Past and Present of Drones:
Let’s begin with a simple question: When you hear the word ‘drone’ what do you think of?
Well most probably an image of a grey American flying drone pops out. (More precisely the RQ-1 / MQ-1 Predator): This is no surprise, considering the extent of its use by the USA, in the Middle East for the past 15 years.
Although both emblematic and controversial, this machine only represents one of the many remote controlled machines created for the purpose of surveillance and warfare usage. Since WWI, with the small English RC planes bomber, WWII with, amongst others, the German Goliath remote controlled demolition vehicle, efforts in developing such new technologies have only been increasing. All types of machines are actually under development whether they drive on track, crawl, swim, climb, fly … you name it!
According to a recent study from IHS-Jane’s, the global market for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles should increase from 6.4 Billion dollars this year to 10.4 Billion dollars in year 2024 (corresponding to growth rate of 5.5% per year).
But what is the drive behind this focus on drones?
- First of all, these tools are becoming more and more appealing to governments and military commanders as their conflicts zones are increasingly located in urban area.
- Moreover, The risk of losing their own troops is diminished (an incentive fitting perfectly in the political agenda of governments looking at the next election), they don’t get tired, don’t get stressed nor traumatize when some other robot trips on a mine.
So what about the actual use of these drones you might ask?
- Well their integration into combat units has been a reality for the past decade: during the invasion of Iraq but also in Afghanistan, the USA has deployed thousands of ground drones to assist investigating dangerous areas in search of potential human or bomb threats for its troops.
- The UK’s Brigade Reconnaissance Force have for instance relied on the ‘Black Hornet Nano’ helicopter from Proxydynamics to quickly scout ‘behind the hill’ distant areas in Afghanistan.
- On a more lethal side, ground drones fitted with automatic rifles and missiles launchers (‘Platform-M’) have now been incorporated in the Russian army following successful large-scale exercises.
- Similarly, remote-controlled machine guns are being currently used by Israel to enforce some no-go zones in its border with the Gaza strip.
The question on when robots will land on the battlefield is now out-dated, the real issues of today are the types of emerging drones and most importantly, to what extent they will be controlled.
Everyone is fond of drones! …
The funds dedicated to the acquisition and R&D are now rising in most countries:
- The Pentagon is planning to increase by 50% the number of drones flights per day.
- The UK will simply double its drone fleet in the coming years.
- Russia is planning that 30% of its military vehicles will be autonomous one by the year 2025.
In that context, what about the others countries? It’s simple, everyone is looking for drones!
The countries that have not developed this kind of technologies are buying from foreign sellers and those that have little access this kind of markets are developing their own technology.
Another country which has recently gotten into the club of the fighting drones users is Pakistan with the use of the ‘Burraq’ combat drone in North-Waziristan. This machine is the outcome of Islamabad R&D efforts that were set after Washington’s refusal to sell Predator and Reaper drones to the Pakistan Armed Forces.
So what is to come?
Although some programs are kept secret, future trends are already known:
Lighter, more autonomous, more ‘intelligent’ and cheaper drones are the new deal.
The recently announced ‘Gremlins’ program of the DARPA, reusable low cost drones dropped from an airplane and flying as swarm for IRS (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) purpose, provide a great example of the future of those machines and their developing presence in the sky. The B.A.E. autonomous ‘Tanaris’ flying drone and its cousin the ‘nEUROn’ from Dassault are currently developed with a view on long term achievement: cooperating or even replacing fighter jets in the air force.
But is the sky the limit?
Of course it isn’t! Space drones are also a thing, and there again the USA are pushing the limits with their ‘X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle’ that has been able to stay in orbit for several months before landing and getting back to space in a rocket.
What is the purpose of this ‘vehicle’? It’s classified!
Things may not have gone that far… yet:
Technology is pushing forward the barriers of what’s possible: as drones are becoming more able to identify ‘threats’ and as the necessity to react before this ‘threat’ that could take you down increases, the pressure to give more decision power to machine becomes bigger.
The human ‘in-the-loop’ current state of affairs means that no drone currently deployed can open fire without a human approbation.
This situation will be challenged when the number of drones will increase – who possibly will control all of those drones if the idea is to decrease the military workforce?
And when inevitably drones will end up facing other drones –who will be able to react and shoot first to protect itself?.
The idea of machines flying in the sky and being allowed to autonomously decide to attack a target is a dreadful one for most people I think.
This possible future outcome has led to the ‘Campaign to stop Killer Robots’ initiative: this NGO is demanding the end of the R&D in the field of Autonomously Fighting Drones and managed to receive the support of 20 Nobel Prize winners. Such an initiative is not a naïve one: previous ban of weapons such as the Saint Petersburg Declaration to ban exploding bullets in 1868 and the more recent Protocol of Blinding Laser Weapons signed by 104 countries in 1995.
Concluding on this matter is not an easy task as we are at the beginning of the drone era: they have already invaded both the toy stores and the military warehouses and are more than likely to raise extremely complicated concerns in both the civilian and military contexts.
Everything that technology could allow unless strong national and international regulations are put in place:
Our inability to face and regulate rapidly evolving technologies before things get out of hand is likely to be exposed again. By now you really should understand why they say: “Here come the drones !”.
Author, Florian Metz, LSE