Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Future of War conference, Day One: Falling behind in drones and robotics

Here are some highlights from the first day of the New America/Arizona State conference on the future of war. You can watch Day 2 here: I was surprised by the amount of concern expressed that the United States has fallen behind in building drones. Peter Singer called the Predator a Model T, likening the phrase ...

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Here are some highlights from the first day of the New America/Arizona State conference on the future of war. You can watch Day 2 here:

I was surprised by the amount of concern expressed that the United States has fallen behind in building drones. Peter Singer called the Predator a Model T, likening the phrase “unmanned aircraft” to “horseless carriage.” Mary Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot now teaching at Duke, said that “we have lost the cutting edge” in both robotics and drones. She added that, “My students can over the weekend” build a better drone that the U.S. military possesses. One of the problems, she said, is that there isn’t enough profit in building drones for the big defense companies to be much interested in the area. The real talent in designing drones is going to Amazon, Google and Oracle, she said.

Cummings also said that Air Force drone pilots are being treated better than they were a decade ago, but that they still are pretty low on the food chain. “They were a leper colony ten years ago. They’re just mildly annoying now.” Cummings also said the big problem with robots is batteries.

Here are some highlights from the first day of the New America/Arizona State conference on the future of war. You can watch Day 2 here:

I was surprised by the amount of concern expressed that the United States has fallen behind in building drones. Peter Singer called the Predator a Model T, likening the phrase “unmanned aircraft” to “horseless carriage.” Mary Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot now teaching at Duke, said that “we have lost the cutting edge” in both robotics and drones. She added that, “My students can over the weekend” build a better drone that the U.S. military possesses. One of the problems, she said, is that there isn’t enough profit in building drones for the big defense companies to be much interested in the area. The real talent in designing drones is going to Amazon, Google and Oracle, she said.

Cummings also said that Air Force drone pilots are being treated better than they were a decade ago, but that they still are pretty low on the food chain. “They were a leper colony ten years ago. They’re just mildly annoying now.” Cummings also said the big problem with robots is batteries.

Overall the conference has a different flavor than most defense meetings. For example, one panelist, very thoughtful, wore purple fingernail polish.

It was also nice to see the three winners of the Best Defense Future of War essay contest in attendance.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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