What are drones?

This article, written by Chris Cole and Jim Wright, was originally published in January 2010

What are Drones?

Reaper drone firing missile

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), also known as drones, are aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission.  While there are dozens of different types of drones, they basically fall into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes and those that are armed with missiles and bombs.

The use of drones has grown quickly in recent years because unlike manned aircraft they can stay aloft for many hours (Zephyr a British drone under development has just broken the world record by flying for over 82 hours nonstop); they are much cheaper than military aircraft and they are flown remotely so there is no danger to the flight crew.

While the British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically in Afghanistan and Iraq, control is via satellite from Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Ground crews launch drones from the conflict zone, then operation is handed over to controllers at video screens in specially designed trailers in the Nevada desert. One person ‘flies’ the drone, another operates and monitors the cameras and sensors, while a third person is in contact with the “customers”, ground troops and commanders in the war zone. While armed drones were first used in the Balkans war, their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the CIA’s undeclared war in Pakistan.

The Only Game in Town
The US has two separate ‘squadron’ of armed drones – one run by the US Air Force and one run by the CIA. Using drones, the USAF Air Force has increased the number of combat air patrols it can fly by 600 percent over the past six years; indeed at any time there are at least 36 American armed UAVS over Afghanistan and Iraq. It plans to increase this number to 50 by 2011. CIA Director Leon Panetta has recently said that drones are “the only game in town.” The CIA have been using drones in Pakistan and other countries to assassinate “terrorist leaders.” While this programme was initiated by the Bush Administration, it has increased under Obama and there have been 41 known drone strikes in Pakistan since Obama became President. Analysis by an American think tank The Brookings Institution on drone attacks in Pakistan has shown that for every militant leader killed, 10 civilians also have died.

Drones UK
The UK has several different types of armed and surveillance drones in Iraq and Afghanistan and others in the production or development stage. The UK began using armed drones in Afghanistan in Oct 2007 after purchasing three Reapers from General Atomics in 2007 at a cost of £6m each. The MoD confirmed in June 2008 that a British Reaper UAV had fired its weapons for the first time, but refused to give any details. In March 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that British drones had been used ten times in armed strikes.

As well as armed drones, the UK has several types of surveillance drones, most notably Watchkeeper, a drone jointly produced by Israeli company Ebit and Thales UK. The UK is purchasing 54 Watchkeeper drones and ground stations at a cost of £860m. The first ten will be built in Israel and then production will transfer to a specially built facility in Leicester. Testing is taking place at Aberporth in Wales and Watchkeeper is due to enter service in 2010. There have recently been reports that Watchkeeper may be armed in the future.

Serious Concern
Thes UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, has said that the use of drones is not combat as much as ‘targeted killing’. He has repeatedly tried to get the US to explain how they justifies the use of drones to target and kill individuals under international law. The US has so far refused to do so. In a report to the UN he has said the US government (and by implication the UK government) “should specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture particular individuals …. and should make public the number of civilians killed as a result of drone attacks, and the measures in place to prevent such casualties”.

A further question is the extent to which operators become trigger happy with remote controlled armaments, situated as they are in complete safety, distant from the conflict zone. Keith Shurtleff, an army chaplain and ethics instructor at Fort Jackson, South Carolina worries “that as war becomes safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide.”

Increased Surveillance
Military drone manufacturers are looking for civilian uses for remote sensing drones to expand their markets and this includes the use of drones for domestic surveillance. Drones will no doubt make possible the dramatic expansion of the surveillance state. With the convergence of other technologies it may even make possible machine recognition of faces, behaviours, and the monitoring of individual conversations. The sky, so to speak, is the limit.

50 thoughts on “What are drones?

  • I don’t understand why, if civilians are dying, that we keep using these. Seems ridiculous.. But, after all, I guess we don’t give a fuck. That’s America for you. Thank you, though. This was a great article.

    • haha your funny. If you do not like America then leave. If you do not live here then fuck you 😛

      • He’s not hating on American. He was directing the comment at the government. I must agree with him, the government doesn’t seem to care.

      • Spoken like the opinionated losers that Americans are. Can’t even take criticism and think they’re perfect.

      • Holy CRAP, Ky. The guy was simply stating that American government doesn’t really care about non-american welfare. You’re an IDIOT

  • It’s extremely worrying that this industry has been slowly growing over the years with apparently no major media coverage. Its not difficult to imagine drones slowly appearing over the UK to ‘keep tabs on the population’. I realise that sounds ludicrous now, but give it another 10 years of slowly introducing these things into the skies so that the population get used to them, having been told that they are there for the ‘benefit of the people’.

  • I feel angry and frustrated that these drone missions are probably quite routine – this article has been so useful to me as I previously knew very little about them. A great introduction – thank you.

  • Thank you for writing an article that is as ill-informed as it is retarded. Quite how you draw your conclusions bewilders me. If you even began to understand the complexity of the issue that you are trying to discuss, you would arrive at an all together different conclusion. At no point do you even begin to appreciate the roles that these “drones” play in a modern day hostile world. N.B. They are not called drones, If you wish to have credibility as an organisation try referring to them as their correct title – RPAV’s or even UAV’s, to call them drones makes it sound like you are basing your entire website around a game of call of duty.

    You are essentially ill-informed, and dangerously vocal as an organisation. I suggest that you spend some more of your time understanding the advantages of removing humans from dangerous scenarios, and spend less time hanging around in the undershoot of RAF Waddington. After all it would make a jolly awful mess if a landing gear clocked you in the head……

    • If you are so educated, would you really use the word “retarded” in this context?

    • To an educated member of society. First you need to spell correctly if you want us to take you seriously!

    • “I suggest that you spend some more of your time understanding the advantages of removing humans from dangerous scenarios”

      By “humans” you mean “American soldiers”, I guess. Because what would be the point of “targeted killings” if there were not some definitely human beings down there?

      I thought that being “educated” meant, among other things, not being driven by mere jingoism, like being able, for example, to remember that American are not the only humans beings worthy of consideration. Maybe I was wrong. Or maybe that was exactly what this article was trying to say.

  • People should organize and protect eachother and connect, not get further apart and isolated and have drones doing that work instead. There isn’t any valid reason for drones to be used and useful in any way whatsoever.

    • What a ridiculous statement. I’ll concede that to some the emerging use of UAVs could lead to moral and ethical quandaries as the human cost of war decreases so too could the threshold for initiating war. I myself do not fall into that category. To deny the RAF/USAF or CIA this or any other technical advantage is foolishly niave as the enemies of the West are certainly not wringing their hands or losing sleep pondering international law or moral dilemmas as they plan their next suicide bombing or other terrorist attack. To state that there isn’t any valid reason to use drones is the height of absurdity. It is akin to saying there isn’t any reason to using rudimentary tanks to break stalemate in the trenches of WWI circa 1917. Just because the technology is in its infancy and you don’t comprehend the game changing implications of the technology does not mean it should be ignored. Thankfully the military minds charged with waging today’s battles are not burdened by your moral servitude. There are many “valid” reasons this technology is employed however I will not begin to enumerate them for you. Instead I’ll simply propose that in this instance the sheer sheer fact that they are used on the modern battlefield is proof enough of their benefits.

  • wait until the technology gets into the wrong hands,i call it backfiring

    • Yes you are right, but People who support Drone will understand only when some Pakistani terrorist gets technology from America or China through their government and use it on America and India. Still why american government don’t understand Pakistan is also a terrorist country. Americans gave weapons to Iraq then Afghanistan and now to Pakistan.

  • Just amazing that drones exist. To the layman it is unreal. I haven’t figured out the radio yet. What is coming next.

  • It is a shame that they only list two applications for drones! We have thousands of civilian uses for them that people completely ignore. I am part of a start up company called http:// that wants to use drones for precision agriculture. Basically we can help farmers use less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. Its good for the economy because it creates high tech jobs without displacing other workers and its also good for the environment. Stop thinking about military applications and imagine the other things civilian drones could do like forestry, fire fighting and land use planning!

    • Ben, much as you and many of your fellow countrymen would like us to just “stop thinking” about military drones so you can get on an make a living, its important for the rest of us to think about global security so others, living under drones can simply live.

    • Ben, of course commercial drones AREN’T the same as CIA/Pentagon use. And, yes… ag drones could be wonderfully helpful for precision agriculture.

      However, the moral hazards regarding their use ARE the same.

      No, commercial or ag drones probably won’t kill or injure you unless they happen to lose power while flying and hit you in the head or crash into your windshield while you’re diving a car.

      Some context for my qualified remarks:

      I worked for 17 years in the high-end security business in Southern California with Westinghouse/Westec. I’ve designed security systems and have been responsible for security teams who have protected some of the most powerful people in the WORLD, not just the US.

      During that time, I worked with many former law enforcement types, as well as a few retired ‘spooks’ who were doing second careers; not all law enforcement folks are ethical. I have some direct experience here; I wouldn’t depend on them to self-police, no pun intended.

      Without clear laws having real teeth and rules around “fair and appropriate use” of ANY and all drones (police, military, CIA, commercial, ag, hobbyist), you will have all manner of folks, who are missing a moral chip, looking for cute and clever ways to employ drones for win/lose advantage over others…. period!

      Let’s say sensitive corporate merger talks are being held at a private ranch or estate, it would be easy for a hedge fund manager to hire a drone expert to fly a small surveillance drone (including one sold for ag purposes) onto the property to gain insider information. If hedge fund managers are demonstrably willing already to pay someone literally hundreds of thousands of dollars for a sub rosa insider tip, hiring an expert drone sleuth to get the same information remotely would have less traceable risk and would represent a relative bargain expense for the potential profit involved.

      Abuses by paparazzi are obvious…

      Also, drones can be much more than aerial photographers.

      Depending on the model being deployed, they can field a full complement of remote sensors that can tell how many people are in a structure, intercept ALL land line, cellular, and internet traffic. (They can jam those also, if desired.) They can also listen in to the people in the building.

      Further, this drone snooping can all be done without a warrant or ANYONE checking the checker.

      Personally, I don’t want a ‘Big Brother’ eye-in-the-sky, with the capacity to do a virtual ‘strip search’ of my life from 1,500′ up, trolling around the skies with unregulated impunity.
      I can’t fathom the general public’s somnolence and insensitivity to this very real potential “on-demand” intrusion into their lives and the shredding of their Constitutional rights… unknowingly.

      You appear to trust government and corporate interests too much; I can’t help but wonder if your passion for the underlying cool technology and the potential billions in sales this market represents hasn’t possibly skewed your filters. I don’t see the skeptical eye in your response to my comment.

      I ran for the US Senate here in South Dakota in the 2007-2008 Republican primary; I actually was the first politician to publicly state that the US was headed “off the cliff” back in August of 2007. There term became more popularly adopted about 18-24 months ago. (I’d be happy to provide you with the video link to that speech.)

      Needless to say, the overt moral lapses I witnessed during my campaign amongst some of our leaders and their supporters was quite disheartening.

      Our moronic American Congress can’t even balance a budget or control spending for more more than 4 years now; why should we trust them, or anyone else for that matter, to be equitable or ethical with the type of intrusive power that drones of all types represent?

      • thank you for writing this. apart from anything else, it demonstrates movingly the difference between raving and lucid. respect. your struggle with humanity, or the lack of it, a familiar theme to me.

  • why are they calling them drones? my personal opinion is if your trying to be credible use the appropriate title like calling it a UAV or UGV. I know drone is a term everyone is familiar with but if your trying to shine light on the subject and to teach them its probably not a good idea to start off by telling everyone this is what we call it even thought its not technically correct and we are going to give you false misleading info so that everyone thinks a “drone” is a UAV which it’s not it literally means something that can take orders without human control. I know its little and if your new to this stuff some of it is actually very knowledgeable just wanted to point it out

  • There should be two pronged strategy for the regulation of use of drones ,first understanding and advocacy for their peaceful use such as humanitarian and techonological benefits and second there should be code of conduct for their military use.such a strategy would aid to prevent the indiscriminate use of drone and maximising potential for peaceful purpose.

  • Tam and Ky,

    I used to run a hotel. One of my American guests was doing a world tour. He said to me; I’ve travelled the world recently and what I’ve found is that everyone hates us. I explained that he shouldn’t take it personally and that it was probably due to the views of his President, and that I am sure most Americans are probably reasonable human beings.

    Maybe I was wrong!

  • Thanks taxpayers…now our government can spend whatever they want without giving out specific details to anyone.
    Go Drone Go!!!

  • In my humble opinion, through out history and especially post-internet, disruptive new technology always poses exciting new economic opportunities and sometimes great moral/ethical quandaries. Drones are simply the result of open source software AND hardware getting into the hands of brilliant and inspired people doing what they are passionate about. The benefits they have provided are huge such as Mr Howard pointed out above, but their potential nefarious applications demand debate and mechanisms for controlling them by laws and perhaps physical no-fly-zones. We are in the middle of that debate now but the “cat is out of the bag’ and virtually anyone can build a drone for cheap. The controls and countermeasures must evolve as rapidly as this technology. I can only say that as an engineer and tinkerer, there is no better time in human history to innovate and express creativity..And no better time to let this debate happen in realtime as I observe “standing on the shoulders of giants” that created this enabling infrastructure, from the comfort of my kitchen at 4am…Onward to see what happens, Cheers

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