Remote operations

I’ve noted on several occasions the multiple ways in which later modern war invokes medical metaphors to legitimise military violence (notably ‘surgical strikes’ against the ‘cancer’ of insurgency), and my preliminary work on medical-military machines has revealed all sorts of feedbacks between (in particular) trauma care by advanced militaries in war zones and trauma care by civilian agencies at home.


But these two paths have now intersected: in a paper on ‘Automated killing and mediated caringKathrin Friedrich and Moritz Queisner draw on studies of remote platforms and visual technologies – including my own – to discuss the automated killing of tumour cells using the CyberKnife system and what they call the the techno-medical ‘kill-chain’ that mediates between physician and patient.  They write:

Gregory uses the term kill-chain to characterize the setting of military interventions by unmanned aerial systems as “a dispersed and distributed apparatus, a congerie of actors, objects, practices, discourses and affects, that entrains the people who are made part of it and constitutes them as particular kinds of subjects.” Image-guided interventions in medical contexts share similar structural features and are also characterized by tying together a heterogeneity of practices, actors, discourses and expertise in order to achieve a precisely defined goal but without obviously stating their inner relations and micro politics.


Their central question, appropriately re-phrased, can also be asked of today’s remote operations in theatres of war (and beyond):

The fact that medical robots increasingly determine medical therapy and often provide the only form of access to the operation area requires us to conceptualize them as care agents rather than to merely conceive of them as passive tools. But if the physician’s action is based on confidence in and cooperation with the robot, what kind of operative knowledge does this kind of agency require and how does it change the modalities of medical intervention?

They conclude:

… since surgical intervention has become a computer-mediated practice that inscribes the surgeon into a complex setting of medical care agents, it is no longer the patient’s body but the image of the body that is the central reference for the surgeon.

As the operator of robot-guided intervention the physician accordingly needs to address and cope with the specific agency of the machine. In addition the visual interfaces need to communicate and convert their technological complexity to humanly amendable surfaces.

I recommend reading these arguments and transpositions alongside Colleen Bell‘s  ‘War and the allegory of military intervention: why metaphors matter’, International political sociology 6 (3) (2012) 325-28 and ‘Hybrid war and its metaphors’, Humanity 3 (2) (2012) and Lucy Suchman‘s ‘Situational awareness: deadly bioconvergence at the boundaries of bodies and machines’ (forthcoming at Mediatropes)…

There is yet another dimension to all this.  The U.S. Army has been at the forefront of telemedicine for decades – for a recent report on ‘4G telemedicine’ see here – but since at least 2005 the Army has also been experimenting with ‘telesurgery’ or ‘remote surgery’ in which a UAV platform mediates between the surgeon and the site of patient treatment: a different version of remote operations.  You can find early reports here, here and here (‘Doc at a distance’) and a more general account of ‘Extreme Telesurgery’ here.  Still more generally, there’s a wide-ranging review of US Department of Defense research into Robotic Unmanned Systems for Combat Casualty Care here.

If this is all too futuristic – even ‘remote’ – to you, then check out the Teledactyl shown in the image below, which was originally published in 1925.  Although there’s not a drone in sight, the seer was the amazing Hugo Gernsback, who also conjured up the radio-controlled television plane



The radio-controlled television plane

I’ve written before about the long history of drones (UAVs or RPAs, if you prefer – and the Air Force does prefer), and the unrealised intersections between remotely-controlled aircraft and early television: I’m thinking of Archibald Low‘s experiments with what he called Televista in 1914 and his trial pilotless aircraft (codenamed ‘Aerial Target”) in the dog days of the First World War.  I had assumed that the connections did not materialise – and even then in very precarious ways – until the closing stages of the Second World War with the US Project Aphrodite, which I discussed briefly in ‘Lines of Descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

But now, via Gizmodo, I discover another way-station that was put in place in 1924.  First published in The Experimenter magazine, and then republished in Television News in 1931 in its March-April issue, an article by Hugo Gernsback described the military operation of a ‘radio-controlled television plane’, directed by radio and navigated using ‘electric eyes’ that would enable ‘the control operator, although 50, 100 or possibly 500 miles away, [to] see exactly what goes on around the plane, just the same as if he himself were seated in the cockpit; with the further advantage that, sitting before a screen, he can scan six directions all at once, which no human aviator can do.’


And, just like Project Aphrodite and its modern descendants, this would be a hunter-killer mission:

‘The radio-controlled television airplane can then be directed to the spot where it is supposed to drop its bombs. Moreover, the distant-control operator can see exactly when his machine arrives over a given spot. A sighting arrangement can be attached to the plane in such a manner that, when the object to be bombed comes over the cross-wires in the range-finder, the bomb or bombs are dropped at the exact moment.’

But as the illustration indicates – and in contrast to today’s Predators and Reapers – it was assumed that the aircraft would be able to operate in contested air space – and even more effectively than a conventional aircraft:

If, for instance, an enemy airplane suddenly comes out of a cloud and starts dropping bombs on our machine below, the control operator sees this enemy machine quicker 500 miles away, than if an aviator sat in the cockpit one-quarter of a mile away from or below the enemy bomber. The control operator will send a radio signal that will immediately discharge a smoke screen from his radio television plane, hiding his craft in smoke.

Explaining the decision to republish the article, Gernsback accepted that when it first appeared ‘the ideas set forth therein might have appeared more or less fantastic’ – but ‘they are no longer considered so today’:

‘As a matter of fact, the radio-controlled airplane is with us today.  Several of the leading governments have already in their possession airplanes that can now fly and stay aloft for any length of time, within reason, without a pilot or any human being on board.

‘The television adjunct will follow as a matter of course.’


Gernsback was an extraordinary man.  Sometimes hailed as the father of science fiction – hence the Hugo Awards – he was keenly interested in turning his imaginative ideas into material fact.  Even before the First World War he had invented a home radio set.  Matthew Lasar explains:

Gernsback’s “Telimco Wireless” didn’t receive the signals of any broadcast radio stations,  since there were almost none before 1920. But it did ring a bell in an adjacent room without any connecting wires. Such was the sensation the device made that local police demanded a demonstration, following up on a fraud complaint. Satisfied that it worked, the Telimco was subsequently sold in many department stores … until the first World War, when the government banned amateur wireless transmission.

But he was soon fascinated by television; he launched Radio News and then move on to Television News as platforms for his ideas and enthusiasms.  The image above shows him in 1963 wearing his ‘television glasses’.  He died the following year, or he might have invented Google Glass too.