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So, in this world, the future's wars are fought by drones and recruit teenagers with attitude, who control and repair drones in a temporary base near the front, and are frequently targets of surprise attacks. But why? What could prevent long distance teleoperation so that my child soldiers are forced into the war zone?

The setting is the near-future. Fusion reactors exist, laptops have practically infinite battery life, we have powered armor, which enhances the user's strength, speed and provides NIJ level 4 protection, weapons didn't change, just became more modular (Read: ar-15).

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  • $\begingroup$ What is NIJ level 4 protection? $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @dot_Sp0T en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulletproof_vest#Performance_standards $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ What do you define as "close?" Being 10m from the frontis very different from being 10km from the front, which is very different from being 100km from the front. The technological limitations we might use to cause these humans to be close may vary by such distances. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon Close enough to be in mortal danger. Also, what do you define as the warzone? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Mephistopheles Sorry, while you were typing, I edited to refer to the "front" beacuse I realized you were using the word "warzone" already. So I ask what "close enough" is because it varies remarkably. "Close enough to be in mortal danger" against a superpower's military with air suprierority can be hundreds of miles away. Close enough against a lesser nation's army in a jungle environment may be merely hundreds of feet because the terrain is dense enough to make any greater distance "safe." $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 18, 2018 at 15:52

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I would suggest that it has to do with network security. The satellite network may be insecure or compromised, or the enemy shot all the satellites down on the first day of the war. So no more operating drones in Afghanistan from a base in Minnesota. (Aside: China is IRL building the capability to shoot down satellites and they'd certainly try to do so if they ever went to war with the USA. We are very dependent on our toys.) You may elaborate that in this near-future scenario cyberwarfare is even more sophisticated than today, and enemies as well as third parties would love to hack the good guys' drones -- either to disable them or to take them over.

As a response to this, suppose the operator's control over the drone requires a direct line-of-sight connection. This would be some kind of a directional beam (like a laser) so it couldn't be intercepted or spoofed by anyone that wasn't (almost) directly between the operator and the drone. Your operators would have to be within a few miles of the drone (depending on their altitude and the drone's altitude) and this would impact tactics: if you have a mountaintop base you can cover a wide range, but if you control a valley, the enemy's drones can't fly into it because they'd break their connection.

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Because of the same problems current drones have?

Drones in the air have it somewhat easy. When they lose connection they only need a very simple set of instructions to find their way back home or attempt to protect itself, simple in comparison to ground forces that is. When people use false signals and electronic interference devices the Drone can check if the signal comes from below or above. From above is a satellite, most likely friendly in current asymmetrical warfare against low tech terrorists, and from below can almost only be hostile so it'll ignore those.

Ground drones however have more problems. If connection is lost it suddenly needs to be able to make full tactical decisions by itself and driving home could also be tricky in a battlefield where the road it just drove on could be destroyed when he tries to find his way back. The farther away your signal comes, the easier it is to disturb or hijack the signal so the current Russian ground-based drone is mostly steered with about 2 mile distances at maximum, although in operations the drone's operators are usually much closer within the half mile distance if I recall. It also can't differentiate between where or how a signal arrives, and electronic interference devices have much more effect on the Drone's in and out going signals. Also for the airborne drones in a full-scale modern conflict a signal from above could also come from a hostile satellite that attempts to hijack it.

So in order to control the drones the teenagers need to be close to make sure the signals are as safe as possible and you don't have your laptop suddenly saying "thanks for the drones" just before all drone connections go dark.

Now you could of course attempt to make more advanced drones with far higher functions, but if you have the choice between building 1 highly advanced self-sufficient drone (until it's hit of course and needs repairs) and or building 15 dumb ones controlled for a large part by some teenagers nearby... Well the choice is quickly made, build 15 and swarm anyone dumb enough to send a single advanced drone!

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  • radio communication is limited due to enemy EMP (powered by fusion reactors and targeted by cheap electronics), or interference from frequent lightning storms, or from increased solar flare activity.

    • here are more involved interference causes : intense solar flares are countered by equally intense magnetic field of the planet, creating all sort of electromagnetic noise in stratosphere. Further, rapid industrialization has destroyed ozone layer, and now major cities operate special EM shields, which make it safe to go outside, but disrupt radio communication.

    • same interference will kill GPS and sattelites, so you are back to WWII's tropes of using airplanes to spot enemy troops (and then struggling to return to home base in a shot-up airplane), solitary runners carrying important messages, etc.

  • long cables are a vulnerability, they cannot be re-deployed fast enough during rapid advances, can be used by enemy in case of retreat, and create lag when they approach capacity

  • being near front lines motivates drone operators to defend their base properly

  • being near the drones and their operating area reminds teens that this is real, and not a videogame. E.g. they can see the damage they did to the drone, and could be tasked with helping repair it. Seeing the local soil and trees helps them figure out which obstacles are passable, and which aren't.

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Treat the drones as an extension of the humans, and require low latency interactions.

Some interactions are easy. Modern aerial drones don't really do anything difficult compared to what your drones will probably have to do. I don't believe we have any drones dogfighting yet. As such, their latency requirements are minimal.

If communications are uni-directional, latency probably wont matter. You'll structure your AIs such that that latency is hard to distinguish. However, if communications are bi-directional, it gets interesting.

Consider a system that is so complicated that you can't just "command" it to do something. You have to observe it to make sure it followed your command. K9 soldiers are an excellent example of this. These dogs are some of the best trained dogs on the planet, but we don't rely on them to follow the command. The trainer watches the K9, observing its demeanor, making sure that it looks like the K9 got the message properly.

Watching body-language with a high latency connection is atrociously difficult. So many of the cues we look for are interactions, where you do something and see a response from the other individual. If the effectiveness of the teenager's control over these drone is entirely dependent on reading the body language of the drone, they'd need to be close enough to have the low latency command it takes.

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Drones are controlled psionically.

These drones are not remote control planes. They are extensions of the operator's mind. The teenagers with attitude are actually psychics of different flavors, and their weaponry mobile cybernetic augmentations. The drones could be considered an extended battle suit allowing the soldiers to do battle with other entities that can access the psychic plane. Psychic reach depends on the individual but is not thousands of miles ... usually.

On your side the soldiers are human teenagers. On the other side the psychically enabled combatants may be less or more human than that.

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    $\begingroup$ The psychic plane? I did have plans on making the Internet the Warp from Wh40k, but... $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2018 at 22:18

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