'Unmanned'

“Unmanned,” Dan Fesperman’s new thriller about drone warfare. (Handout, Baltimore Sun / August 5, 2014)

It was the eeriness of the situation that struck Baltimore writer Dan Fesperman. Drone pilots for the Air Force would spend weeks watching what amounted to a real-life silent movie of a small town thousands of miles away — all the while plotting the destruction of some of the inhabitants.

Fesperman interviewed drone operators stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada while doing research for his ninth thriller, "Unmanned," which is being released Wednesday.

Most drone operators, he found, are former elite fighter pilots. Cameras mounted on the drones add a personal dimension to these missions that's largely absent from aerial combat.

"They talked about doing reconnaissance of a small village for an extended period of time and sort of getting to know the different people in this little community," said Fesperman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who is now an award-winning novelist.

"They couldn't see their faces; the resolution wasn't that good. But they could tell their relative size — if they were children, if they were old, if they were young, the way they walked, what they did, where they lived. They got a feel for these people.

"When they were asked to do something that might end their lives, it had an impact on them that it never had when they were up in the sky firing a missile at a target off in the distance." (An edited transcript of the full conversation appears below.)

In "Unmanned," a drone mission unexpectedly goes awry, resulting in the deaths of innocent children. The drone's pilot, Darwin Cole, is haunted by the devastation he unwittingly has unleashed. To conquer his demons, he helps three journalists uncover the culprits behind the fatal attack.

Amid the trappings of a psychological thriller, Fesperman is asking serious questions about the consequences of the new information-gathering technology for the military, government contractors and society.

The 58-year-old author is a former war correspondent whose writing career has taken him to 30 countries and three war zones. He's married to Liz Bowie, who writes about education for The Sun; the couple's son, Will Fesperman, currently is a Sun intern. The novelist will speak more about the potential and perils of drones when he speaks Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop.

You seem concerned that the new technology could create an Orwellian society in which personal privacy is a thing of the past. Do you personally avoid flying on airplanes or using E-ZPass at toll booths to thwart potential governmental information-gathering?

[Laughing] No, I don't. If they track me, they're going to be mighty bored. But it does give me pause. What really gives me the heebie-jeebies are the cameras everywhere.

And now, with drones, it's not just these little eyes everywhere. Now the eyes can move around and follow you. It's no longer just, "Well, they're stationary so I'll duck out of sight." Something might be up in the sky coming after you with every step.

Does the technology you describe in the book, such as spy drones the size of insects, exist?

Yes, they already have technology for a lot of these micro-drones, and they were testing them in this huge warehouse facility. The camera technology is amazing. All these pixilated images have thousands of individual images at once that some computer can sort through. It's almost like a compound eye.

And that was just the technology that existed when I was writing the book. I'm sure that by now, God knows how much further developed it is in terms of capabilities and speed.

But are these little micro-drones so sophisticated that they can insert and take out a flash drive [as described in the book]? I don't know. If they can, [military officials] wouldn't have told me anyway. If I invented anything, that was it. But I don't think it's a stretch to superimpose certain capabilities on these things. If they don't exist now, they will soon.

What about the part of your book in which the U.S. government essentially turns a blind eye when private contractors use foreign nations as test labs for their new and destructive technology? Was that based on an actual situation?

There's no reason why that scenario couldn't happen. So much of modern warfare is being farmed out to privateers now, and the situation I described on the ground in Afghanistan is not made up. Units are being sheep-dipped. [In other words, military personnel are surreptitiously farmed out to private contractors and to other governmental agencies, such as the CIA — which may have fewer prohibitions on information-gathering techniques].

We already know the technology gets swapped back and forth between the government and its contractors in other defense areas.

So it stands to reason that the whole incestuous relationship between privateers and the Pentagon, especially on these very fluid battle fronts, would reach this type of situation where it's "I'll help you if you help me, and here's how we're going to help each other."