The video game, "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," published last year by Activision features a small, quad-rotor drone armed with a submachine gun and plastic explosives designed to kill enemies on the battlefield in the year 2025.
The fictional weapon was partly the brainchild of Peter Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who also works as an author, futurist and video game consultant. To help market the game, he said, the company spent about $2,000 building a real-life version of the tablet-operated drone, named it "Charlene," then filmed it shredding targets in a YouTube video that has been viewed more than 20 million times.
"A Pentagon office ... saw the video of Charlene and said, 'Wow, that's not right that this Russian guy' -- they didn't realize he was an actor we hired -- they said, 'That's not right that this Russian guy has a better drone than the entire U.S. military in a tactical sense.' We ought to build that," Singer said during a speech Monday at the Air Force Association's annual conference in National Harbor, Md.
"And then they put out several contracts to some of the companies out here to make Charlene real," he said. "I guarantee you it won't cost a couple of thousands of dollars when they do it."
Singer, speaking in an exhibit hall filled with booths sponsored by defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., was making a point about how technological advances are lowering the barriers of entry for using and manufacturing unmanned systems. Air Force leaders must be prepared for new, commercially inspired uses for drones, he said.
"What does it even mean for the personnel side, when you will have young airmen ... who will have experience with drones at home coming in [to the service] and maybe using older ones in the system, a lot like what happened with computers?" he asked. "Bottom line, robotics is coming, like it or not."
Other potentially game-changing technologies include artificial intelligence, directed energy, three-dimensional printing and cyber-warfare, Singer said.
The military, however, still plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on technology that was developed years or even decades ago, from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Joint Tactical Radio System, a family of digital radios conceived in 1997, Singer said.
"How do you protect the new from being swallowed up by the old," he said. "We don't like to admit it, but the old is actually privileged by current contracts, current program offices, current internal tribes, constituencies who see their careers linked to that system, current factories and congressional districts, which made armies of lobbyists working on behalf of the old system."