Drones in our future.

Although I have no technical expertise in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), I have discussed in various fora the military, intelligence, domestic security and political implications of their use now and in the future. The hard fact is that, bad press notwithstanding, UAVs (aka “drones”) are here to stay and will dominate the air space in the years to come. Already the US air force is training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. Ninety percent of what drones do is non-lethal: reconnaissance; surveillance; search and rescue; maritime patrol; signal, thermal, optic and other forms of technical intelligence gathering; geological exploration and terrain mapping–the applications of these types of platform are many and will continue to grow in the years ahead.

The utility of drones is due to a simple calculation: the three “Ds.” They do jobs that are dangerous and/or dirty, and they do them dispassionately. To this can be added the fact that their operational costs of drones are less than those of manned aircraft and they do not expose pilots to the physical risks of flying. That combination guarantees that policy-makers will look to UAVs as the future of military and law enforcement aviation even if manned aircraft remain the bulk of commercial and private aviation for the foreseeable future.

Lethal drones such as the infamous Predators are constantly being refined so that their acceptable Circular Error Probable (CEP)–the chances that a missile fired from the UAV will fall within 100 feet of the target crosshair center–is now greatly increased. Since they loiter at 15,000 feet for up to 36 hours, US drone pilots (who work in 12 hour shifts and who must have experience flying manned aircraft prior to their assignment as drone pilots) spend hours and days watching a potential target before pulling the trigger. The protocols governing the kill shot are quite tight (for example, no shots at family compounds or while the targeted individual(s) is or are in the vicinity of innocents), which contrary to popular opinion has greatly reduced the collateral damage occasioned by drone strikes when compared to the early days of their use.

In fact, manned aircraft continue to cause the bulk of unintended civilian deaths in Central Asia, which most often is the fault of faulty or misleading tactical intelligence on the ground (the use of misinformation by local informants acting for their own purposes has been a major contributor to the unintended civilian deaths caused by air strikes). As a remedy, special forces teams are increasingly being used to track, spot and verify legitimate targets in conflict zones (to include Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan).

Although there have been many protestations about the use of lethal drones (so far the US is the only country to use them in anger), it is interesting to note that Pakistan has never attempted to intercept US drones operating in Pakistani air space even though the latter are slow, not particularly maneuverable and relatively easy to spot by electronic means (the recent downing by Israeli forces of an Iranian drone operated by Hezbollah demonstrates the case).  This is not to say that drone incursions into the sovereign air space of foreign countries are always or even generally  acceptable. What the different responses suggest is that the Pakistanis may not be aggrieved by US drone operations as they claim to be.

To be sure, the US military has tighter protocols governing lethal drones than does the para-military arm of the CIA. That has led to disagreements within the US security apparatus about who should be in control of lethal drones and under what circumstances are they to be used. The president currently has to authorize the CIA strikes, which are mostly directed at suspected jihadis operating in failed states. The military has a bit more latitude in targeting militants or insurgents in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, although all lethal strikes must be authorized by the chain of command. As of yet, that debate about unifying the command and control of lethal drones is unresolved and both the US military and the CIA continue to deploy armed and unarmed drones in foreign theaters using their own set of criteria (which if largely overlapped are not identical).

That is what brings me to the major point of this post: the fact that the legal apparatus governing the employment of drones in the international as well as the domestic arenas is very underdeveloped when compared with the technologies themselves. Already 60 countries employ drones, and domestic security agencies in a host of countries have explored their usage. The US uses them for border control and Coast Guard purposes, and true to form, some police department in Texas is reported to have expressed interest in a lethal version that could also dispense non-lethal crowd control justice from above.

Yet in no case are the legal protocols governing the use of drones in domestic arenas as well developed as are those used by the US military when engaged in foreign conflicts. This is worrying because the potential for abuse is great. UAV technology has outpaced the legislative framing of their fair use not only in undemocratic states but in liberal democracies as well.

New Zealand is not different in this regard. The Army and Navy are exploring drone technologies, as are other non-military government agencies. The Department of Conservation already has deployed a drone for geothermal and geographic research. The police are interested in UAV platforms as a substitute or complement to helicopters and terrestrial patrol vehicles. It is only a matter of time before drones are a regular presence in New Zealand skies, and the Civil Aviation Authority is already being tasked with drafting technical regulations governing their operations.

Even so, the legal structure governing the why, when, how and by who of UAV use in NZ is virtually nonexistent. Parliament appears disinterested in the subject and the agencies who would have the most use for drones have not been particularly proactive in drafting guidelines for their use. It is time that they did.

One reason is because the future of drones is not only in their greater use but in their increasingly varied configurations, to include miniaturization based on developments in nano technology. Consider this gem:

Sent to me by a friend borrowing from an unnamed source, the following blurb came with the photo.

“Is this a mosquito? No. It’s an insect spy drone for urban areas, already in production, funded by the US Government. It can be remotely controlled and is equipped with a camera and a microphone. It can land on you, and it may have the potential to take a DNA sample or leave RFID tracking nanotechnology on your skin. It can fly through an open window, or it can attach to your clothing until you take it in your home. Given their propensity to request macro-sized drones for surveillance, one is left with little doubt that police and military may look into these gadgets next.”

UPDATE: The source for the photo is this: http://www.snopes.com/photos/technology/insectdrone.asp

In light of the implications of developments in UAV technology and the growth in their employment, it seems appropriate that New Zealand confront the legal aspects of said use. New Zealand could, for example, be the first country to prohibit the use of lethal drones either in foreign conflicts or for domestic security (no other country has of yet discounted the use of drones for lethal purposes). Likewise, because there are no regional or international protocols governing their use, New Zealand could try to introduce resolutions in international and regional bodies that would lead to the regulation of UAVs on a broader level. At present the field of UAV operations is basically uncharted, much less regulated, so the opportunity now exists to try to match advances in UAV technology and deployment with advances in the legal architectures governing them.

Since New Zealand has in the past shown initiative and boldness in enacting policy with both domestic and international import, the field of UAV regulation might be another way in with it can demonstrate its fore-sightedness when it comes to areas of universal concern.

13 thoughts on “Drones in our future.

  1. Hi

    There are actually substantial regulations governing the use of UAVs in NZ, largely relating to when and where you can fly them.

    Not sure about now, but a couple years back when the Army was UAVing at Waiouru, it couldn’t fly the drones over SH1 when transitioning from the west to the east – they had to be landed, trucked up, driven to the other site, then relaunched

    I also know the Police is not looking in any depth at UAVs yet. That could change of course, but it’s unlikely. If used, their primary purpose would likely be SAR in rural areas, as that’s where a relatively cheap UAV with a basic TI setup can fly legally.

  2. If we’re talking about drones that are above mosquito size, is there any reason that the existing aviation laws are inadequate?

  3. Thanks Anon. I mentioned in the post that the civilian aviation authorities were on to the basic operational issues.


    All air space can be and is parceled. Maori are cognizant of that.

  4. Terror in the skies, coming to us soon:


    How many can imagine the terror of those on the ground aware of the killer drones hovering overhead and knowing that at any moment their houses, their husbands, their wives and their children can be evaporised at any moment? The programme I linked to explores that very issue.

    Also, by restricting the discussion as regards ‘collateral damage’ we avoid challenging drone use on more fundamental grounds relating to fair trial, rights to counsel, the opportunity to present a defence, and, especially for the victims of ‘collateral damage’, the right to life.

    These strikes have no place in a civilised society, especially those that purport to operate by ‘rule of law’. Now it appears Australia is a launching pad for these extrajudicial executions, often of innocent people. Given the way we freely give away our civil liberties, liberties that members of my family fought and died for, drone terror is on its way. God help us all if just one misguided individual builds a bomb and detonates it somewhere in New zealand as reprisal for one of these strikes.

    Good topic to raise, Pablo, and don’t for a moment think I’m getting at you, please. It’s just part of the discussion I think should be foremost in our minds.

  5. Thanks Luc. I disagree with you on the ethics of lethal drone strikes but appreciate your concerns. That is why I think that public debate on the ethical as well as legal issues surrounding drone use should be encouraged before they become a feature of NZ aviation.

    Hugh: I should have mentioned that, from what I have read, there are gaps in the civilian and military aviation regulations that do not account for unmanned flying machines operating above certain altitudes (although anon above suggests that there are regulations governing UAVs already in place). My understanding is that under current regulations UAVs are classified and operate as remote control model airplanes. Given that what I am talking about is a bit more than a model airplane and operate at greater heights and with extended ranges, I am not sure that the current regulations are sufficient. Likewise, small UAVs operating at eye level would appear to lie outside current aviation regulations.

    Anon: I know that the army tested Israeli-made drones a few years back, then developed the Kahui Hawk as a tactical UAV. More recently the Army and the defense research agency have contracted with a private firm for the development of a newer model. The Navy has also begun to explore options in this field and I understand that agencies such as customs have an interest in possible applications for UAV platforms.

    The Police may not be seeking to purchase UAVs now but it seems reasonable to expect that some time in the near future they will be considered given that they are cheaper to operate and as effective if not more so than the manned rotary platforms now in use.

  6. Micro-drones obviously dont come under existing civil aviation law.

    But I think it would be a very brave and unorthodox judge who ruled that a UAV didnt count as an “aircraft” as defined under various aviation laws simply because its pilot isnt present in the aircraft.

  7. You cannot fly a UAV in NZ (well, you couldn’t in 2009) in controlled airspace (i.e. urban areas) unless (my memory is hazy) you had filed a full flight plan (and even then you may not have been allowed for)

    People who worked with UAVs in Army always pointed out they couldn’t fly over builtup areas due to CAA regulations.

    Worth contacting people like SKycam to check.

    PAblo you are right about UAVs, but they have some shortcomings vs. a chopper, and in some circumstances the optimum Police surveillance platform from a cost benefit perspective is a fixed wing platform with a couple of high powered sensors on gimbals. I doubt a conservative org like NZPol will go UAVs anytime soon.

  8. UAV’s would make perfect sense to patrol the water around NZ for illegal fishing activities.

    I read that the ‘pilots’ of these drones have the same post traumatic stress disorder (called shellshock back in the old days) symptoms like ‘real life’ combatants.

    We further believe to life in the civilized part of the world – how civilized are those drone strikes?

  9. I have to question whether or not the whole of life cost of drones is really that much cheaper than a fixed wing aircraft. As I understand it, the mission turn around time for drones is much longer than for fixed wing aircraft; consequently the practical sortie rate in nowhere near those of manned aircraft. This is why the USAF operates it’s drones in groups of four – they need that many to match the sortie rate expectations of commanders. Also, the drone itself is little more than a tiny fraction of the components required to keep it airborne. According to reports I have read, by the time you add up the drone pilots, their ground equipment and support crews and the paraphernalia required to monitor the drone flight (for example, all US drone missions are supported by JSTAR or AWACS aircraft to keep an eye out for interception attempts etc) upwards of 130 people can be involved to support a single drone mission, at a cost not much different to a manned mission. Finally, I believe the accident rate of drones is fully three times that of the USAF fixed wing fighter force, something which clearly impacts in the cost of the total buy! Whilst that doesn’t negate the basic advantage of being able to kill from the air without risking the political embarrassment of a shot down pilot, it may explain why there has as yet not been any real stampede to use drones outside the specific military niche they currently occupy.

  10. Hey your RSS feed via google reader appears to have been down since the post on Romney and the pacific, deleting and resubscribing gives a feed with a spam title

  11. How A Drone Might Save Your Life

    And of course the idea extends to many other life-threatening situations — delivering blood or medicines to places that are otherwise hard to reach in time to save the patient. It’s a useful reminder that drones aren’t necessarily evil, it’s how we use them that counts.

    I don’t consider the idea presented as practical (generally speaking, if you need medicines delivered to save someones life then you need the trained medic as well) but I do think there would be many positive applications for drones which is why I’m not against them. I do, of course, think that they would need to be well regulated.

  12. Draco:

    That is partly what motivated my post. Since not all issues of drone usage are reducible to dealing death from above, and given their many helpful applications, it would seem that lawmakers would be keen to define, as I said in the post, the how, why, when and by whom of their use. Alas, that is not the case here in NZ, and TBH, is not much advanced in other other countries as well.

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