By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School
Drones are sophisticated, cyber-enabled machines, which can be linked to computerized control systems. It is important to know a bit about drone technology so that one might better understand how they work and what all they are capable of.
Drones for Surveillance
Drones are excellent surveillance platforms, and drone technology is a powerful way of enhancing observational capabilities. At the heart of a drone is the existence of the CyberLink, for that connection allows the drone to be operated without a pilot physically present.
Drones themselves are unmanned but controlled by a human operator. These remote operators typically are highly skilled, and must be trained for their particular missions. Drones are not autonomous—at least not yet. A human is always in the loop of control.
This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Types of Drones
For most people, the word drone conjures up the image of a lethal, missile-armed Predator or Reaper, like the drones deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and afterward.
Once the U.S. demonstrated the Predator’s capabilities, drones became an indispensable military tool and part of our vocabulary. However, military drones are but a small fraction of the type of drones used in the United States and around the world today.
Thousands of drone platforms exist for a wide variety of purposes, from scientific research to military operations. Drones are employed by governments and by the private sector.
How the Military Uses Drones
In the military, drone pilots learn how to carry out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions; how to conduct and respond to electronic attacks; how to implement strike missions with weapons; how to conduct search and rescue operations, and so on.
For the military, remote piloting greatly reduces the risks to U.S. personnel and makes the vehicles cheaper to produce.
Although drones are unmanned, trained crews steer the craft, analyze the images that the cameras send back, and act on what they see. In the military context, that might mean firing missiles at a surveilled target.
Learn more about the three types of surveillance.
The control base for a remotely piloted vehicle can be anywhere that you’re able to establish a communications link. It’s well-known that most of the drone missions in Afghanistan were controlled from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, although take-offs and landings were typically handled locally.
Indeed, the control system is the most sophisticated—or perhaps intricate is a better word—part of the system. Commands from the controller are encrypted and uplinked to a satellite, which then downlinks the commands to the drone.
Drone sensor data flows back along the same channel; or, if you want, the sensor data can be directly shared with others. So, when a Reaper drone takes pictures over Afghanistan, the downlink of video data can go straight to troops on the ground, even though the orders directing it would be coming from the United States.
It May Be Dangerous
In 2015, the Pentagon reportedly controlled some 7,000 military-grade drones—up from fewer than 50 at the start of the 21st century. These have been used increasingly in military missions overseas, first running reconnaissance, and then targeting al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, hostile groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah, are said to have obtained their own drones. The inevitable result of such proliferation is that malevolent uses could become a problem in the United States. As was reported in Wired magazine not long ago, a $400 remote-controlled quadcopter landed on the White House grounds. Fortunately, it was unarmed, but it need not have been.
Adding to such concerns, a recent government exercise demonstrated that a quadcopter could be strapped to 3 pounds of an inert explosive and turned into a flying bomb.
Learn more about the U.S. intelligence community.
The Department of Homeland Security uses drones for Border Patrol security. These vehicles conduct surveillance of areas and routes that are inaccessible to regular patrols. Likewise, we use drones over the ocean to maintain maritime domain awareness, and to track shipping heading to the United States.
We use drones for emergency preparation and disaster response. Before the next hurricane hits, drones will have planned evacuation routes and anticipated vulnerable locations. In the immediate aftermath of a major storm, they also allow us to observe the catastrophic effects and begin remediation planning.
Moreover, drones can even provide emergency restoration of cell phone coverage. Also, by providing a visible police presence, they deter criminal behavior in unpatrolled areas. United Nations peacekeepers are using drones for the same sorts of reasons.
Drones for Agricultural and Environmental Use
In agriculture, farmers use drones to monitor crop growth at a local level, and in greater detail than might be provided, for example, by satellite photos. Drones have even been used as a replacement for crop-dusting airplanes as a way of spraying pesticides and eradicating pest infestation.
Meanwhile, scientists and environmentalists are increasingly using drones for environmental monitoring, as well. With these aerial vehicles, we can track wildlife; monitor droughts and flooding; and watch the stability of locks, dams, and levees in remote areas.
With the right equipment, drones can sample the pollution over cities, and test concentrations of carbon dioxide in remote locations. They might even fly into the eye of a hurricane, without risking human life.
In short, anywhere that humans can go—or might want to go; to see or do something—is potentially a place where drones can lead us.
Common Questions about Drones
In the military, drone pilots learn how to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions; how to conduct and respond to electronic attacks; how to implement strike missions with weapons; how to conduct search and rescue operations, and so on.
In agriculture, farmers use drones to monitor crop growth at a local level. They have even been used as a replacement for crop-dusting airplanes as a way of spraying pesticides and eradicating pest infestation.
Environmentalists use drones to track wildlife; monitor droughts and flooding; and watch the stability of locks, dams, and levees in remote areas.