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Drones inflicting information overload on Air Force

Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt / AP

A photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-9 Reaper during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.

The Air Force has such a glut of data – photos and videos and such – captured by its fleet of drone aircraft that it can’t keep up with analyzing the information, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said Thursday.

Because of the lack people and machinery to make sense of the information, the Air Force will cut back on how many of the drone aircraft it buys, Donley told a group of defense writers in Washington. National Defense magazine was among the publications attending the interview.

"We’ve clearly playing catch-up," Donley said, according to Wired magazine's account of the interview. "It’s not just the pilots and manning the aircraft. It’s also the [data] processing exploitation behind that …. We’re collecting data at rates well above what we had in the past."

Last year the Air Force bought 48 Reaper drones, according to National Defense, and will cut back to 24 in the proposed 2013 budget.

Donley said the fleet of Reaper and Predator drones will remain at 65 aircraft until the analysis backlog is figured out.

According to John Villasenor, a fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution think tank, the analysis challenges with large amounts of data are likely to continue to increase.

"That said, I don't think that the data challenge itself will slow the growth of U.S. military drone use in any significant manner over the long run, if at all," Villasenor told msnbc.com. "The more likely outcome is that military drones will end up collecting an enormous amount of data that sometimes simply never gets analyzed to any depth."

The drones are manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical based in San Diego, Calif.

The strike capabilities of these unmanned aircraft have been well demonstrated in attacks in Afghanistan and Yemen. But the General Atomics Reaper and its close sibling the Predator are more widely used for intelligence gathering, according to IHS Jane’s, a defense, security and intelligence publisher. Both models of drones can provide loads of weather, surveillance, target-acquisition and reconnaissance information that can be used to assist ground troops in battle.

They typically fly at medium-altitudes and have the capability to stay in the air for extended time periods.

(Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that General Atomics Aeronautical was based in Maryland.)

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