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News & Notes

From Drone Warrior to Drone Wildlife Conservationist

Brett Velicovich’s life is already being made into an action movie. What can he do for an encore?

August 2, 2017

HarperCollins Publishing

Brett Velicovich spent more than a decade as an intelligence analyst in the military. As he detailed in his book Drone Warrior, during one four-month period, his team helped remove 14 of the 20 most wanted terrorists from the battlefield in Iraq. 

The book, which explores Velicovich’s experiences in the military, is being turned into a movie by the master of slow-motion explosion, Michael Bay. But upon leaving the military for the sake of his health and personal life, Velicovich has co-founded the African Eye Project which hopes to use advanced drone technology to thwart poachers in Kenya and other nations. He is also an entrepreneur and has become a regular commentator on cable news channels as a result of his book’s success. 

He is clearly a busy man, but the unifying theme of all these professions is drones. We talked to Velicovich about fighting ISIS, the weaponization of consumer drones, and how drones can become the best tool for fighting poachers worldwide.

Your book is called Drone Warrior, but I thought a better name might be The Box. The book is really the story about what goes on the room you call “the Box,” where all of the top-secret spy work is coordinated. Drones were just a part of that larger operation.  

That’s 100% right. If you see the title or the image on the cover, you might mistake me for a drone pilot. But drones are just one part of a highly complex intelligence network.

Actually, it’s funny you mention the title because at one point the publisher actually suggested the title “American Predator,” which I had to shoot down. They wanted “drone” in the title to appeal to consumers, and drones are a fascinating subject. But you’re right. Drones are just one part of the story.

In the book, the job of intelligence officer was killing you. Why couldn’t you just sleep more?

The job is an incredible responsibility. We have tens of millions of dollars of equipment under our control. There are only so many drones in the military, and there are so many soldiers counting on you. You become obsessive about the job, because you start to think about the fact that if you don’t get this one guy, hundreds of lives could be lost.

In the book, I talk about how we were targeting (AbÅ« Bakr) al-Baghdadi, but we got there too late and he got away. And then, of course, he later became the leader of ISIS. That’s the kind of thing you have to live with if you don’t do your job. We were tracking suicide bombers and some of the most evil humans, so you don’t want to sleep if you can be doing something about it.

Most movies and books about drone warfare focus on the moral compromises. Yours has none of that. It is very black and white, good and evil. You are very certain that drone strikes are a morally justified act of war.

One of the reasons I wrote the book, or said yes to writing it, was that I knew someone would write this story with or without me. I wanted to get the story right, to tell people what it’s really like. When I was thinking about writing the book, I remember driving past the headquarters for the CIA and protesters were outside with fake models of a predator drone and signs that said things like, “when a drone strikes, a child dies.” In my experience, that is so far from the truth. Drone strikes were a small part of what we did. What was important was tracking terrorists, getting information, and staying ahead of our enemies.

The book is being made into a movie directed by Michael Bay. How do you make an action movie about a bunch of people staring at big screens?

This story is not just about me. It’s about the greatest special operations teams in the world. There’s all kinds of action. You’ve got the Special Forces guys who kick in doors and conduct the raids. And it’s also a story about my coming of age and dealing with the responsibilities of leading soldiers in combat and taking lives. When I talked to the screenwriter about the story, he told me that this isn’t just a war novel, but it’s the coming of age story of a young soldier.

Michael Bay is the right person to take on this movie. He is one of his generation’s greatest directors, but he’s also a big believer and supporter of the conservation work I’m now involved in. He’s a huge advocate for conservation and he loves soldiers, so he was meant for this.

We still need bigger, badder drones if there’s any hope to stop poaching. 

You’ve recently written an opinion piece about the danger of weaponized consumer drones. Why?

One of the things I’ve done to pay the bills is my company Expert Drones. We sell Yuneec, Syma, DJI and other drones and we repair and build drones.

I am very, very aware and interested in the dangers of the weaponization of drones. I am one of the few people who has seen both [consumer and military] sides. I am blown away every time new consumer technology comes into our store, and even though I know it’s bad for business, I am concerned about how these capabilities could be used by terror groups. Ninety-nine point nine percent of all drones are used for peaceful purposes, but I know how easy it would be for someone to turn a drone into a killing machine. 

You’ve also recognized that drones are useful for peaceful efforts as well. In the book you explain your work with game wardens in Kenya to protect wildlife from poachers. How is that going?

You have to understand that anti-poaching wardens have been working to stop this problem for years and its only getting worse. We need something new and have to change our tactics. The problem is getting the military-grade technology to do the job right. For a while, Kenyan authorities said no to letting us bring in drones because they were afraid the U.S. would be spying on them.

The poaching problem is so big, it’s like an insurgency. And we need to bring new technology and new ways of thinking about the problem. Unfortunately, U.S. State Department restrictions still make it impossible to get military-grade drones.

We still need bigger, badder drones if there’s any hope to stop the poaching. Really, what we need is military stuff like the Boeing ScanEagle. What we’re hoping to get is older, outdated military hardware that might cost $1 million to $1.5 million. But the State Department won’t allow it to be sold to us. The good thing is that a Phantom with 23 minutes of endurance is useful enough be used in some anti-poaching and humanitarian efforts. But there is no reason to restrict access to drone technology for a peaceful project like this.

Now that you are using drones for humanitarian and anti-poaching efforts, are you hopeful about the role drones can play in the world?

I am optimistic. Like I said, we really need to have access to more powerful tech, but we are already doing some amazing things. When you can use a DJI Mavic, which can fly 4 to 5 miles, to do a job that you would have needed to use a helicopter in the past, you can start breaking old patterns and help bring new solutions and new ways of thinking to attack old problems.

Featured image: U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Shannon Collins