15 August 2012
The move was perhaps to be expected, given the astonishing rise to US military prominence of these aircraft. Until now, larger, fighter-jet-sized drones, such as the Predator and Reaper, have been the vehicle for attacks, the first being a strike in Yemen in 2002 by a CIA Predator. Six people that the US suspected were members of Al-Qaida were killed when their jeep was struck by missiles fired from the aircraft.
Now 41 per cent of the US military's 18,000 or so aircraft are remotely piloted. This growth has been accompanied by growing criticism over civilian deaths. One of the military's answers is to develop smaller weapons for more precise strikes.
So to last month's Farnborough International Airshow in the UK, where US aerospace firm Raytheon showcased its Small Tactical Munition, a 6-kilogram bomb just half a metre long that is designed for smaller drones, such as the 3.4-metre-long Shadow. It "offers extreme precision", Raytheon claims, and "significantly reduces the risk of collateral damage", owing to the small blast radius of its guided warhead.
But many people are not convinced, including Thomas Nash of Article 36, a UK-based organisation that campaigns for weapons control. He warns that claims of pinpoint precision will only encourage greater use in urban areas.
Smaller drones also crash more often, partly because the flight dynamics of smaller drone designs are not yet well understood. This means communities could find crashed, shot-down or GPS-jammed drones, carrying bombs, in their backyards.
Raytheon says that after a crash, bombs can be disabled - something critics also question.
Noel Sharkey, a roboticist at the University of Sheffield, UK, who has criticised the use of autonomous weapons, fears that miniaturisation will lead to an escalation in use and pave the way for their global proliferation.
What is beyond doubt is that, a decade after that landmark drone strike in Yemen, the next phase in remote warfare is coming over the horizon, fast.
Paul Marks is New Scientist's chief technology