An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot onboard. Its flight is either controlled autonomously by computers in the vehicle, or under the remote control of a navigator, or pilot (in military UAVs called a Combat Systems Officer on UCAVs) on the ground or in another vehicle.
There are a wide variety of drone shapes, sizes, configurations, and characteristics. Historically, UAVs were simple remotely-piloted aircraft, but autonomous control is increasingly being employed.
Their largest use is within military applications. UAVs are also used in a small but growing number of civil applications, such as firefighting or nonmilitary security work, such as surveillance of pipelines. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too “dull, dirty, or dangerous” for manned aircraft.
Drones have moved from the weapons of the future of the weapons of now. They have spreadwith astonishing rapidity. According to the Washington Post, “the speed at which they have been developed highlights how U.S. military successes with drones have changed strategic thinking worldwide and spurred a global rush for unmanned aircraft. More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and many have started in-country development programs for armed versions because no nation is exporting weaponized drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies.”
In December, Iran shot down a U.S. drone and declared its intent to reverse engineer the technology. China has drone capabilities, and Pakistan and Iran have said they are on the verge of developing them. Similarly, Israel uses drones against the Palestinians, and inside the United States police departments have begun using drones for surveillance. While the United States is not the primary exporter of drone technology to many of these nations, it runs the risk of being unable to prevent or even legitimately criticize foreign nations that develop drones. As Dennis M. Gorbley told the New York Times,““The problem is that we’re creating an international norm” — asserting the right to strike preemptively against those we suspect of planning attacks.” The copycatting is what I worry about most.”
The countries known to have unmanned aerial vehicles are: Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and Vietnam. China is marking 25 different kinds of drones.
“The Pentagon wants more North Atlantic Treaty Organization members to have such pilotless aircraft to ease the burden on the US in Afghanistan and in future conflicts like the alliance’s air campaign in Libya this year,” Obama Administration officials were quoted by The Wall Street as saying. It is believed that India is one of the potential targets for the US to sell its drones. India has been purchasing drones from Israel for some time now, and has been developing its drone capabilities, but does not have armed drones like the Predators and Reapers used devastatingly by the US in Pakistan. In fact, the U.S. has reportedly been insistent on selling drones to its allies. The Asia Times reported that Washington exerted considerable diplomatic pressure on South Korea to purchase four drones. Seoul reportedly wanted to cancel the deal, especially after Washington more than doubled the initial asking price of the aircraft.
The United States is hardly the only nation involved in the sale of drones, however. Brazil recently purchased $350 million worth of drones from Israel—and plans on using the unmanned aerial vehicles domestically, to combat rampant crimes. In February of 2012, it was announced that Israel confirmed $1.6 billion in deals to sell drones and other military equipment to Azerbaijan, bringing sophisticated Israeli technology to the doorstep of Iran.
As drones become smaller and quieter, they became easier to move and launch, and harder to deter in operation. The prospect of foreign-owned drones not under U.S. control operating within the United States without our knowledge is not a hypothetical—it has already happened. In December 2010, a small Israeli-made drone operated by the Mexican federal police crashed in El Paso, Texas. Before the crash, U.S. officials had not even been aware that drones were operating in the area.
Another concern is that the proliferation of unmanned aircraft around the world could be used by hostile states or extremist groups to disperse biological warfare agents. As technology improvements allow remotely controlled aircraft to shrink in size and be more easily transported, their potential to be acquired by extremists. The pace of development is moving at such a brisk pace that analysts have a hard time predicting all the potential applications for the aircraft. “I think of where the aeroplane was at the start of World War I: at first it was unarmed and limited to a handful of countries. Then it was armed and everywhere. That is the path we’re on,” said P.W. Singer, who has written extensively on emerging weapons and their possible applications.