Only a few decades ago, drone technology was relegated to the world of pointy heads and science fiction. They’ve quickly gone from fringe toys to a multi-billion dollar industry selling more than a million civilian drones each year just n the U.S. They impact nearly every aspect of our lives, such as disaster relief, farm management, even the hundreds of drones performing for the 2017 Super Bowl and Disney. With YouTube videos or big-budget Hollywood movies, many aerial shots we watch are produced by drones.
Before long, the skies will be blotted with mechanical birds, which actually frightens me. If you aren’t just as afraid, I’d recommend watching Tom Selleck’s 1984 movie “Runaway.” Its army of cheesy automated spiders and heat-seeking bullets fueled a generation’s fear and fascination with robotics.
With recent advances and future plans for the small drone market, one question is how drones will shape the future of humanity. As they become more capable and prolific, their uses may change from innocuous to immoral. But like any other tool, use is dictated not by intent but by user. We must ensure now that drones are used to advance humanity or even just end up as high-tech selfie sticks instead of joining the continuing fight to destroy us all.
Advanced civilian drones might seem relatively new, but their military applications actually date back to the early 1900s. Even so, military drone technology has seen its greatest maturation in the past two decades — nearly one-third of America’s military aircraft are now unmanned. Currently 86 nations have some form of military drone capability, but only 19 nations have armed drones. But it isn’t the large military drones like Global Hawks or Predators that are so concerning, since they are too expensive and maintenance-intensive. It’s the small, remotely-operated aerial vehicles that might be quickly becoming the greatest danger to world peace.
Entities such as the the Islamic State group and, among others, have been using drones for surveillance and attacks with increasing effectiveness since late 2004. While their tenets and beliefs are anchored by the martyrdom of “dying for the cause,” diminishing manpower caused by low recruitment levels and the low life expectancy of successful suicide bombers has made these death cults focus on better business practices to watch their enemies, guide bombers to their targets and even drop grenades or mortars on soft targets. Drones provide an alternative to the one-shot suicide vest, as they’re accustomed to watch-attack-rinse-repeat. Across Mosul, Iraq, and other war-torn cities, dozens of warehouses have recently been discovered and destroyed. These workshops were filled with the parts and plans to create enough mayhem and carnage to influence the battle for control of those areas.
So the question becomes, how will drone technology be used to change the face of the current battlefield? Before long, these capabilities will proliferate into the skies over peaceful nations. Will the average citizen recognize the difference between a Chinese take-out delivery drone and a chemical weapons one? Imagine the terror potential of a small fleet of armed drones exploding in a packed sports stadium. The security professionals for the Super Bowl obviously imagined it. They set a 34.5-mi-radius No Drone Zone around Houston, Texas’ NRG Stadium to protect the game and its fans.
It won’t be long before flocks of inexpensive drones are used to drop improvised bombs or even chemical weapons. Imagine how that would change daily life. It would be the modern equivalent of the strategic bombings of World War II without the warnings of air-raid sirens. Your daily commute to work or the quick run to the store could become as dangerous as the combat missions of our brave 3%ers.
Defeating this breed of terrorists takes more than people are willing to give. But there are things we can do to help protect ourselves. We must acknowledge there is actually an enemy. We must harden the most tempting targets, effectively making them more difficult to attack. We must devise ways to defeat their attacks. A lot of money and calories have already been burned on drone defense with captive nets and frequency-jamming equipment to counter drones. But my favorite may be the Netherlands’ police training an eagle to capture and destroy small drones. A majestic eagle literally protecting our nation from terrorist attacks might be the ultimate statement of freedom, but there are still significant concerns that the eagles may be harmed. R&WI