Drones in our World, Part I: From Battlefield to Backyard

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Written by Whitney Grespin, Contributor

This is the first article in an ongoing series examining the role of UAVs – commonly called “drones” – in our lives, as well as the implications and applications of this ever-more common technology.

Part I: The Expanding Tasks of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Remote sensing has played many transformational roles in the world, originally dating back to when Noah sent a dove from the ark and it returned to him with an olive branch. Two millennia later, the peaceful nature of the first remote sensing endeavor was wiped from the slate as it was discovered that aerial vehicles could be tactically useful in warfare. While military interventions are responsible for the technology’s current notoriety, there are myriad new and innovative capabilities that offer immense promise for peacetime use of modern unmanned aerial systems, giving them a role more similar to the one they fulfilled in Noah’s day.

Although “drones” have primarily made headlines as of late for their role in taking out key insurgent leaders and stoking international tensions, they are increasingly being used for less sensational but more vital missions, interventions, and operational support. Beyond the tactical military use, which has provoked debates on sovereignty, and the New York Time’s recent article suggesting drones may undermine democracy, unmanned aerial vehicles are also increasingly serving many under-recognized (and sometimes underutilized) purposes. Though healthy dialogue should continue about the controversial ethical issues and outcomes surrounding drone usage in warfare, their utilization and their potential positive contributions should not be dismissed solely because of these concerns.

“Drone” is the colloquial name for an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV (the US Federal Aviation Administration refers to such entities as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS’s, to reflect that these complex systems may include ground stations and elements other than the actual aircraft). The concept of using these systems for remote sensing and observation is not new, but its use for non-military private sector applications is. Technology has relatively recently approached the point where the cost and reliability of UAV capabilities have become commercially viable outside of more traditional military uses. In both form and function, UAVs vary as widely as the market for automobiles, and the vehicles themselves can function as either a remotely piloted aircraft or an autonomous entity that flies based on pre-programmed instructions. The most popular application for UAVs has recently been in military pursuits, although their potential is increasingly recognized and utilized throughout the civil sector.

Close to the notorious reputation for providing “kinetic solutions” in war zones are the numerous uses that UAVs can serve in supporting other aspects of war fighting or stabilization in complex environments. These systems can monitor developments from the air that are more challenging to detect from the ground level. Tracking for vital information like “pattern of life” movements and IED (improvised explosive device) emplacement can be conducted from the air unobserved, giving troops advantageous information when assessing threats they may face during routine operations.

Moving away from military considerations, there is a diverse array of applications at which UAVs have already proven successful. These initiatives include humanitarian considerations such as complex disaster response, emergency rescue, atrocity monitoring, refugee tracking, and famine and drought monitoring. In March of last year an American military UAV was used at Fukushima to collect data and imagery to assess damage inflicted by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Just over a year earlier, in January of 2010, UAV imagery was also used in Haiti to evaluate infrastructure damage resulting from the earthquake and to assist organizations in support of their relief and recovery operations.

Other issues of international concern that can be assessed with UAV technology include environmental preservation, wildlife monitoring, agricultural and forestry observation, and natural disaster damage surveys. More commercial uses range from precision mapping and surveys for extractive industries to pipeline and infrastructure monitoring or oil spill detection. Domestically, the federal government has already begun small scale programs with UAVs for such law enforcement concerns as border patrolling and urban observation.

As the rest of this series will discuss in detail, the future of UAVs is bright and it is likely that only more innovative and resourceful applications will be advanced. As a ten-year veteran UAV operator of undertakings both domestically and abroad offered, “It was originally designed for war, but I’m excited for what we can do with it.” There are numerous civil and private-sector endeavors for which UAV capabilities offer viable, cost effective, and frequently safer options that are lesser known and underutilized. Putting conversation about the controversial use of UAVs for kinetic engagement and domestic observation aside, the growing versatility of these tools across sectors is an aspect of modern technology that civil society should accept and exploit.

Whitney Grespin has worked in contingency contracting and international development on four continents. She currently specializes in intelligence sector reform and capacity building.