By Dr Anna Jackman
The drone has made its mark as a symbol of contemporary warfare, emerging as a central tool in the arsenal of a growing number of global military forces. Whilst platforms such as the MQ-9 Reaper continue to encircle growing geographic reaches, the understanding of the drone as an asymmetric adversary is also shifting. After all, drones take many shapes, sizes and forms. Following the military-led development of drones designed for target practice, surveillance, and targeted strikes; camera-laden drones have been have been miniaturised and alternatively envisioned, developed, and deployed for use in a growing range of civilian and commercial applications and pursuits.
Readily available from a range of online outfits, an estimated 200,000 consumer drones are now sold per month globally. As a recent survey noted, such platforms can “travel up to 35 mph, cost between £40 and £1,200, and can drive for 15 to 90 minutes,” albeit over “relatively short distances” and with “limited payloads.” As these platforms continue to become more popular, accessible, and affordable, their capabilities are also increasing. Higher-end consumer models now include, for example, ‘intelligent flight modes’ (featuring tracking and circling features) and live streaming functionalities.
The capabilities and price point of such commercially-available drones has not gone unnoticed to those outside of the hobbyist world, with several global military forces relocating such platforms to the battlefield in order to provide soldiers with man-portable ‘over the hill’ surveillance capability. Whilst the US Army and Navy have recently discontinued their usage of DJI’s consumer drones (citing “cyber vulnerabilities”), the idea of the consumer drone as a repurposed battlefield tool continues to unfold down different paths. A range of terrorist groups and non-state actors have, for example, experimented with, and employed, consumer drones as tools through which to capture imagery and direct munitions. Most notably, drones capable of carrying small loads have been weaponized by these groups: equipped with makeshift explosives in order to target and inflict harm from a distance.
Whilst not the first to envision the weaponised drone, ISIS have spearheaded its usage. From the development of small ‘factories’ in which drones are modified and adapted, to the formation of formal ‘drone units’, it has been observed that the group is attempting to “build their own makeshift Air Force.” As ISIS continue their foray into the unmanned world, the tempo and complexity of their drone usage continues to increase. Commercially available drones, then, are fast becoming a re-purposed “fixture” of the battlefield.
In light of such developments, growing concerns have been raised about the portability and importation of weaponised commercially-available drones into non-battlefield domestic spheres, with former Prime Minister David Cameron providing just one example of the vocalisation of fears of a “dirty bomb” style attack. As Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the study of the drone noted, ISIS has demonstrated “it has the knowledge” to weaponise the drone, and a domestic attack is “do-able” through their employment of consumer drones on the battlefield.
Efforts to mitigate this occurrence are of course ongoing, with a range of anti-drone counter-measure technologies being developed and installed at key sites. Whilst sites are variously adapting to the drone-as-threat, the very idea and acceptability of a drone overhead is also changing. Across the United States, it has been reported that “at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency units” across 43 states “have acquired drones in the past several years.” This embrace has been echoed in the United Kingdom, with the first dedicated drone unit launched by Devon and Cornwall Police. Whilst itself notable, the growing domestic embrace of the drone has by no means been limited to the emergency services sector. Alongside a growing range of industrial and commercial applications, drones are increasingly appearing in our skies – as recreational tools, as well as a means to protest, or to conduct criminal activity. The drone is consequently bound to simultaneous, and often conflicting, understandings of opportunity and threat: its utility tied to its inverse potential for exploitation.
This duality seems set to continue in the future. Whether it’s through the envisioning of autonomous drone delivery networks, or shoulder-mounted drones providing “enhanced support for police during routine traffic stops”, our (future) skies and civilian spaces are variously anticipated and poised as the drone’s terrain. Discussions of the changing geographies and malleable functionalities of the drone should then be emplaced within this unfolding landscape, following the sentiment that while “drones may now still be a rare sight in the sky, it is expected that within a few years there will be plenty of drones overhead. The drone is anticipated to be many things, bound to many applications. In the case of the commercially-available drone, further questions can be raised of the technology and its changing geographies. These may span its status as ‘unmanned’, its malleable capabilities, its movements between military and civil terrain, its occupation of aerial spaces, and its simultaneously and disjointed position as both asset and potential threat.
Dr Anna Jackman has recently joined Royal Holloway as a Lecturer in Political Geography. She is on Twitter @ahjackman