be overly concerned if autonomous drones make mistakes - especially if those systems can’t be easily traced back to their owners. In fact, sowing chaos or undermining a government by highlighting its inability to protect the populace might be the very point of the attack.
Technology is no longer the obstacle to autonomous killing machines. It’s the choice not to make mistakes or kill innocents that’s prevented this from being used. But again, as the price-point plummets and numerous groups get their hands on these weapons, they’ll be less likely to exercise restraint. For example, narco-traffickers have already started using ultralight drone aircraft to smuggle narcotics across borders. From there, the technology might also be deployed offensively in drug wars to eliminate rivals, police, journalists, politicians. And how many $10.000 drones might be sent to eliminate an obstacle to a billion dollar business?