The US has a lead in military UAV development in the world, but China is swiftly closing the gap, thanks to intellectual property theft, reverse engineering and innovative skills
Twenty years ago, drones were objects of interest for military personnel alone. That changed after February 4, 2002, when the United States Central Intelligence Agency (US CIA) first used an unmanned General Atomics MQ-1 Predator in Afghanistan for a “targeted killing” or assassination in plain language. By the time the MQ-1 retired on March 9, 2018, “drone” had become a household word.
A drone, more correctly called an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), may be a remote controlled aircraft operated by a pilot on the ground or may fly autonomously based on a pre-set flight plan or operate using more elaborate dynamic automation systems. Its military roles include anti-aircraft target practice, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications, and strike missions. But it is in the civil domain that drones are finding new applications by the day such as agricultural services, traffic and crowd surveillance, weather monitoring, search and rescue operations, photography and delivery services.
MILITARY SEED, CIVILIAN HARVEST
More than a hundred years have passed since the British Army first used a pilotless plane to obtain aerial photographs of the German trench fortifications. There were many other attempts to use unmanned aerial reconnaissance and the name drone (male bee) may have originated from the de Havilland DH82B Queen Bee that entered service in Britain in 1935. A major reason for the Israeli Air Force’s stunning victory over the Syrian Air Force above the Bekaa Valley in June 1982 was its innovative use of UAVs. The US military now has well over 11,000 UAVs and their numbers are increasing. According to the New America Foundation, about 80 countries have military drones, mainly unarmed surveillance platforms; but around 20 nations have armed UAVs.
Is the current boom in civilian drones a spinoff from military research? No way. Civilian drones are in some ways more capable than the more expensive military machines. Just as smartphone use exploded globally and led to immense innovation, leading consumer drone models are now being upgraded and adapted for commercial use. Even military organisations are beginning to realise that they can obtain adequate drone capability from civilian sources at a fraction of the cost.
MILITARY – THE UNMANNED FORCE
Although UAVs have long been acknowledged as a vital component of air power, they advanced rather slowly because of their inherent vulnerability and the large gap between their capability and that of manned combat aircraft. But now they are making spectacular progress in every aspect of performance and are increasingly usurping the functions of manned aircraft. The US has a large technological lead in military UAV development over the rest of the world, but China is swiftly closing the gap, thanks to intellectual property theft, reverse engineering and now due to its innovative skills.
The emergence of autonomous UAVs that depend solely on artificial intelligence through their entire mission is technologically only a question of time
According to Stanford political scientist Amy Zegart, “Drones offer three unique coercion advantages that theorists did not foresee: sustainability in long duration conflicts; certainty of precision punishment, which can change the psychology of adversaries and changes in the relative costs of war.” That is why a major trend is the impending emergence of next-generation unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) that will be more lethal than ever and offer greater speeds, ranges and agility. Even combat jets now in the design or development stage such as the US Sixth-Generation Fighter Aircraft, are likely to be optionally manned.
Apart from stealth, to enhance the survivability of drones, the most exciting prospect is drone swarms where many small, inexpensive UAVs are used instead of risking a large and costly one. Once the swarm consisting of dozens or even hundreds of drones is airborne, they communicate among themselves and fly in coordination. Even if the defending force succeeds in taking out several drones, the surviving ones can regroup and execute their mission as planned, or choose an alternative target. The cost-benefit equation too would be heavily in favour of the attackers, because each UAV destroyed would expend at least one expensive anti-aircraft missile.
Another trend is to deploy several fixed-wing UAVs/UCAVs alongside a manned combat jet. The drones could then perform sensing, reconnaissance and targeting functions. They could also operate ahead of the fighter aircraft to probe the enemy’s defences thus reducing the risk to the pilot.
The emergence of fully autonomous UAVs that depend solely on artificial intelligence and do not need human inputs or control through their entire mission is technologically only a question of time. However, a fierce debate is raging about the use of autonomous weapon systems and military robots that can independently decide whom to kill and whom to spare. Critics insist that for a variety of moral and legal reasons, the development and deployment of such weapons that can perform advanced functions such as targeting and application of force, with little or no human oversight, should be curbed or even prohibited.
CONSUMER DRONES TURN COMMERCIAL
Unlike other spheres, the civilian drone space is dominated not by the US but by China. Shenzhen-based DJI now has about 70 per cent of the consumer-drone market and a well-earned reputation for quality and reliability.
The spectacular advancement of civilian drones over the last five years or so is due to the merger of two different technologies—radio-controlled aircraft and smartphones. And commercial drones owe their progress not to spinoffs from military UAVs, but by scaling up of consumer drones. Both capability and performance are increasing rapidly thanks to GPS-based enhanced navigation and the use of ultra-fast charging and long-lasting batteries.
In the near term, the strongest growth in commercial drones is expected in the agricultural sector for tasks such as crop survey, pest detection and spraying. Drones are also in great demand for inspection of buildings and other infrastructure such as pipelines, bridges and highway. They are vastly superior to other methods because they can carry a range of sensors including thermal, infrared and x-ray imaging.
The use of drones for emergency response to natural disasters is well documented. Now they are being used for disaster prevention too. For instance, surveillance drones outfitted with thermal imaging cameras can continually survey risk-prone forest areas and detect fires within minutes after they break out. Fire-fighting parties are then swiftly despatched to the affected area well before the fire spreads.
There is also a galloping demand for drones by the film and television industry, and wedding planners due to low cost and inherent flexibility. They are being increasingly used in smart policing, crowd monitoring, traffic monitoring and control besides other areas of safety and security.
Another growing trend is tethered drones. Scores of companies are now offering drones on leash that can lift a power cable or hose and climb up hundreds of feet for fire fighting missions or de-icing wind turbine blades at wind farms. They offer huge advantages over traditional UAVs by practically eliminating regulatory, battery and payload limitations.
The massive sums being poured into developing autonomous land vehicles by the likes of Tesla and Uber may hasten the advent of autonomous aerial vehicles too. The Airbus Vahana, an electric-powered passenger drone, is a prime example. Such aerial cars or taxis will get airborne like helicopters from anywhere; then change into planes to fly farther, faster and more silently than helicopters and finally land vertically like helicopters. However, the use of drones as AAVs raises safety concerns for people in the air as well as on the ground.
Strangely enough, that darling of the media—package delivery—is not a priority with drone manufacturers perhaps because of all the technical and regulatory hurdles in the way.
REGULATE OR REPENT
Consequent to the global drone proliferation, major militaries and lawenforcement agencies are in search of affordable solutions to the threat posed by small UAVs. Non-state actors in West Asia and other parts have already shown their ability to buy cheap commercial drones and modify them into rudimentary reconnaissance or even strike platforms. The most promising methods to kill or disable such drones are High Energy Laser and High Powered Microwave weapons.
Just as the internet outstripped all predictions and left authorities scrambling to regulate it, drone use is expanding by the day. According to consultancy firm, Gartner, about 1,74,000 commercial drones and 2.8 million consumer drones may have been sold worldwide in 2017 alone. There is already more unmanned than manned traffic in the skies and it is expected that over seven million drones will be shipped globally in 2020. In October 2017, a drone collided with a commercial jet in Canada, starkly demonstrating the dangers of rampant drone operation. And yet, overregulation could stifle the burgeoning drone industry.
Consequent to the global drone proliferation, major militaries and law-enforcement agencies are in search of affordable solutions to the threat posed by small UAVs
The current US situation is an example of over-regulation. In America, drones may only be flown below a certain height, away from airports and military bases and within direct line of sight contact at all times. It is this last stipulation that has strangled the drone delivery business at birth. The Federal Aviation Administration is now reviewing its rules to take into account the needs of drone delivery enterprises.
One sensible proposal is to allow consumer and commercial operation without any certification for drones weighing less than two kg. Above this weight, analysts say, it would suffice for regulators to specify an acceptable level of risk to people on the ground and then ask drone operators to demonstrate how they would meet this standard—whether through parachutes or cushioning or making them so light that they would not seriously harm anyone they might fall on. If the regulators worldwide get it right, there could soon be a boom in drone-related businesses and services such as consumer delivery, agriculture, surveying, insurance and disaster relief.