An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), and also referred by several other names, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. The flight of UAVs may be controlled with various kinds of autonomy : either by a given degree of remote control from an operator, located on the ground or in another vehicle, or fully autonomously, by onboard computers.
Historically, UAVs were simple remotely piloted aircrafts, but autonomous control is increasingly being employed : UAV stands nowadays at the crossroads of aviation, electromagnetics, radiocommunication, computer science, avionics, automation, cybernetics, and even core fields of artificial intelligence such as computer vision, decision-making, machine learning and robotics.
UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too "dull, dirty or dangerous" for manned aircrafts.They have and are mostly found in military and special operation applications. Though, UAVs are increasingly finding uses in civil applications, such as policing and surveillance, aerial filming and hobbyist FPV racing.
- Amazon says in the patent: “As the use of UAVs continues to increase, so does the likelihood of hostility towards UAVs. Such hostility may come in the form of attacks brought for any number of purposes (e.g., steal the UAVs and their payloads, crash the UAVs, and otherwise cause disruption to the operation of the UAVs).”
It continues: “Using these attacks, nefarious individuals and/or systems may be able to obtain control of the UAVs by hacking the communication signals being sent to the UAVs from a controller and/or being sent by the UAV to the controller.” Amazon says such attacks “could cause the UAVs to operate unsafely and could also result in considerable financial loss for their operators.”
- Amazon Patent as quoted by Trevor Mogg “Amazon has an idea to stop its delivery drones from being hijacked “, ‘’Digital Trends’’, (July 2, 2018).
- The e-commerce titan recently received a patent for product-distribution warehouses that float in the sky, and are carried and held aloft by blimps.
It's part of Amazon's grand plan to move from ground-based deliveries into the airspace above our heads, where drones would zip quietly overhead, carrying our paper towels, toasters and printer cartridges to us in record time, and generating substantial cost savings for the $887 billion company.
The heavenly warehouses, or "aerial fulfillment centers" as Amazon describes them, would be serviced by a fleet of drones, which the company likes to call "unmanned aerial vehicles."
"An AFC may be positioned at an altitude above a metropolitan area and be designed to maintain an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user and delivered to the user by a UAV that is deployed from the AFC," the patent document says.
- Ethan Baron, “Amazon looks to floating warehouses in the sky for drone deliveries”, Phys.org, (July 26, 2018).
- While we do not believe that UAV strikes cause disproportionate civilian casualties or turn killing into a "video-game," we are concerned that the availability of lethal UAV technologies has enabled US policies that likely would not have been adopted in the absence of UAVs. In particular, UAVs have enabled the United States to engage in the cross-border use of lethal force against targeted individuals in an unprecedented and expanding way, raising significant strategic, legal and ethical questions.
- To the best of our knowledge the US executive branch has yet to engage in a serious cost-benefit analysis of targeted UAV strikes as a routine counterterrorism tool.
- "It is not clear where the White House will come out," Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign relations, tells me. "The nonproliferation folks, centered at [the State Department], do not support liberalized armed drone exports," he wrote over email. "On the other side are [Defense department] folks, and some State regional bureaus, who want to export this capacity to allies, like Turkey, and non-allies like Singapore, as part of 'building partnership capacity.'"
- "The proliferation of military robotics ... is likely inevitable," says Michael Horowitz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies military technology. "Much better for close allies and partners to get systems from the US and learn to use them responsibly than to build them themselves or buy them from other countries."
- Zack Beauchamp, “Top CIA and military officials warn US drones could create endless war”, Vox.com, (Jun 26, 2014).
- I think it is entirely sensible. Whether it is foreign citizens who are involved with Al Qaeda or American citizens, we are in a war. They have attacked us. We have a congressional authorization to use military force in response. And that’s what’s at stake here.
- Former UN Ambassador John R. Bolton, to Fox News, Feb. 6.
- I think it’s a good program and I don’t disagree with the basic policy that the Obama administration is pursuing now in that regards.
- Former Vice President Dick Cheney, on CBS’ “This Morning,” Feb. 12.
- In a 2012 report that was based on nine months of data analysis and field interviews, a team of law students from New York University and Stanford concluded that the dominant narrative in the U.S. about the use of drones in Pakistan—“a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the United States safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts”—is false. The researchers found that C.I.A.-operated drones were nowhere near as discriminating toward noncombatants as the agency’s leaders have claimed. Various estimates have put the civilian death toll in the hundreds. An analysis of media reports by the New America Foundation concluded that drones probably killed some two hundred and fifty to three hundred civilians in the decade leading up to 2014. Researchers working under Chris Woods at the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism conducted field interviews to supplement a separate analysis of media reporting. They estimated that American drones killed between four hundred and nine hundred and fifty civilians.
- The proportion of civilians compared to combatants killed on the ground during American wars since Vietnam has been disputed by researchers. But even the most conservative estimates of civilian casualties place the ratio at one-to-one. In the 1999 NATO-led war in Serbia, where jets used laser-guided and other precision bombs, around five hundred Serbian civilians and three hundred Serbian soldiers were killed, according to the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. The total death toll from drone strikes in Pakistan is estimated at between two thousand and four thousand. Even if one accepts a civilian death toll of nine hundred and fifty-seven—the highest nongovernmental estimate—drones have probably spared more civilians than American jets have in past air wars. And if the numbers Feinstein cited are accurate, drones killed more than twenty fighters for every civilian—a huge leap in precision.
- In 2008, the last year of the Bush Administration, at least one child was reported killed in a third of all C.I.A. drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism—a shocking percentage, if it is accurate. In Obama’s first year in office, the figure was twenty per cent—still very high. By 2012, it was five per cent.
- On September 17, 2001, President George W. Bush signed a new counterterrorism M.O.N., partly based on Rizzo’s input. It was “multiple pages” in length, according to Rizzo. He had worked at the C.I.A. since 1976 and he regarded this document as the “most comprehensive, most ambitious, most aggressive, and most risky Finding or M.O.N. I was ever involved in.” Among its provisions, “one short paragraph” authorized targeted killings of Al Qaeda terrorists and their allies. “The language was simple and stark.” That paragraph became the foundation for the C.I.A.’s drone operations.
George Tenet, the agency’s director at the time, supplemented the M.O.N. with internal guidelines that set down in greater detail how an individual believed to be actively involved in terrorist plots could be nominated and approved for capture or killing. Among other things, the guidelines instructed drone supervisors to avoid civilian casualties “to the maximum extent possible,” according to a former senior intelligence official. It was a decidedly lawyerly and elastic standard.
- Musharraf allowed the C.I.A. to operate drones out of a Pakistani base in Baluchistan. He told me that he often urged Bush Administration officials, “Give the drones to Pakistan.” That was not possible, he was told, “because of high-technology transfer restrictions.”
- In July, 2008, President Bush approved a plan, proposed by Hayden, to increase drone strikes on Pakistani soil, mainly in North and South Waziristan. Taliban fighters were pouring into Afghanistan from FATA, without much interference from Pakistan, to attack American troops. “These sons of bitches are killing Americans. I’ve had enough,” Bush told Hayden, according to Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” (2010). No longer would the United States seek permission from Pakistan to strike or notify Pakistani generals in advance.
- After mid-2008, the drone program changed quickly into a more conventional, if unacknowledged, air war. In the three months between August and October, drones struck North and South Waziristan at least twenty times—more strikes than in the previous four years.
- In 2009, Panetta oversaw some fifty lethal drone attacks; more than half of them produced civilian deaths, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “American policy was to avoid civilian casualties wherever possible,” Panetta wrote in his recently published memoir. An operation that deliberately targeted women or children alongside terrorist suspects “was to be authorized only under extraordinary circumstances.” Panetta described cases in which he gave such permission, while seeking to “balance duty to country and respect for life.”
- Being attacked by a drone is not the same as being bombed by a jet. With drones, there is typically a much longer prelude to violence. Above North Waziristan, drones circled for hours, or even days, before striking. People below looked up to watch the machines, hovering at about twenty thousand feet, capable of unleashing fire at any moment, like dragon’s breath. “Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more,” Malik Jalal, a tribal leader in North Waziristan, told me. “They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s might be less accurate, but they come and go.”
- “As a journalist, I haven’t seen any chip,” Dawar told me. “I don’t know if it has any reality behind it or is just a myth.” Yet many people believe, he added, that a chip “throws off ultraviolet rays or some kind of magic ray and the missile comes and hits the target.”
Not only do many civilians in Waziristan credit the existence of chips but many Taliban do, too. “Once, when I was home, we had a Taliban commander come to our guesthouse and ask to spend the night,” the researcher in Islamabad recalled. “He slept in the guesthouse, but he made his driver and two guards sleep in the car and stand around it all night to prevent someone from using the magic pen.”
- North Waziristan residents and other Pakistanis I spoke with emphasized how difficult it would be for a drone operator to distinguish between circumstances where a Taliban or Al Qaeda commander had been welcomed into a hujra and where the commander had bullied or forced his way in. If the Taliban “comes to my hujra and asks for shelter, you have no choice,” Saleem Safi, a journalist who has travelled extensively in Waziristan, told me. “Now a potential drone target is living in a guest room or a guesthouse on your compound, one wall away from your own house and family.”
- The C.I.A. has never explained the criteria it uses to count a drone victim as a civilian. Nor has it described what sort of interviews or field research, if any, the agency’s analysts undertake to investigate possible mistakes. According to a May, 2012, Times article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In briefings to congressional intelligence committees, the C.I.A. has disputed that characterization, saying that any person deliberately targeted must be associated with a known fighting group or enemy facility, or else be observed preparing for violence.
- Steve Coll, ’’The Unblinking Stare’’ , ‘’The New Yorker’’], (November 24, 2014).
- Curbing the proliferation of Weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles is a challenging task. Many potential proliferators are convinced they need to develop WMD and their associated delivery systems to protect their national security. It is estimated that some nations will begin exploiting the full range of UAVs, including delivering WMD in the next decade.
- Report to Congress on the Proliferation of Missiles and WMD March 1995; as quoted in Jeffrey N. Renehan, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Weapons of Mass Destruction A Lethal Combination?”, ‘’School of Advanced Airpower Studies’’, (1995-1996), p.29.
- Commercial drones can travel at up to 100 mph and deliver goods under 5 lbs (2.3 kg) - and according to ARK Investing Group, potentially each trip could occur at a low cost of $1 per shipment.
- Jeff Desjardins, [ https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-and-ups-are-betting-big-on-drone-delivery-2018-3 “Amazon and UPS are betting big on drone delivery”], (Mar. 11, 2018).
- “Drone strikes outside a declared war by a state on the territory of another state without the consent of the latter or of the UN Security Council constitute a violation of international law and of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that country.”
- “European Parliament resolution on the use of armed drones (2014/2567(RSP)),” European Parliament, February 25, 2014.
- In some respects it’s a perfect assassination weapon. . . . Now we have a problem. There are all these nations that want to buy these armed drones. I’m strongly opposed to that.
- Diane Feinstein, as quoted in Breanna Edwards, “Dianne Feinstein: Time to Set Drone Rules,” Politico, March 7, 2013.
- I think this idea of being able to execute, in effect, an American citizen, no matter how awful, having some third party being – having a – having a say in it or perhaps some – informing the Congress or the intelligence committees or something like that, I just – I think some check on the ability of the president to do this has merit, as we look to the longer term future.
- Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on CNN’s “State Of The Union,” Feb. 10.
- It just makes me uncomfortable that the president, whoever it is, is the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner, all rolled into one. So I’m not suggesting something that would slow down response. But where there is time to submit it to a third party, a court, in confidence, and get a judgment that, yes, there’s sufficient evidence, that feels to me like that’s, its not full compliance with the Fifth Amendment … but some independent check on our executive is healthy for the system.
- Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Feb. 10.
- To the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain. At the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly—I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will—then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.
- Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an interview with Foreign Affairs.
- Although US armed drones are made by private firms such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, sales would be made through government-to-government negotations. Mr Williams said strict US State Department rules on who could buy armed drones meant the new market would not be a free-for-all. New customers will have to satisfy the US they will comply with international humanitarian and human rights laws.
Countries applying to buy drones would be subjected to a "strong presumption of denial", meaning that they would have to make a strong case for needing the weapons. Successful countries will need to prove that their applications constitute the "rare occasions" set out in a 1987 treaty signed by the G7 - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States - known as the Missile Technology Control Regime.
This includes assurances they will only use the weapons for the stated purposes, will not modify them without America's consent, and will not transfer the weapons (or replicas of them) elsewhere.
- Andrew Marszal, and Ben Farmer “How to buy an American military drone“, ‘’The Telegraph’’, (18 Feb 2015).
- Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an air force of drones that goes around killing people? I believe that it has to be the Department of Defense.
- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), on “Fox News Sunday,” Feb. 10
- What I think is absolutely true is it’s not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we’re doing the right thing. … There has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil. We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States. The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States.
- President Barack Obama, in a Google + hangout, Feb. 14.
- That's something that you have to struggle with, if you don't, then it's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules thinking that the ends always justify the means. That's not been our tradition. That's not who we are as a country.
- It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws. It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative. It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.
- There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft forth's purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.
- We are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think that there's going to be civilian casualties involved.
- No second thoughts.
- When children from other countries are telling us that we've made them fear the sky, it might be time to ask some hard questions.
- Drone strikes are one of those things that it's really convenient not to think about that much. Like the daily life of a circus elephant or that Beck is a Scientologist.
- The president, a politician, Republican or Democrat, should never get to decide someone’s death by flipping through some flash cards and saying, ‘You want to kill him? Yeah, let’s go ahead and kill him’.
- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), on CNN’s “State Of The Union,” Feb. 10
- Historically, the greatest use of UAVs has been made in the areas of intelligence gathering, surveillance, and battle damage assessment (BDA), where they allow armed forces to avoid placing pilots at risk. They have also been used to gather nonmilitary information in environments that are hazardous to human beings. For example, B-17 bombers were adapted to fly by remote control during the Bikini Atoll nuclear bomb tests. The Israelis have also used UAVs extensively for reconnaissance purposes. During the Gulf War, the coalition allies used them for intelligence and BDA purposes. In fact, the Pioneer UAV was praised as "the single most valuable intelligence collector" in the war against Iraq. They have proved to be extremely reliable and have had high mission completion rates. During the Gulf War, only one UAV was lost in more than 300 missions.
- Jeffrey N. Renehan, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Weapons of Mass Destruction A Lethal Combination?”, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, (1995-1996), p.2
- …as US experiences hunting Scuds in the Gulf War showed, it is almost impossible to locate and destroy a small mobile system that is covertly deployed. In fact, the Gulf War intelligence community never could furnish reliable information on the number and location of Iraq's Scud launchers. This forced an intensive anti-Scud campaign that seriously reduced the number of Scud firings, but never totally ended them. UAVs should be even harder to find than mobile Scuds were, given their smaller size and reduced maintenance and support requirements.
- Ibid, p.10
- With ideal conditions (a clear, calm night) a single aircraft (or UAV) using an aerosol generator to dispense a 100 kg anthrax payload (99 percent of this weight being the suspension material that allows the anthrax to be dispensed in this manner) could adequately cover a 300 km2 area (about the size of Washington, D.C.) and inflict between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 deaths (assuming a population of 3,000 to 10,000 people per km2). According to a 1970 report by the World Health Organization, "Inhalation of one microscopic (anthrax) spore will result in death within 48 hours. Distributed appropriately, one gram would be enough to kill more than one-third of the population of the United States."
- Ibid, p.19
- In this hypothetical example, assume that the nation or group has access to anthrax spores and also has the capability to produce the chemical agent Sarin. It determines that in order to achieve its objectives, it needs to deliver at least a 50 kg payload (including liquefied biological or chemical agent and the spray equipment) sprayed on a target at least 150 km away. This system would be adequate to disseminate the agent over a battlefield, a water supply, or a small city. An example of a complete UAV system that meets these requirements would be the Pioneer UAV. This system has a payload of 50 kg and a nominal range of 185 km, with a loiter time of nine hours. It has the necessary payload capability to carry the agent and the spraying system. It has the basic range (which could be more than doubled on a one-way mission because the return trip and extended loiter time over the target would not be required), and costs about $500,000 per vehicle (not including the payload).
- Ibid, p.28
- Curbing the proliferation of Weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles is a challenging task. Many potential proliferators are convinced they need to develop WMD and their associated delivery systems to protect their national security. It is estimated that some nations will begin exploiting the full range of UAVs, including delivering WMD in the next decade.
- Report to Congress on the Proliferation of Missiles and WMD March 1995; as quoted in Jeffrey N. Renehan, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Weapons of Mass Destruction A Lethal Combination?”, ‘’School of Advanced Airpower Studies’’, (1995-1996),
- Ibid, p.29
- As little as one or two kilograms of biological agent dispensed with a commercial crop sprayer can cause devastating results. It would take substantially more chemical agents to have the same effects. However, in quantities of 50 to 150 kilograms (well within the carrying capability of many low cost UAVs), chemical agents can be very deadly. The research also shows that both chemical and biological weapons are relatively easy to obtain and do not require great technical knowledge to produce, store, or use. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, present greater challenges for employment on UAVs. Acquiring a complete nuclear weapon or the material and technology to fabricate one is extremely difficult and expensive. Additionally, the size and weight requirements for even a small weapon (about 200 kilograms) is right on the edge of the payload capability of all but the most capable and expensive UAVs.
- Ibid, pp.34-5
… the dual-use nature of UAVs (intended to be reconnaissance/ surveillance vehicles but possessing the capability for strike missions) and chemical and biological production facilities (which are used for medical purposes as well as weapons) makes detecting their development as weapons extremely difficult.
- Ibid, p. 41
- Blood is "expensive, lifesaving but doesn't last very long," Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo said. "So traditional supply chains do a very poor job of distributing it. Using drones, we can deliver blood 10 times as quickly as cars, on demand."
- The reason Zipline has raced ahead in Rwanda is because the government has been more flexible than many other regulatory regimes around the world. That's also why Google is piloting drones in Australia and Amazon is working in the U.K. But the United States is finally taking steps to allow drone business models to experiment and develop on a local level around the country.
- Reuter said Zipline is communicating with blood banks, health systems and clinics and learning how to most effectively communicate with clients. "It's difficult to do that at scale," he said. "The hard part of drone delivery is not making a drone that can carry something. It's building a service that can run every day, making thousands of deliveries in a reliable manner, and do so in an economically sustainable way," said Reuter, who has been to Zipline's first distribution center in Rwanda. "We believe Rwanda can serve as a model for the rest of the world in how to enable drone delivery."
- Sara Salinas, “The most important delivery breakthrough since Amazon Prime”, CNBC, (22 May 2018).
- Here you have something truly chilling. Here you have the United States government saying, we can kill you, American citizen. You have no constitutional right to a jury by your peers. You have no constitutional right even to probable cause or to due process. You have no right to a lawyer. You have no right to counsel. You have no right to anything. If we suspect you, just suspect you, without evidence, that you were thinking about committing an act against the United States of America, we can kill you.
- MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, on “Morning Joe,” Feb. 6.
- “Given that countries are getting access to larger drones that can operate with larger payloads, and some of those countries have nuclear weapons, how should we be reacting?” says Paul Scharre, project director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “It hasn’t gotten much attention in the U.S. defense community because it’s considered a crazy idea, but other countries may think about this quite differently.”
“Report Tells Pentagon to Beware Nuclear Drone Bombers”] by Jeremy Hsu, Blogs.discovermagazine.com, (June 30, 2017).
- In a new report called “Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation,” published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps argue that the time has arrived for the U.S. to set regulatory limits on the use of drones. Because drones do not have pilots, they write, the threshold for launching war is lower -- and the planes cannot avoid sudden danger as easily. Countries may also fire on manned fighter planes -- confusing them with drones.
- Matt Schiavenza, “US Must Regulate Sale And Use Of Armed Drones, Says Report”, International Business Times, (06/20/14).
- Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it. I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims.”
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times, Feb. 11.
- “We’ve been talking about this for a good while, the immorality of drones, dropping bombs on innocent people. It’s been over 200 children so far. These are war crimes.
- Princeton professor Cornel West on the “Tavis Smiley Show,” Feb. 14.
- More than 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed in major accidents around the world since 2001, a record of calamity that exposes the potential dangers of throwing open American skies to drone traffic, according to a year-long Washington Post investigation.
Since the outbreak of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military drones have malfunctioned in myriad ways, plummeting from the sky because of mechanical breakdowns, human error, bad weather and other reasons, according to more than 50,000 pages of accident investigation reports and other records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
- “Flying is inherently a dangerous activity. You don’t have to look very far, unfortunately, to see examples of that,” said Dyke Weatherington, director of unmanned warfare for the Pentagon. “I can look you square in the eye and say, absolutely, the [Defense Department] has got an exceptional safety record on this and we’re getting better every day.”
- Pent-up demand to buy and fly remotely controlled aircraft is enormous. Law enforcement agencies, which already own a small number of camera-equipped drones, are projected to purchase thousands more; police departments covet them as an inexpensive tool to provide bird’s-eye surveillance for up to 24 hours straight.
- The military owns about 10,000 drones, from one-pound Wasps and four-pound Ravens to one-ton Predators and 15-ton Global Hawks. By 2017, the armed forces plan to fly drones from at least 110 bases in 39 states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico.
The drone industry, which lobbied Congress to pass the new law, predicts $82 billion in economic benefits and 100,000 new jobs by 2025.
Public opposition has centered on civil-liberties concerns, such as the morality and legality of using drones to spy on people in their back yards. There has been scant scrutiny of the safety record of remotely controlled aircraft. A report released June 5 by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there were “serious unanswered questions” about how to safely integrate civilian drones into the national airspace, calling it a “critical, crosscutting challenge.”
Nobody has more experience with drones than the U.S. military, which has logged more than 4 million flight hours. But the Defense Department tightly guards the particulars of its drone operations, including how, when and where most accidents occur.
- Air Force leaders circulated briefing materials that quoted an unnamed general as saying, “What I worry about is the day I have a C-130 with a cargo-load of soldiers, and a [drone] comes right through the cockpit window.”
The general’s worries were well founded. On Aug. 15, 2011, a C-130 Hercules weighing about 145,000 pounds was descending toward Forward Operating Base Sharana, in eastern Afghanistan. Suddenly, a quarter-mile above the ground, the huge Air Force plane collided with a 375-pound flying object.
“Holy shit!” yelled the Hercules’s navigator, according to a transcript of the cockpit voice recorder. “We got hit by a UAV! Hit by a UAV!”
- Inside ground-control stations, drone pilots sit with binders of checklists that guide them through every conceivable scenario. But costly errors are still easy to make.
One recurring mistake: forgetting to turn on the Stability Augmentation System, which prevents the drone from going wobbly or into a spin. In at least five cases, pilots did not switch it on, or accidentally switched it off, then sat perplexed as the aircraft went into a nose dive.
- Unlike the Air Force, the Army does not make the argument that its drones are nearly as safe as regular planes.
In June 2013, Army safety officials posted a bulletin noting that their drones had crashed at 10 times the rate of manned Army aircraft over the previous nine months.
As bad as that number sounded, the officials said it actually understated the problem. Commanders were not reporting many drone mishaps, as required, to the Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala.
About 55 percent of the Army’s MQ-5 Hunter drones, which can carry weapons, have been “lost for various reasons” in accidents during training and combat operations, according to Col. Tim Baxter, the Army’s project manager for unmanned aircraft systems.
- The accident investigation reports describe a profusion of emergencies in which drones swerved so far out of control that crews had to resort to extreme measures to prevent catastrophes.
On six occasions between 2006 and 2012, records show, pilots intentionally flew straight into the side of a mountain after their aircraft’s engines began to fail.
Under military guidelines, it was considered safer to ram a remote peak on purpose than to risk a drone falling on someone during a Hail Mary landing attempt at an airfield.
“He smashed it to smithereens,” an Air Force mission supervisor reported approvingly after a pilot struggling with a broken propeller motor commanded his Predator to strike a mountain in eastern Afghanistan on Oct. 26, 2012.
In several other cases, drones simply disappeared and were never found.
- The links can be easily interrupted by various forms of interference. Usually, the outages last only a few seconds and are harmless. Just in case, drones are programmed to fly in a circular pattern until the links are restored. In worst-case scenarios, they are supposed to return automatically to their launch base.
Records show that does not always happen. In more than a quarter of the accidents examined by The Post, links were lost around the time of the crash.
Several pilots told investigators that they were so accustomed to lost links that they tended not to get nervous unless the disruptions lasted for more than a few minutes.
“I’d say after the three- or five-minute period, you sort of get the feeling that the plane just stopped talking to us and we may not recover this one,” a Predator pilot testified after an April 20, 2009, crash in Afghanistan.
- Craig Whitlock, “When drones fall from the sky”, The Washington Post, ( June 20, 2014).
- The use of unmanned aerial systems—commonly referred to as drones—over the past decade has revolutionized how the United States uses military force. As the technology has evolved from surveillance aircraft to an armed platform, drones have been used for a wide range of military missions: the United States has successfully and legitimately used armed drones to conduct hundreds of counterterrorism operations in battlefield zones, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It has also used armed drones in non-battlefield settings, specifically in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines.
- Micah Zenko and Sarah E. Kreps, “Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation”, Center for Preventive Action, (Jun 2014), p.3.
- P ersistent media attention tends not to differentiate between armed and commercial drones, but rather homogenizes all types, despite the fact that armed drones will be more destabilizing. Though the armed drones acquired by states in the near term likely will not have capabilities equal to those of the United States, their effects will still be destabilizing. States that acquire armed drones will likely use them as probes and for limited attacks in international waters and across borders, against domestic threats, and, potentially, for even more lethal missions, including delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Although other vehicles, such as trucks and manned civilian aircraft, can also be used to deliver WMDs, the ability of drones to hover and wait for the opportune moment in which they can produce maximum effect confers uniquely lethal capabilities.
- Ibid, p.4
- Analyzing which countries are pursuing armed drones is difficult, as their development is shrouded in secrecy and misinformation. Some countries, including the United States, hide certain programs to protect sensitive information and capabilities, while others, such as Iran, boast of armed drones to garner national prestige, despite the fact that they have not been demonstrably tested or used. In addition, government announcements of deadlines for internal drone development often go unmet, and publicly proclaimed export orders are never fulfilled.
- Ibid, p.6
- Senior U.S. civilian and military officials, whose careers span the pre– and post–armed drone era, overwhelmingly agree that the threshold for the authorization of force by civilian officials has been significantly reduced. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates asserted in October 2013, for example, that armed drones allow decision-makers to see war as a “bloodless, painless, and odorless” affair, with technology detaching leaders from the “inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain” consequences of war. President Barack Obama admitted in May 2013 that the United States has come to see armed drones “as a cure-all for terrorism,” because they are low risk and instrumental in “shielding the government” from criticisms “that a troop deployment invites.” Such admissions from leaders of a democratic country with a system of checks and balances point to the temptations that leaders with fewer institutional checks will face.
- Ibid, p.10.
- Domestically, governments may use armed drones to target their perceived internal enemies. Most emerging drone powers have experienced recent domestic unrest. Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, and China all have separatist or significant opposition movements (e.g., Kurds, Chechens, the Taliban, Tibetans, and Uighurs) that presented political and military challenges to their rule in recent history. These states already designate individuals from these groups as “terrorists,” and reserve the right to use force against them. States possessing the lower risk—compared with other weapons platforms—capability of armed drones could use them more frequently in the service of domestic pacification, especially against time-sensitive targets that reside in mountainous, jungle, or other inhospitable terrain. Compared with typical methods used by military and police forces to counter insurgencies, criminals, or terrorists—such as ground troops and manned aircraft— unmanned drones provide significantly greater real-time intelligence through their persistent loiter time and responsiveness to striking an identified target.
- Ibid, p.11
- Deterring such drone-based attacks will depend on the ability of the United States and other governments to accurately detect and attribute them. Technical experts and intelligence analysts disagree about the extent to which this will be possible, but the difficulties lie in the challenges of detecting drones (they emit small radar, thermal, and electron signatures, and can fly low), determining who controlled it (they can be programmed to fly to a preset GPS coordinate), or assigning ownership to a downed system (they can be composed of commercial, off-the-shelf components).
- Ibid, p.13
- Drone strikes conducted by the United States require actionable intelligence (from human, signal, and imagery sources), sophisticated beyond line-of-sight communications, access to satellite bandwidth, and systems engineering—from internal fire control to ground control stations—that are presently beyond the reach of most states. Several countries with relatively advanced aerospace programs, including Russia, France, and Italy, have not been able to develop and deploy these capabilities.
- Ibid, p.14.
- Drone strikes in foreign countries that allow for target intelligence collection necessitate a safe air environment and overflight rights, and require bilateral relationships to obtain host nation basing rights for noncontiguous countries. U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, for example, require airfields in Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, the Seychelles, and Ethiopia, secured with covert and overt aid and security commitments. (The United States does not conduct drone strikes from U.S. Navy ships, though it should be able to within five years.) Few other countries will have reliable access to foreign airbases in coming years from which they can conduct lethal operations, and no other country will develop a blue-water navy capable of supporting intercontinental drone strikes for decades to come. Therefore, it is likely that most drone operations conducted by other countries within the coming years will be across borders or internal.
- Ibid, p.15
- To the extent that U.S. policy sets precedents for subsequent drone use, the lack of clarity about U.S. targeted killing policies should be addressed. For example, the Obama administration will not identify which terrorist groups can be lawfully targeted—only that targeted individuals are members of al-Qaeda or “associated forces”—because doing so would enhance the credibility of named groups, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. Identifying these groups would increase transparency, reassuring other countries that the United States can justify who it targets. Additionally, this would give the United States leverage to call on other countries to explicitly define who they are targeting, rather than settle for vague descriptions, such as “associated forces.”
- Ibid, p.21
- Some U.S. officials and analysts contend that the widespread proliferation of armed drones is inevitable, and that any efforts to influence their use will fail. This assertion disregards the diplomatic, domestic, political, and, for some, technological restraints that have limited the spread of other military capabilities, and the logistical, normative, and legal principles that affect whether and how they are used.
- Ibid, p.23