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This question already has an answer here:

Something I'm working on involving insterstellar combat. While replacing fighters/ tanks/ vehicles operated by humans with drones seems a good idea IRL, in fiction (like the project I have in mind) it raises a problem- namely it's hard to get emotionally invested with characters if they can send a drone to face their enemies, to take the necessary risks.

What I`m asking is, how can I make it believable for humans to fly the fighters or drive the tanks into danger when they could send in the robots instead?

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marked as duplicate by Serban Tanasa, DaaaahWhoosh, Frostfyre, Jim2B, Brythan Jan 23 '16 at 5:47

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  • $\begingroup$ Spoiler - Have you read Ender's Game? That's all the main character does. Enter competitions and play war games (which turns out to be him actually commanding a ship and fighting.) $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Jan 22 '16 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon Gamification of warfare is now actually a real thing that might also be a real issue and about which stories are being written. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 22 '16 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi Gaminification of warfare is possible only on a planet/short distance. In a interstellar/interplanetary combat, gamification is not possible for combat situation and is limited for patrol and espionage because of the lag time of the communication $\endgroup$ – Gianluca Jan 22 '16 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ Would making people emotionally invest in drones work? $\endgroup$ – Martin_xs6 Jan 22 '16 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Gianluca That is not really true. While the communications lag prevents direct control of units over such distances, gamification or indeed drone operation does not require direct control. An order to shoot at the unit that should according to current intel come visible within two hours is just as real as an order to turn the rudder two degrees left right now. Very different yes, but just as real and just as capable of being gamified. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 22 '16 at 23:43
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I'm going to build on Gianluca's answer and say you could invent an environmental reason for piloted vehicles.

Perhaps this solar system has a sun that gives off more solar wind. The planets could be so ravaged by geomagnetic storms that radio communication is just too unreliable for drones to operate. Of course, there would be additional consequences to this. Most things technological would need special shielding against solar radiation, and radio communication between individuals on the planet will be sketchy. You might be able to play that up for drama though.

Some related pages:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geomagnetic_storm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Allen_radiation_belt

Another solution I see is to give these people the technology for remote drone combat --then take it away. Let's say this society solved NASA's lag time problem. Maybe they built a network of satellites to repeat signals, thus improving the reliability of communication and decreasing wait time. So normally, they would fight with drones --but in this case, they can't. Perhaps this war takes place in a foreign system? This could be unmarked territory, lacking their infrastructure. This would require them to fight the old fashioned way.

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You can't, if your "when they could send in the robots instead" is really true. (You might want to look into if it really is. Not all things can be done by drones.)

Fortunately you do not really need to. Piloting fighters or driving tanks is not really that interesting to read about. The interesting things are the decisions made in response to the unfolding events under pressure. It doesn't really make that much of a difference whether the decisions are made on location inside a fighter or tank or remotely from another side of a planet. It also makes no difference if the pressure comes from personal physical danger or something more complex such as the possibility that the "armored vehicle" you just blew up was actually a school bus full of ten year old school children. Oops.

It's really more Writers SE consideration, but I'd suggest that instead of trying to write an old kind of war story in a new kind of war you just write the kind of war story that matches the new type of war.

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  • $\begingroup$ If this project I mentioned was a novel- maybe. But for the wargame I've imagined, I'm not so sure. $\endgroup$ – king of panes Jan 23 '16 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ @kingofpanes If it is a war game, the warfare is already gamified by definition. You actually have less to lose than if writing a novel. You should already be fully focussed on adding those factors that keep people invested in the events without direct physical involvement. Also keeping players invested in characters is about allowing them to build their own stories around the characters and the basic factors enabling that are the same that enable an author to build intense stories in a novel. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 23 '16 at 7:24
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I'm going to assume that you want rather realistic space combat, in that case autonomous drones are an absolute must.

In space, it's possible to predict trajectories of unpowered objects for thousands of years with accuracy of centimetres, orbital speeds are measured in km/s and there's no such a thing as "maximum range". Range is only limited by target's ability to evade projectiles - at range long enough, any change of velocity will count as evasion, so everyone will be either using missiles that can adjust for enemy course changes, or lasers which strike without warning and can only be dodged by changing course all the time. Space is so big, and lasers/missiles offer range so great that saturating area with kinetic projectiles isn't really practical at all - gatling guns are right out.

In practice, combat is most likely to take only a few seconds, maybe a minute, but less than a second actually matters, rest of the time is spent waiting for death as missiles and light beams scream through space towards targets that are only technically still alive. Shooting down missiles only works if you can do it far enough, otherwise resultant cloud of debris, still travelling at 50km/s relative to you, is going to be every bit as deadly as missile was.

All in all, space combat will be fast, brutal and deadly, completely eliminating human element from actual combat- when shooting starts, course of battle will be decided before you even blink, that doesn't mean that humans can't plan battle in advance, though. Remote controlled drones are unfeasible because of lag caused by distance. Only fully autonomous ships can be effective in actual space combat, and they don't actually need to be real AIs, calculating trajectories is easy for computer and relatively simple algorithms will be able to easily decide which ship shoots which enemy with which weapon. In addition, there's almost no difference between autonomous drone and missile - "fighter" drones can be used to launch smaller missiles first and later to ram the enemy.

I would expect humans to crew carriers/flagships that stay very, very far away from actual combat, a bit like modern aircraft carriers - they won't actually fight each other, instead they will be sending autonomous fighters and autonomous escort ships to destroy enemy carrier. Keep in mind that fighters and escorts will be smaller and more agile, thus they will be able to get closer to the enemy, so of course enemy sends his fighters and escorts to intercept yours. Since goal is to destroy enemy carrier, humans aren't actually safe, they need to be close enough to plan tactics before battle starts but far enough that even with decreased agility they are not immediately threatened.

Conclusion: Since even present day AIs are sufficient to control unmanned combat craft, there's no place for humans on board of combat craft. However, if your world lacks AGIs or sophisticated tactical AIs, humans will have to be dangerously close to be able to plan tactics executed by unmanned craft.

Disclaimer: All of the above goes down the drain if you add any of the following: shields, super strong materials, FTL engines. Human operated fighters will still make no sense, but human operated capital ships could.

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Let your character be the drone. Thanks to a Direct Neural Interface he can jump into the drone and assist the AI/fly the whole thing. The operator becomes the drone. Every sensor-feed is as if their own senses were used. They maybe "feel" the suns radiation on their skin/hull, "smell" the composition of space dust around them... present it like you want.

Of course DNI has some disadvantages. The ability to feel every part of the operated vehicle as if it was your own body backlashes when the vehicle is somehow damaged. While there are safety protocols protecting you in most cases, sometimes they kick in a few milliseconds too late. So one in ten Drone-deaths results in an Operator-Death, or maybe just a heavy psychological trauma (after all someone just shot a missile into his body, ripping it completely apart). Of course adjust to your needs.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm actually concsidering using something like this, but in technology used by one of the alien empires, and it's meant to be something unique to them, so it wouldn't work for the human faction. $\endgroup$ – king of panes Jan 23 '16 at 2:21
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If the drones are not fully autonomous AI, then a good reason can be the lag time of the communication over big distance. Basically is not possible to combat with a drone even on Mars (maybe on the Moon) where, for example, the lag time in the communication are between a minimun of 4 and a maximum of 24 minutes. In this situation a drone that is less then fully autonomous is useless in combat.

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