Drones - the future face of war and civilian surveillance
THE USE of unmanned vehicles in combat is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and also controversial.
Unmanned vehicles, popularly called drones, are being used by armed forces worldwide on land, sea, and air for a variety of military activities - including armed strikes.
Drones are also deployed by governments and the private sector for a number of uses; from scientific research to disaster response.
These remotely-piloted vehicles carry a variety of technologies (e.g. propulsion systems, sensor payloads) housed within, or attached to, craft ranging from small vehicles resembling model airplanes to aerostats (balloons and airships) and large, long-endurance ships which look like fighter planes without pilots.
Despite controversies surrounding the use of armed-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) by the United States in Pakistan and Yemen, the proliferation of UAVs for both military and non-military uses worldwide will continue.
Three key issues will dominate the debate: the nature of the global market; the use of UAVs in armed conflict; and the employment of drones for domestic surveillance.
UAVs are unquestionably the most dynamic component of the aerospace industry worldwide. Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm estimates that spending on UAVs will total US$89 billion over the next ten years. More than 50 nations manufacture or employ drones. Major contractors are in the US, Israel, Europe, and South Africa.
The US accounts for more than half the UAV market, though for many years Israel has been a pioneer in tactical (short-range, low-altitude) UAV development and is a significant competitor in the global marketplace.
The arming of UAVs has caused concern over their future use as well.
The most widely debated operations are US activities employing armed drones to attack al-Qaeda leaders, operatives, and affiliates in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
Groups both inside the United States and around the world have claimed that armed-drone operations are illegal.
In June 2012, Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, stated that some US operations might constitute ‘war crimes’.
Another major issue that will affect the future use of drones is the implications over privacy. Drones have wide civilian application from surveillance for disaster response and scientific research to mundane activities like traffic control and monitoring livestock.
But analysts emphasise the need for governments to put in place limits that protect privacy and ensure public safety against malicious use.
The US is likely to remain the global leader in advancing the development and exploitation of drone systems. But it’s position is far from secure – particularly when it comes to duel-use technologies that have both civilian and military use.
All that can be predicted is that the 21st century skies will be full of drones.