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Drone technology

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From delivering packages to tracking hurricanes, drones are increasingly part of our everyday lives. These unmanned aerial vehicles are not a passing fad as their potential uses continue to skyrocket. As drone technology becomes less expensive and more user-friendly, sales are predicted to soar.

In war-torn Syria, delivery drones drop food to starving villages. In Amsterdam, ambulance drones deploy defibrillators to patients within a 12 square kilometre zone inside of 60 seconds. In Sydney, surveillance drones spot sharks off beaches in order to protect swimmers and surfers from potential attack.

Farmers use drones to check fields for disease, spray pesticide and watch over livestock. Engineers use drones to inspect difficult to access infrastructure such as the underside of bridges and the tops of skyscrapers. Search teams use drones fitted with infrared technology to locate and rescue missing or injured persons by locking onto the heat signature.

Beyond the myriad civilian applications of drones, they are - of course - used by the military. Indeed, the first pilotless aircraft were built during World War I. Since that time, their growing high-tech sophistication has seen them come to prominence on modern battlefields. More and more countries are incorporating armed drones into their military arsenals.

Once relegated to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, combat drones are a new front-line in the war against terrorists and other enemies of the state. Indeed, remote-controlled combat is changing the character of war. A new breed of “pilot” - who never leaves the ground - uses a joystick to guide missile-carrying drones to their intended target thousands of kilometres away.

It’s said that a military drone has the characteristics of a sniper - silently killing before the target even knows it’s there. A drone can hover over its target for hours, transmit video feed of the scene below and then strike suddenly. A former CIA chief believes that drones represent “…the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict”.

Politicians are attracted to drone warfare as military personnel are safely ensconced behind flickering computer screens in control centres. Politicians are acutely aware that the public does not like to see young men and women sent overseas to fight in “needless” wars. Invariably, some combat personnel return home in coffins while others suffer physical and emotional injuries.

Drones allow governments to take out the bad guys without the need to put troops on the ground and in harm’s way. This, some argue, makes it much easier for political leaders to opt for quick-fix drone warfare in lieu of undertaking more difficult diplomatic solutions. Drones lower the threshold for using lethal force and this is seen as one of their real dangers.

Civilian drones have also come in for justifiable criticism. There are two broad areas of concern: privacy and safety. A drone fitted with a high-powered zoom lens can capture a person’s every move and this represents an infringement of privacy. In the words of one US Senator: “The thought of … drones buzzing overhead and constantly monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society”.

In addition to aerial trespassing, another drawback of drones relates to public safety. In the hands of the wrong people, drones can be used to commit crimes and even carry out terrorist attacks. Drones have been used for a range of nefarious purposes - by gangs to carry drugs, by burglars to “case” homes and by paedophiles to spy on children in playgrounds. In 2015, a teenager in the US strapped a semi-automatic handgun to a drone causing much controversy.

As time goes by, criminal elements within society will undoubtedly find further evil ways to use drones. However, a less sinister threat to public safety comes from a drone crash-landing. Some amateur drone operators have lost control of their remote-controlled flying machines with the most famous incident being the downing of a drone on the White House lawn. An Australian aviation software expert believes it’s only a matter of time before we have “death by drone”.

The biggest fear of most people is of a drone being hijacked. One way to take control of a drone is to interfere with the GPS system it uses to navigate. Hackers use a technique called “spoofing” whereby they send a signal which impersonates the signal a drone had been receiving, effectively relinquishing control of the drone to the hijacker. The good news is that military drones use encrypted frequencies of the GPS which, purportedly, cannot be hacked.

Like all technology, drones are not good or bad in and of themselves. It all comes down to how they are used and that is determined by the behaviour of the people who control them. For example, a drone’s aerial photographic capability can be used to capture breath-taking images of the landscape. Conversely, it can be used to take intrusive photos of a neighbour sunbaking topless in her private and secluded backyard.

Drones have the distinct ability to go where humans can’t and this is what makes them both exciting and scary. Only time will tell how the “Game of Drones” plays out for society. My sense is that they will prove to be more of a valuable invention than a destructive toy. One thing is clear: good or bad, they are here to stay. So, get ready for a sky full of drones.


Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas