Not two days ago, I read this passage in Wired for War, P.W. Singer’s absorbing and excellently researched book on the robotics revolution in warfare:

Through most of 2005 and 2006, the Department of Homeland Security flew a Predator drone over the U.S.-Mexico border. The robot border-cop helped arrest 2,309 people and seize seven tons of marijuana.

In 2008, DHS presented plans to Congress to buy eighteen drone planes to patrol the U.S. broder. Of course, all realize that the drones are actually focused on stopping a different type of border crosser than al-Qaeda agents — illegal immigrants. “But the acceptability of using these systems for border surveillance has increased dramatically since terrorism became such a real, in-our-backyard threat,” says Cyndi Wegerbauer of General Atomics, which sold the Predator drone to the Border patrol.

Indeed, the war to defend against would-be immigrants, robots have also gone to work not only for the government, but also for the private border patrols, or “militias,” as some have called themselves. One example is the “Border Hawk” drones serving with the American Border Patrol, a private organization operating in Cochise County, Arizona.

… group’s technology is twenty-first century. They operate three drones that carry video and infrared cameras. The drones are launched by radio control and then automatically fly a patrol pattern using GPS, staying at four hundred feet, just below what the government requires for certification. While in the air, they search out any illegal immigrants crossing the border and record the images to TiVo for playback and review. The group doesn’t arrest the illegal aliens themselves, but passes on the information to the United States Border Patrol as well as loads its robots’ footage onto the Internet using a satellite connection, or, as the group describes, “broadcasting the invasion live on the internet.”

And today, the Department of Homeland Security announced the expansion of its drone program in surveillance and patrol of the U.S.-Mexico border. These new drones will survey maritime smuggling and illegal drug trafficking and will employ special wide-ranging radar to scan the seas. In January, DHS will test out a drone over the Caribbean off the Florida coast, and there are plans to launch a second one over the Gulf of Mexico by the summer of 2010.

The idea of having a machine that is more often used in the battlefield in Pakistan and Afghanistan in a civilian environment is unsettling, to say the least – not to mention the hefty $13.5 million bill that comes with its services. But the success of the land drones currently in use at the border has Homeland Security officials ecstatic and willing to explore future possibilities. And despite the ominous name and affiliation with a chaotic war abroad, the drones don’t carry any weapons and serve primarily as a monitoring tool.

Still, it’s unnerving to come to grips with the fact that somewhere along the road, humans and international relations entered the future. Three days ago, it was reported that the CIA would expand the drone program in Pakistan – a controversial move, since the program has been sharply criticized for killing innocent civilians in addition to military targets. Robotics technology alarmed us when it entered the battlefield – and it’s a topic that still remains somewhat taboo for officials – but now that both its military and  civilian roles are expanding as well, how will we begin to reassess our relationship with technology in international affairs? As P.W. Singer reminded us in the New York Times, “We’re talking about a technology that’s not going away.” The technology will only become better, faster, more efficient, and more durable, and will wheedle its way further into transnational crime, law enforcement, terrorism and counter-terrorism. We’ll keep a lookout, of course. But as always, we will not realize the extent of the changes until they are already fully upon us.

Written by Brianna Lee