Revisiting Drones

MQ-1 Predator, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.


By Richard L. Wottrich, CEO & Senior Consultant, International Services, Atlanta USA (This article originally appeared April 8, 2015, and has been updated to reflect the drone industry today.) 

Robert Oppenheimer

When Robert Oppenheimer was touring Japan in 1960 he was asked to comment on the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII. He responded by quoting Bhagavad-Gita, Hindu scripture, saying, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

That was then. This is now. A new micro Black Swan has arrived on our tiny blue marble – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones).

Nano Drones

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), in Adelphi, Maryland, is researching and designing robotic surveillance insects with 3 to 5 centimeter wings. The wings are made of lead zirconium titanate (PZT), a material that mimics flapping when voltage is applied. Powered by Nano ultrasonic motors, ARL has also designed a millipede-robot that imitates crawling.

“We demonstrated that we can actually create lift,” said Dr. Ron Polcawich who heads the ARL team. “So we know this structure has the potential to fly.” The development of inexpensive Nano drones is inevitable, posing the question, “How can the military or security forces cope with swarms of tiny cloud-intelligent Nano drones skimming but inches off a body of water for example?”

Imagine if you will a barge in Britain loaded with ubiquitous yellow rubbish containers moving slowly up the River Thames through London. One of these containers could be filled with 500,000 Nano insect drones. At an appointed time a terrorist utilizing a GPS controller and a cell phone could remotely activate aerosols that fill the container with Anthrax spores. The container top could then be opened remotely as the Nano insect drones are activated. With a light wind blowing the Nano cloud of drones could be widely dispersed across London. Even if just 20 percent of the drones find human targets the potential for 100,000 drone disease agents making contact in a densely populated city is quite high. This is the unknown danger of drone technology in the wrong hands.

Thames, London

Global Drone Market

Markets and Markets” estimates the global UAV drones market will be USD 21.23 Billion by 2022, with a CAGR of nearly 20 percent between 2016 and 2022.

Companies of note building the big sophisticated military drones are AeroVironment, Israel Aerospace Industries, The Boeing Company NanoSats, Elbit Systems Ltd., DJI, Xaircraft, Lockheed Martin Unmanned Systems. The top two companies in the world are Chinese – Dà-Jiāng Innovations Science and Technology Co., Ltd (DJI) and Parrot (toys). U.S. companies of note include AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV), 3D Robotics and INSITY (Boeing).

Military Drones

Drones have been utilized by armed forces for years, but it is relatively recently that the digital convergence of GPS systems, sophisticated software systems and nanoscale miniaturization have brought drone technology into the reach of just about anybody. What does this portend?

For over a decade U.S. armed forces have been using drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere to eliminate terrorists deemed to be a threat to the U.S. For example, since 2004 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has purportedly been operating drones out of Shamsi Airfield in Pakistan to attack militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The weapon of choice is usually a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator or the more powerful MQ-9 featuring long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance capabilities. These drones have ranges of thousands of miles.

These are the drones referred to in media reports as almost antiseptic bombing strikes that are “surgical” and “precise.” Key words also include “inexpensive” as these drones cost just a few million dollars, as contrasted with hundreds of millions for manned fighters and billions for aircraft carriers. And of course the implicit bonus is that no American lives are at risk. The reality is perhaps a bit more complex.

Uncomfortable Truths

A first uncomfortable truth is that drones don’t kill people, people kill people. Raining munitions down on the heads of suspected terrorists is not a perfect enterprise. Innocent folks do get killed. Amnesty International has called upon the U.S. to investigate claims that its drones in Pakistan have killed innocent people, citing reports of several drone strikes that appear to have killed local civilians.

Of more strategic importance, there is a widespread belief in Pakistan that the drones kill large numbers of civilians. This local perception creates resentment and complicates coordination of joint efforts against militants based in Pakistan and along her borders, including al-Qaida and ISIS. Drones could be seen in this light to be counterproductive. For example, in 2015 the U.S. pulled its Special Forces out of Yemen due to deteriorating security concerns, as Yemen slowly became a terrorist state. Our extensive drone activities in Yemen certainly did not stop this deterioration.

This begs an uncomfortable question, “Do drone strikes win strategic initiatives, or are they just convenient tactical weapons? Perhaps a more important question is, “Now that we have unleashed, proven and set the moral precedent for military drone technology to the world, where might this technology appear directed by other hands in a form not anticipated but deadly?”

A second uncomfortable truth is that most U.S. citizens do not know what they do not know – that inexpensive drone technology is spreading across the globe and carries the unrealized potential to rain death down in an impersonal and inexpensive manner. The numbers of exported large military drones are interesting. The UK has become largest importer of larger military drones in the world, receiving over a third of global deliveries. Israel is the largest exporter, accounting for the majority of sales since 1985. Between 2010 and 2014, Israel delivered 165 drones. The US was second with 132, followed by Italy’s 37. The U.S. keeps most of its drones for its own military, but has recently begun investigating exporting its drone capabilities. Globally this is at least a USD 10 billion market (Janes).

But now China is entering world markets for small inexpensive drones, usually less than three feet in diameter. China’s DJI has become the world’s biggest consumer drone manufacturer by revenue (2015 USD 1 billion), selling its Phantom 3 Professional ($1,259), a drone that integrates with YouTube Live to stream aerial footage in near real time.

Meanwhile in the U.S., the future of Amazon’s ambitious drone delivery service is in limbo. Amazon recently moved its experimental drone operations to an undisclosed location in Canada to avoid the glacial pace of federal regulators. The popularity of flying “drone quadcopters,” such as DJI’s Phantom four-propeller helicopter, has taken off with American amateurs, while certain insurance companies are finally gaining federal permission to utilize drones in claims inspections and disaster assessments.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing autonomous drones small enough to move in and out of buildings in a war or disaster zone. Such a drone would replace the need for troops or civilian disaster response teams taking such risks. These drones will be capable of operating without a remote pilot or a constant GPS up-link to navigate in closed structures. Mark Micire, DARPA’s Program Manager, said “Birds of prey and flying insects exhibit the kinds of capabilities we want for small UAVs. Goshawks, for example, can fly very fast through a dense forest without smacking into a tree. Many insects, too, can dart and hover with incredible speed and precision.”

It also should be remembered that the ultimate drone is a satellite. Since Russia’s Sputnik in 1957, the USA, France, Japan, China, the UK, India, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Iran, North Korea and one regional organization (European Space Agency, ESA) have independently launched satellites on their own indigenous developed launch vehicles. Today roughly 3,600 satellites are in orbit and dozens more are launched every year. A weaponized satellite can be launched with little fear of detection, and an atomic bomb detonated over any Developed Country would cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could unleash chaos in global financial markets and interrupt military communications.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned a half century ago that, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” As a 5-star general, Eisenhower was the Allies Supreme Commander in charge of D-Day, which effectively won World War II. Were President Eisenhower alive today I think he would be warning us about Nano drone technologies that can replicate drones inexpensively and release them remotely anywhere in the world.

Richard L. Wottrich, Blog Editor