Drones: The Science Fiction Technology of Tomorrow is Already Here Today

In The News Piece in Future Horizons, Fall 2015
Nov. 30, 2015

The Jordanian desert town of Fifa is just south of the Dead Sea and has been inhabited for over 5,000 years as demonstrated by a cemetery full of early Bronze Age ceramic pots. Hundreds of kilometers north, the Syrian town of al-Raqqah has been inhabited just as long, as is shown by the archaeological sites of Tall Zeidan and Tall al-Bi'a.

But above both ancient cities now fly a technology only recently from the world of science fiction, robotic planes known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or more popularly “drones.” In Fifa’s case, the drones are being flown by a team of archeologists from DePaul University in Chicago and the University of Connecticut to make maps of ancient sites, while the skies above Raqqa have seen drones flown by armed groups that range from the Syrian Air Force and ISIS to the US military to map out where there foes are in order to strike them. These diverse uses and users illustrate not just the proliferation of drones, but also the challenges that lie ahead for policymakers from this novel and powerful technology.

World of Drones

One can measure the proliferation of the technology of unmanned aerial systems in a number of ways. According to New America’s World of Drones database, some 80 countries have utilized unmanned systems in their military, with over 65 countries producing and exporting them. These, in turn, reflect at least 680 active drone development programs run by governments, companies and research institutes around the world.

But to perceive the technology as military in nature might miss an even greater shift: the technology has increasingly become a civilian one. A related New America project documented over 120 civilian use projects around the world, which is but a small fraction of the growth underway. Governments are using drones as military and law-enforcement surveillance tools, but also to fly into hurricanes and gather data to improve weather forecasts, or to count wild animals. Utilities are using drones to monitor oil pipelines, roads, and rail lines that extend over hundreds of miles. Community groups are using drones in Peru, Guyana and Indonesiato map out their lands in efforts to protect them from illegal encroachment. Real estate agents around the world are using them to take fetching snapshots; Hollywood filmmakers to get previously impossible shots. And a vibrant and growing hobbyist community is using drones for everything from filming their children’s football games to racing them in contests.

The use of drones for package delivery is potentially a major new market. If companies like Amazon can make the technology work economically, it will dwarf other applications like infrastructure inspection or filmmaking. The large number of delivery drones could fundamentally change what it is like to look up in the sky.

Part of what is driving this proliferation of users and uses is the many new sizes, shapes and forms of the technology. At one end of the spectrum are micro-drones like the DD-1000 Black Hornet, which weighs 18 grams and can fit into a pocket. At the other end are systems like China’s Divine Eagle drone, which carries 7 radars and reputedly has a 50 meter wingspan. These systems, in turn, can operate for anything from just a few minutes to 81 hours in the case of the 6.8kg Atlantiksolar, which set a new record for lightweight drones in July 2015.

Even as there is fervid experimentation in new designs, the more powerful shift may in the software that powers the systems. The Predator, for example, began as a highly improvised system in the 1990s, when engineers hacked together satellite links and flew it without GPS (meaning that its early video camera style sensor could see a target at a distance but not precisely identify where in the world it was). Today, the drone operates not just as part of a global communications architecture, but also carries powerful sensors like Gorgon Stare that can monitor a 100 km2 area with 368 cameras, each capturing 5 million pixels of imagery.

The biggest shift, however, may be in the ability of the systems to operate with less and less human control, better known as autonomy. Some of this is playing out in their actual flight operations. To maintain stability in flight, drones have to correct their motion without human input. Multi-rotor drones—small helicopters—must constantly vary the speed of the various rotors to compensate for small imbalances; small delta-wing drones made from foam have simple airframes that are stable only because their airelons are constantly in motion, keeping the wing level. If a particular drone didn’t have to share the air with others—other drones and manned aircraft—this capacity for autonomy would be enough to allow it to fly its route.

However, drones do have to share increasingly crowded airspace. A number of distinct technologies currently being developed are all focused on figuring out how to share effectively. One approach is to put more and more intelligence on the drone itself, so that it can autonomously sense and avoid obstacles. Another (the two are complementary) is to create a comprehensive traffic management system that communicates with drones and keeps track of their positions. Small drones will far outnumber manned aircraft, and cannot carry heavy transponders like those used by passenger jets. (The transponders are heavy for a drone that weighs 5 pounds, though not for a 747.) A traffic-management system for drones might use many of the same technologies that allow mobile telephones to effectively share radio spectrum.

The other aspect changing in autonomy is in the mission itself. To illustrate, the early Predator drone was almost completely operated from afar. New systems like the X-47 UCAS have not only been able to take off and land on their own from an aircraft carrier at sea, perhaps the toughest human pilot task, but also fly mission waypoints and refuel in midair. Ultimately, the plan for the plane is that it will be able to penetrate enemy airspace on its own and even react to air defenses. A British parallel, the Taranis, is even designed to identify and prosecute targets on its own.

This autonomy growth is important. A feedback loop in which more people use drones because the drones are more capable has taken hold. The increasing number of users then drives innovation. Military programs pursuing autonomy are now complemented by Silicon Valley startups after the same goal. This is important, as a new development in the 21st century is the power of the consumer market in driving progress in a way that the military market has proven unable to do in recent years. For example, the iPhone has capabilities, and ease of use, that far more expensive defense contractor communications programs were not able to provide for years. That same effect is now being seen in drones, from small systems all the way up to Facebook’s new Aquila drone. The size of a passenger jet and solar powered, it is designed to fly for 3 months at a time and beam down Internet access to remote areas.

Key Questions for Policy Makers

These are exciting times, but with them come a number of pressing, unresolved questions facing policymakers. With respect to armed conflict, drones are a revolutionary technology for warfare like the steam engine, machine gun, or computer. Drones raise questions that range from how units that use the technology should be trained, recruited, organized, and commanded to what is the best doctrine for battlefield effectiveness. But perhaps most controversial question has been the essential one: When is lethal force deemed morally and legally permissible? So far, only the US, Great Britain, Israel, and Pakistan have used armed drones in combat, but these have already raised a series of issues. Just to name a few: Does drone warfare make war more likely? How is the battlefield to be defined when drones expand the reach of governments? Must targeting decisions be made by human beings, or can algorithms be trusted to make life-and-death decisions under certain circumstances? As armed drones proliferate, these questions will become relevant to more and more governments and non-state actors.

Unarmed drones raise different, but no less pressing questions. As Professor Ryan Calo of the University of Washington has written, drones are a “privacy catalyst.” Many of the questions they raise may be similar to those other technologies, such as mobile phones, bring up—however, drones provoke a more pronounced public reaction because of their ability to provide wide area, close up, and persistent surveillance of any and all, not just agreed users. As American Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor has asked in the US vs. Jones case, does there exist “a reasonable societal expectation of privacy in the sum of one’s public movements”?

Drones also raise purely practical questions about air safety. Work by regulatory agencies over the last century has made air travel the safest form of mass transportation. And yet drones are now a potential disruptive force for this domain. Airliners are increasingly reporting drones flying in airspace where they are prohibited, as in a July 2015 incident at the Warsaw airport when the pilots of a Lufthansa regional jet said they nearly collided with a drone as they were coming into land. Drones reportedly got in the way of firefighting helicopters attempting to put out a wildfire near Los Angeles in July 2015. Of course, in turn, drones have also proven to be a powerful new tool for firefighting.

This confluence of more drones and more drone users is raising many policy questions. Who should be allowed to operate the systems and with what training and/or licensing? Ought airspace to be segregated? Will, as companies like Amazon have mooted, regulators create segregated bands of airspace dedicated to unmanned aircraft? Amazon has suggested that 200-400 feet above ground level be reserved for drones. Is that altitude high enough to protect the property rights to airspace of people whom Amazon is flying over? As drones acquire increasingly sophisticated detect and avoid and autonomy capabilities, how good must those capabilities be in comparison with manned aircraft? How can one even meaningfully evaluate the difference—and must drones of different sizes be held to the same standards?

The question of who should be allowed to the use the system is not just an issue of air safety and liability, but also one of security. These new capabilities often have incredibly low barriers to entry, which complicates efforts at effective regulation and efforts to limit the access of malevolent actors. For instance, non-state actors ranging from ISIS to criminal gangs in Russia, Mexico, and the US are already using drones.

So far their use has been for surveillance and smuggling, not for airstrikes. Nevertheless, as drones become easier and easier to use and more capable, governments may press for more stringent artificial limits on drones’ capabilities. So-called “geofencing”, in which drones are prevented with built-in mechanisms (of various degrees of efficacy and stringency) from flying into particular regions, will likely become more prevalent. For example, after one of its drones accidentally crashed into the White House lawn, DJI put out a mandatory firmware update that prevents its drones from flying within the Washington DC area. This again raises difficult questions about the balance between freedom and security.


The proliferation of drones is opening up a powerful new technology to the world. But this proliferation is also leading to new questions across areas ranging from military tactics to privacy laws to airspace deconfliction. Around the world, the sky is set to fill with robotic aircraft, and policymakers will have to sort out what those aircraft will be allowed to do, and how they will be permitted to do it.

About the Authors:

Konstantin Kakaes is a Fellow at New America, where he writes about the evolving uses of drones, including as editor of the book Drones and Aerial Observation: New Technologies for Property Rights, Human Rights, and Global Development.

Peter Warren Singer is Strategist at New America and author of multiple award winning books including Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century and Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.