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What drones may come: the now and soon-to-be of unmanned aerial warfare

Over one-third — or 7,500 — of America’s military aircraft are drones. Often referred to as “the future of warfare,”…

By Alexandra Gibb , in 2012 Blogs The Buzz Overhead: The latest in national (in)security , on February 20, 2012 Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Over one-third — or 7,500 — of America’s military aircraft are drones. Often referred to as “the future of warfare,” “the next generation of combat technology,” and the “stuff of science fiction,” these unmanned aerial spy-crafts have carried out hundreds of strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban commanders in the Middle East and Africa since the War on Terror began.

While the total number of drone-related deaths remains unclear, the non-profit Bureau for Investigative Journalism, based in London, believes that as of October of 2011, at least 2,347 people had been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone since 2004. Some 392 of these deaths were civilians, including an estimated 175 children.

Such numbers indicate that drones are not the future of warfare — they are the now of warfare. That being the case, what does the future really hold?

Northrop Grumman's X-47B completed its first test flight on Feb. 4, 2011 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/Rob Densmore)

The future of warfare is pilot-less

The U.S. military is commissioning companies like Northrop Grumman to develop autonomous unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, for example, is an experimental stealth fighter drone that is capable of taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier without an in-cockpit or on-the-ground pilot.

The purpose of autonomous UAS, according to the United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047, is to increase “effects while potentially reducing cost, forward footprint and risk.” In other words, autonomous UAS will enable one operator to monitor several drones at once.

Northrop Grumman is developing aerial refueling stations — similar to those already used by the U.S. Air Force and Navy (pictured above) — for its most advanced UAS, including the X-47B (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. William Greer)

The future of warfare is unblinking

The U.S. military is also commissioning companies to develop UAS that are capable of refueling themselves. Here, again, the X-47B is a pioneer. High-altitude, long-endurance UAS — like Predator and Reaper drones — can execute surveillance and reconnaissance missions for approximately two days at a time.

The X-47B, however, will be capable of refueling itself at aerial refueling stations (much like those already used by manned vehicles belonging to the U.S. Air Force and Navy), allowing it to remain airborne for 50 to 100 hours.

Similarly, as the LA Times reported in Dec. 2010, QinetiQ’s lightweight, solar-powered Zephyr drone is capable of flying at 70,000 feet for 14 days straight without refueling.

Autonomous aerial refueling and “green-powered” drones will dramatically extend the range and endurance of unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

The future of warfare swarms

While nano-drone technology — such as AeroVironment’s Hummingbird nano-drone — remains in the development stages, its future is already clear: autonomous swarms. On Feb. 2, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania released a video of their “nano quadrotors” — small, unmanned autonomous helicopters that are capable of communicating with and distancing themselves from each other, sensing and avoiding objects in their flight path and flying in synchronized patterns.

Boeing is working on similar projects for the U.S. military.

This technology will soon be used for monitoring and surveillance purposes, for inspecting combat and disaster zones and in search-and-rescue operations.

The future of warfare never forgets a face

Perhaps the most controversial development in drone warfare is the U.S. military’s desire to equip UAS with facial recognition technology.

Progeny Systems is developing software that uses pictures of a target’s face or “soft-biometric” identifiers — such as age, gender, ethnicity, race, height, weight, etc. — to digitally construct and register a 3-D model of the person’s face, giving drones the ability to identify and track targets more than 750 feet away.

Another firm, Charles River Analytics, is building a human behaviour engine that uses intelligence data from “informants’ tips, drone footage and captured phone calls” to conduct “intent-based threat assessments of individuals and groups,” according to CBC.  In other words, drones will soon be able to detect and analyze human emotion.

This technology will allow the military to locate, hunt and kill its enemies more effectively and more precisely than ever before.

Thus, drones are not “the future of warfare,” nor are they the “stuff of science fiction” being used non-consequentially in far-off distant lands. Rather, they are lean, mean, killing machines being used right now in the War on Terror and, as shown, they are getting leaner, meaner and more deadly very quickly.