The prominence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), known otherwise as drones, in military and surveillance endeavors has been widely covered, with an increased civilian understanding of these machines as the face of modern, mechanized warfare. Yet while UAVs are used for defensive and investigative purposes, nonmilitary drone usage offers various technological opportunities.
Military and Defense Surveillance Drones
The United States Air Force is implementing the increased use of UAV’s in tandem with a decrease of troops as part of its military missions in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The Centre for Research on Globalization reports that there were 447 US drone strikes in 2012 in Afghanistan, compared to the 294 strikes in 2011 and 279 in 2010. The Royal Air Force has also purchased a number of Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) such as the Reaper drone for supporting the remaining troops in and near Afghanistan.
Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project explained to Sanjeev Miglani of Reuters that Predator aircrafts are capable of remaining up to 20 hours in an area, allowing constant, consistent surveillance. They are also less expensive than flying F-16s over countries to carry out strikes.
American officials, under the conditions of anonymity, told The New York Times that in the past decade drones have killed over 2,000 militants and only about 50 civilians. These numbers are highly disputed, as a recent article published by the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated 175 children “among at least 392 civilians” have been killed by drones.
Drones have been accredited as not only cost efficient in strikes, but also more effective. Troops are no longer as necessary in battlefields as they were prior to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which may be controlled autonomously through a computer, or may be controlled by a human remotely.
A December 25 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency stated that the Obama administration proposed the sale of surveillance drones to South Korea to “maintain intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities”with regard to North Korea. NATOannounced in May 2012 that through a multinational contract between 13 countries would be acquiring the Global Hawk UAV system. South Korea’s purchase would be the first sale of Global Hawk drones by The United States in the Asia Pacific region.
In late 2012, The Guardian published data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies concerning UAV possession for several countries including Israel, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The United States is considered to be most transparent about UAV possession and usage and has a known inventory of 678 drones of various models; the next highest number of known UAVs is 38 for India. In a recent article by The Washington Post, the CIA is looking to add 10 more drones to their inventory of an estimated 30.
The UK currently uses armed drones exclusively in Afghanistan, but it is reported that drones may also replace the Nimrod security planes that have been patrolling the UK coast.The number of Russian drones is undetermined, but CNN reported in July 2012 that Russia planned on implementing drones for surveillance of civil protests as well as the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Nonmilitary Drone Usage in The United States
Apart from highly publicized military drone usage, UAVs are increasingly used in the United States for a range of activities, from border control by the Department of Homeland Security to domestic police work. In December The Washington Times reported on a Predator drone that was used to survey a farmer from North Dakota who had been engaged in a stand off with the Grand Forks SWATteam. Originally used for border control and protection in America, drones have increasingly been lent out to local police forces for similar surveillance purposes.
The incident in North Dakota raised privacy concerns over drone usage however. In an interview with CBS correspondent Jeff Glor, Peter Singer, a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained, “That drone is not just picking up information on what’s happening at that specific scene, it’s picking up everything else that’s going on. Basically it’s recording footage from a lot of different people that it didn’t have their approval to record footage,” he said.
The U.S. government has, however, approved drone usage in U.S. airspace. In February 2012, President Obama signed the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012. The legislation allows civilian use of small drones under 4.4 pounds in American skies. In response to opened airspace, the Peace and Justice Commission recently proposed at a city council meeting to adopt a resolution and proclaim Berkeley, CA a No Drone Zone. Drone use would be banned from the airspace, along with the purchase and renting of UAVs as a result of this designation. The financial implications of declaring the city drone free is currently unknown.
Drones for the Journalist, Artist, and Enthusiast
Even before legislation and council meetings, civilian drones were being utilized around the U.S. During the 2011 Occupy Wall Street campaign, small drones were utilized by civilian video journalists to capture the events from rare vantage points, enabling occupiers to release footage of entire swaths of Occupy landscape. Instead of discretely monitoring the crowd, these drones broadcast the enormous group of protesters globally and quickly.
Tim Pool is a prominent YouTube and live stream video journalist traveling around America, documenting campaigns and demonstrations and is an independent correspondent from the Occupy campaign. He modified a Parrot AR drone, a small UAV that can be controlled through iPhones and iPads, which was soon renamed the Occupator, to gather footage of Occupy Wall Street and broadcast it on a live-stream. When he first began using drone technology for live streaming, Tim Pool told David J. Fazekas, a reporter for Reuters, that, “There’s a novelty to it,” regarding his discrete video journalism. His ability to be not only be a video journalist, but a highly mobile journalist, keeps him from looking conspicuous in moments of conflict.
Beyond live-feed video streaming by civilian reporters like Tim Pool, drones are being used creatively by professionals. In Lisbon, Portugal FG+SG architecture duo has started deploying drones, snapping aerial view photos of buildings, something which would normally be impossible or incredibly expensive. Drone usage will allow the firm to provide clients with detailed, accurate photos of building locations and progress without hiring a helicopter. Commercially, small civilian-use drones are inexpensive and allow small businesses and creative groups to explore new techniques and technologies.
Independent film producers have also been using small drones, much like the Parrot AR, to film breathtaking aerial shots for their films. Before UAVs, filmmakers would have needed numerous permits, expensive technology, and rentals. They now have the means to make a small film without going over limited budgets, while incorporating grand scenes by using relatively simple technology.
Commercial and Conservation Use of Drones
UAVs are being explored for use in offshore drilling. As companies look for more oil and gas reserves, they are beginning to turn to drones to discover deposits and monitor pipelines. Drone usage assures that missions are safer as pilots can be stationed on shore and away from dangerous situations; like low flying and high air speeds in aggressive areas like Antarctica. The University of Alaska – Fairbanks recently deployed a drone that was so silent it did not scare animals away. Oil companies have also started using drones to monitor mammal populations off of Alaska. The U.S. Navy is currently exploring the use of hydrogen powered fuel cells for drones. This system converts hydrogen and oxygen into water to create electrical currents, which can produce up to double the energy of combustion engines. The UAVs with this technology would have low heat signatures and low emissions. The green drone power, once fully developed, would likely expand beyond military drones and into commercial UAVs. Drone usage in the industry is a fairly new technology, but as the technology for drones in gas and oil deposits develops, usage is expected to increase as well.
Google recently put forth 5 million dollars as a part of their Global Impact Awards to the World Wildlife Fund. The donation will be used to develop drone technology to assist anti-poaching efforts by WWF. Endangered species like tigers, elephants, and rhinos are being killed in what has been labeled in a statement by WWF President and CEO Carter Roberts as an “unprecedented poaching crisis.” Drones will enable tracking of animals and poachers for miles and will provide aerial surveillance in South Africa.
The system funded by Google will incorporate aerial drones, DNA tracking, and communications with law enforcers. This combined technology is expected to improve capabilities for catching poachers and saving endangered species. A huge undertaking, this project due to testing and development, will not be completely operational for a few years.
Increased U.S. drone usage over the past year has led to an outpouring of questions and concerns as 2013 approaches. Many citizens wonder if we are entering an age of extreme surveillance; others question the implications of drone strikes; are they safer or are we mechanizing death? Some are celebrating the new technology, crediting drones with commercial and journalistic growth and improved conservation campaigns. Although military UAV operations have been largely publicized, the drone industry is quietly growing as usage rapidly expands beyond strikes and surveillance.