Drones — What are drones ?

The word drone has been more commonly associated with male insects in the past, it is now better known as an unmanned aerial vehicle. This means it is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Although the drone originated for military operations, where missions are classed too dangerous for humans – and can often involved carrying weapons for airstrikes, civilian drones now outnumber those of the military. It has been estimated more than a million were sold by 2015. There are six categories of drone – target and decoy, reconnaissance, combat, logistics, research and development and civil and commercial.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), also known as drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission. While there are dozens of different types of drones, they basically fall into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes and those that are armed with missiles and bombs.

The use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because unlike manned aircraft they can stay aloft for many hours (Zephyr a British drone under development has just broken the world record by flying for over 82 hours nonstop); they are much cheaper than military aircraft and they are flown remotely so there is no danger to the flight crew.

As well as armed drones, the UK has several types of surveillance drones, most notably Watchkeeper, a drone jointly produced by Israeli company Ebit and Thales UK. The UK is purchasing 54 Watchkeeper drones and ground stations at a cost of £860m. The first ten will be built in Israel and then production will transfer to a specially built facility in Leicester. Testing is taking place at Aberporth in Wales and Watchkeeper is due to enter service in 2010. There have recently been reports that Watchkeeper may be armed in the future.

Serious Concern

UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, has said that the use of drones is not combat as much as ‘targeted killing’. He has repeatedly tried to get the US to explain how they justifies the use of drones to target and kill individuals under international law. The US has so far refused to do so. In a report to the UN he has said the US government (and by implication the UK government) “should specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture particular individuals …. and should make public the number of civilians killed as a result of drone attacks, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties”.

A further question is the extent to which operators become trigger happy with remote controlled armaments, situated as they are in complete safety, distant from the conflict zone.

Increased Surveillance

Military drone manufacturers are looking for civilian uses for remote sensing drones to expand their markets and this includes the use of drones for domestic surveillance. Drones will no doubt make possible the dramatic expansion of the surveillance state. With the convergence of other technologies it may even make possible machine recognition of faces, behaviours, and the monitoring of individual conversations. The sky, so to speak, is the limit.

Aside from military missions there are thousands of civilian drones used for aerial crop surveys, photography, search and rescue operations and delivering medical supplies to inaccessible reasons, among others.

A 14-year-old in Gujarat received a Rs 5 crore Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the production of drones designed by him, reported the Times of India. Harshwardhan Zala on Thursday signed a deal with the Department of Science and Technology, Government of Gujarat for manufacturing drones that would be able to detect and defuse land mines on a battle field.

Speaking to The Times of India, he described the drone as a device being equipped with sensors and thermal meters along with a 21-megapixel camera for taking high resolution pictures. He said, “The drone has been equipped with infrared, RGB sensor and a thermal meter along with a 21-megapixel camera with a mechanical shutter that can take high resolution pictures as well.”

The drone can send out waves up to eight square meters while it is two feet above ground level. These waves are able to detect land mines and send their location to the authorities. “The drone also carries a bomb weighing 50 gram that can be used to destroy the landmine,” he told TOI further.

Recreational use also includes police investigations, agriculture and archaeology.

In January 2016 Ehang UAV announced drones capable of carrying passengers. While other people have found different uses for the drones – as they are sometimes used to drop items into prisons.

Companies such as Amazon have been looking into developing drones which can deliver packages to people’s homes after they order online.

China is developing a factory to build hunter-killer drones in Saudi Arabia – the first in the Middle East.

But an effective counter-issue is the collateral damage a UAV can cause if it spins out of control and crashes on human settlements. UAVs may be designed primarily for military use, but 90 per cent of Indian airspace is civilian, and restricting UAVs to military airspace could be impractical.

Aeronautical Development Establishment organized its first international conference on autonomous unmanned vehicles in 2009 (ICAUV), and again in 2011. This has been the only government organized event in India till date exclusively on unmanned systems. Unmanned Systems Association of India (USAI) has been recently formed and is completely dedicated towards all the activities and regulations pertaining to the unmanned systems industry in India.

Presently all UAV flying is done with permission from Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and Ministry of Defence (MoD). This has been done since all the official UAV flying has been by the military and government agencies. Integrating the UAVs into civilian air space is a challenging job. Suggestions are invited to create a regulated policy for unmanned aviation and unmanned systems in India. Please contact us or become a member of USAI and join us in lobbying for regulated UAV operations in India.

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