The US Air Force has announced it has ordered a further quartet of MQ-9 'Reapers', worth $59m, to supplement its initial fleet of seven.
A decision on full-rate production is expected in 2009. Meanwhile, the head of the Royal Air Force said last week that the UK will also deploy its first fully-armed Reapers "later this year".
The MQ-9 is the most formidable killer robot currently in operation. It's a big beast, 36 feet long with an 86-foot wingspan. It can fly for 14 hours without refuelling, going at a maximum speed of 300mph and as high as 50,000 feet - nine and a half miles up.
The US Air Force describes it as an "unmanned hunter/killer weapon system". This term might perhaps have been coined by a fan of the classic Terminator movies, in which dystopian future battlegrounds are overflown by murderous Flying-HK death-droids intent on wiping out the last vestiges of human resistance to the machine overlords.
The real-world flying HK is at least as deadly as the ones in the movies, able to lift a hefty 3,750 pounds of munitions. This can equate to 14 laser-guided Hellfire missiles, a smaller number of Paveway smartbombs, or GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) with their own satnav/inertial guidance.
All these weapons have already notched up kills against hapless fleshies. The Hellfire missile has been used previously by the Israelis to blow up an elderly Hamas man in his wheelchair. The CIA has also fired it from a smaller "Predator" flying robot over Yemen, to kill prominent al-Qaeda honcho Qa'ed Sunyan al-Harethi in 2002 - after remotely programming his cellphone to switch on without his knowledge so that he could be targeted (details from the Times lower down this page).
Meanwhile, the USAF has used GBU-38 JDAMs to vapourise Abu Musab al Zarqawi, thought to be head of al-Qaeda in Iraq (not to mention levelling the building he was in at the time).
Not only is it difficult to run from the Reaper, it's also pretty hard to hide from it - at least in the open, anyway*. The aerial kill-bot's Lynx radar can sweep 60 square kilometres a minute, picking out any moving target larger than one metre and if necessary swivelling its all-seeing eye for a closer look with resolution down to 10cm.
There is also a "multi-spectral targeting system", allowing operators to use all kinds of nightsights and thermal options as well. The droid can almost smell your fear.
And all this for just $15m each, a tiny fraction of the cost of purchasing a conventional strike jet with a human pilot. The RAF's new Eurofighters, by comparison, will cost the taxpayers anywhere from £86m to £140m per jet, depending how many are actually used - 11 to 18 times as much as a Reaper. And a Eurofighter requires a human pilot to actually fly over hostile territory, too, rather than staying comfortably at a control station somewhere nice and safe (thus far, operators handling Reapers and Predators over Iraq and Afghanistan have typically worked from Nellis airforce base, just outside Las Vegas).
In a chilling but wholly predictable move, there are moves afoot to dispense with human control altogether. The US Army's forthcoming "Warrior" drone - another Predator variant - won't need a trained pilot at all, as it will be able to land and take off autonomously. "Manual control will be possible," according to the manufacturer (General Atomics of San Diego), but this is scarcely reassuring.
It seems pretty obvious that Judgement Day (in the cheesy sci-fi sense rather than the scriptural one) can't be far off. ®
*Don't think you're safe underground or indoors, either. The robots will follow you there, too.