How drones are changing the world
By Varun Arni
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been a staple of the media for a number of years now. While their roles as malevolent killing machines have earned them a great deal of notoriety over the last decade, more recently the context has changed to the more peaceful roles they can play in society.
It is interesting to follow the track that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have taken to reach this point. Like many fields of advanced technology, the military was first to provide impetus for their development. In the interwar years there was a desire to create realistic flying targets for pilots to practice shooting on. The US achieved this in the 1950s, and by the mid-70s, they were converting old full size warplanes for this purpose. Certain smart missiles from the Cold War period also had the ability to track and locate their targets, making them some of the earliest forms of aircraft capable of navigating and ‘thinking’ for themselves.
A converted F16, used for target practice
Source: Wikipedia Commons
The 1980s brought major advances in electronics, and camera technology developed in tandem with communication technology. This meant the ability to send images across the world in near real time was realised, making drones powerful reconnaissance tools. They were consequently largely developed for this with Israel picking up the baton from the US, manufacturing their own models where previously they had adapted US versions.
Drones could now deliver high levels of intel from behind enemy lines without the risk of a downed pilot (as occurred in 1960 when the USSR captured a US spy plane pilot). Without a pilot, fatigue was no longer a prospect either, so their endurance (duration an aircraft can stay aloft) ballooned. Since then, camera and sensor technology has progressed in leaps and bounds, allowing them to deliver ever-increasing levels of situational intelligence to ground forces and operations bases.
The use of drones as weapons in themselves has come about largely over the last decade or so. Due to their extended endurance and sophisticated tracking abilities, drones can readily drop munitions on the very people they monitor. This usage in war has also been possible due to the choice of targets chosen by their most prolific recent users – the United States. Over the last decade, their targets have been far less developed forces, with little to no ability to protect themselves from strikes coming in from 2 miles in the air. The strikes have therefore been extremely devastating.
The predator RQ1: The archetypal strike drone
Source: Flickr Commons: UK Ministry of Defense
For a country like the US, the benefits of using drones are huge. Using drones requires less front line pilots or ground crew, which is an even greater advantage when the war is half-way across the world. They are also more efficient since they do not have to carry a pilot and life support systems. Productivity is higher also, as an indefinite air presence can be ensured by using a tag-team approach of sending out fully fueled drones to replace those on low fuel levels. What all this means is that missions can be effectively pre-planned and executed with far less human input or risk. Due to all the above reasons using drones can work out as far cheaper than using conventional manned aircraft.
There are several instances where military-developed technology peters down into society and UAVs are no different. The same advantages that make them useful to the military are just as valid in the commercial and civilian spheres. Drones are being used in agriculture, filming, mapping, wildlife, weather, traffic monitoring, disaster management and even package delivery. Their technology is also being applied to cars to avoid accidents.
The range of applications is limited only by ingenuity and enterprise and consequently a huge number of UAVs and services have become available on the market in various shapes, sizes and specializations. The strides in consumer electronics and mobile phones over the last few years have been the enabling factors in this. Small, cheap cameras, processor chips, WiFi, batteries etc have all become readily available, fuelling this explosion in hobby and commercial drones.
Any emergent field of technology sees early booms in specialist small- and medium- enterprises. In the case of drones, it has made it possible for small companies/start-ups to have some form of aerospace-related engagement, blurring the distinction between aerospace and consumer electronics.
Unmanned vehicle systems are playing ever-greater roles in society and the next few years are likely to see an explosion in this sector. It is therefore worth considering how India can best capitalize on this. Future posts will look at some of the roles drones can play in the future, while also covering our current military UAV programs, and the part the private sector can play in developing such technology.
Varun Arni is a researcher at the Takshashila Institution.