Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Drones Group: Definition

1.    Defining Drones
Defining the term “drones” and their impact on contemporary global security issues proves challenging for several reasons. Firstly, there is limited consensus on what a drone actually is and what is needed to make a piece of technology a drone. What is it that the term “drone” refers to? What does it include, and what does it leave out? This in turn makes it difficult to ascertain and determine the many different types of drones and the differences between them. Should a drone be classified by its specifications, limitations or overall purpose? This definition will attempt to address the use and misuse of the term “drone” and provide a basic understanding of how different actors define drones. I will also address the different types of drones available, and their purpose in contemporary military combat in order to introduce the basic arguments surrounding their place in contemporary global security issues.

Is there a consensus definition we can use?
Broadly speaking, a “drone” commonly defined as;
“a pilotless aircraft operated by remote control”
That is, aircraft either controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground or increasingly, autonomously following a pre-programmed mission (Cole & Wright, 2010).

What is a “drone”?
The term “drone” has developed over the years to encompass an entire spectrum of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (from here referred to as UAVs), which are powered aerial vehicles that do not carry a human operator. UAVs have been referred to in many ways, including RPV (remotely piloted vehicle), robot plane, and pilotless aircraft (Bolkom & Bone, 2003). Whilst the term “drone” has come to be synonymous with unmanned aircraft, it can also be used to refer to ships and land vehicles that are designed or outfitted as drones. However, the term does not include underwater vessels, which are usually referred to as submersibles.

How have different actors defined Drones?
Before presenting our definition on the term “drone” and what is encompasses, it is important to address how other actors have defined the term.
The Department of Defense (DOD) defines a drone using 5 main classifications;
1.    A powered, aerial vehicles that do not carry a human operator
2.    Must use aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift
3.    Can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely
4.    Can be expendable or recoverable
5.    Can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.

Our definition:
For the purposes of our analysis, we can deduce that in order for a vehicle to be called a “drone”, it must encompass the following things;
1.    Be capable of operating without an internal pilot
2.    Be tethered to a radio control link
3.    Posses the ability to be preprogrammed for both flight and payload operations prior to launch
4.    Posses the capability of returning to launcher
This definition is useful for several reasons. Firstly, it establishes that the vehicle must be capable of operating without an internal pilot. Unlike cruise missiles, which have to be laboriously prepared and launched over a period of hours, “drones provide a persistent presence over the battlefield [and are] capable of gathering their own intelligence” (Grossman, 2013; p1), providing an instantaneous response. Secondly, this definition builds on that provided by the DOD to exclude any vehicle that is not tethered to a radio control link. The second aspect of the definition removes any aerial vehicles that rely solely on aerodynamic lift, such as gliders, to stay airborne. The third aspect of this definition distinguishes drones from remotely-controlled aircraft, such as small hobby planes, as it requires the vehicle to be capable of operating out of line of sight and at altitudes where a person on the ground cannot readily see them.  The reason why our definition includes a drones capability of returning to the launcher is to distinguish UAVs from missiles. Whilst it can be argued that a cruise missile be considered a UAV, this definition ensures that it is treated separately on the basis that the vehicle is the weapon and is not designed to return to the launcher or posses the capability to be re-used.

2.    Types of Drones
While there are dozens of different types of drones, they can be simply separated into two categories: those that are used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, and those that are armed with weapons (Cole & Wright 2010). Drones can range in size from an insect to that of a commercial airliner.
The DOD currently possesses five major UAVs; the Air Force’s Predator and Global Hawk, the Navy and Marine Corps’s Pioneer and the Army’s Hunter and Shadow (Bone and Bolkcom, 2003). One of the most popular drones used in the American UAV fleet is the Predator drone; approximately 27 feet- long and capable of flying for 24 hours at up to 26,000 feet. These larger drones are often armed with Hellfire missiles and are used to conduct strikes, in addition to higher altitude reconnaissance. The smaller drones of the American UAV fleet are primarily used for reconnaissance and target acquisition. Recent examples of the use of drones include arming UAVs (in particular the Predator and Hunter drone type) to extend the eyes of submarines and connecting UAVs to strike aircraft and armed helicopters as a way to improve targeting. These UAV range in cost from a few thousand dollars to tens of millions of dollars.

Drone Equipment:
Depending on its purpose, a drone can be equipped with armament, radar, video cameras, lasers, or sensors for chemical or biological weapons. Guidance of the drone can originate from an airplane, a ship, a ground station, or a satellite link. Tests completed by NASA and the U.S. Defense Department in California's Mojave Desert have shown that small UAV’s carry the technology “to automatically protect themselves from ground collisions using terrain data and control software stored onboard” (Norris 2010: p1) with just the use of a smartphone. The automatic ground collision avoidance system (Auto-GCAS) uses precise navigation, performance and digital terrain data in the phone to constantly monitor the UAV’s position relative to obstacles around it  (Norris 2010; p1).

Actors involved:
Typically, there are three actors needed for the successful use of a drone.
1.    A “ground crew” – an actor who launches the drone from the conflict zone
2.    A “controller” – the actor responsible for ‘flying’ the drone. This can sometimes require the use of a another separate actor responsible for operating and monitoring any auxiliary cameras and sensors
3.    A “contact” actor – responsible for staying in contact and relaying information to the “customers”, such as ground troops and commanders in the war zone
For example, in both Afghanistan and Iraq the British and US Reaper and Predator drones are physically located in the conflict zone and operated via satellite from Nellis and Creech USAF base outside Las Vegas, Nevada. During the conflict, ground crews launched drones from the conflict site and then handed over operation of the vehicle to controllers at video screens in specially designed trailers in the Nevada desert (Norris, 2012).

3.    Use of Drones
UAVs no longer only perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Their roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack (EA), strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defense, network communications relay and combat search and rescue. In my opinion, the 6 main uses of Drones can be broken down as follows;

1.     Target and decoy - providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
2.     Reconnaissance - providing battlefield intelligence
3.     Combat - providing attack capability for high-risk missions
4.     Research and development - used to further develop UAV technologies to be integrated into field deployed UAV aircraft
5.     Civil and Commercial UAVs - UAVs specifically designed for civil and commercial applications.

Whilst the use of drones is predominantly for military applications, they are also being used in a small but growing number of civil applications, such as policing, firefighting, and nonmilitary security work. A year ago Obama ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “expedite the process of integrating UAVs into civilian airspace” (Grossman, 2013), There are many possible uses of UAVs within society. For example, police departments could use them to study crime scenes to collect recent evidence in a more accurate and descriptive manner than is possible with current investigative technology.

The Use of Drones in The USA
The US has two separate ‘squadron’ of armed drones; one programmed controlled by the US Air Force and one controlled by the CIA (Cole and Wright 2010).  The use of drones in the US military has dramatically increased in recent times. Ten years ago the Pentagon had about 50 drones in its fleet; currently it has some 7,500. More than a third of the aircraft in the Air Force's fleet are now unmanned. The use of drones by the United States Air Force (USAF) has lead to “an increase in the number of combat air patrols it can fly by 600 percent over the past six years” (Cole and Wright, 2010). The work of Cole & Wright (2010) suggests that at any time there are “at least 36 American armed UAVS over Afghanistan and Iraq”.

Why Use Drones?
From a logical standpoint, the regulated use of Drones in the military is useful for several reasons;
·      Unlike cruise missiles, which have to be laboriously targeted and prepped for launch over a period of hours, drones can be made readily available quickly
·      Drones are can present a persistent presence over the battlefield, gathering their own intelligence and then providing an instantaneous response.
·      They represent a revolution in the idea of what combat is: enables force to be exerted instantly
·      Prevents the risk of incurring American casualties
·      Transcends the usual boundaries of geography


Bolkcom, C. & Bone, E. (2003), ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress’, Congressional Research Service: The Library of Congress, OC: RL31872, April 25 2003

Cole, C. & Wright J. (2010), ‘What are Drones?’, Peace News, Jan. 2010, pp. 1-2

Grossman, L. (2013), ‘Drone Home’, Time Magazine, Feb. 11 2013, pp. 1-2

Department of Justice, ‘Department of Justice White Paper: Lawfulness of a Lethal operation Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force’

Morey, J. (2012), ‘Drone Strikes and the Definition of War’, JedMorey.com, November 28th, pp. 1-2

Norris, G. (2012), ‘Wake-up Call’, Aviation Week & Space Technology, vol. 174, edn. 28, p. 39

Unknown authors, (2011), ‘The UAV’, theuav.com

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems Association, (2013), ‘UAV or UAS’, uavs.org

Further Readings

Living Under Drones
Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic

Drone Warfare and the Law of Armed Conflict
Discusses the use of drones to target and kill enemies in current armed conflicts

UAV Types
Information and gallery of pictures on the different types of Drones

The Rise of Drones
A very informative video on the use of drones

UAV Requirements and Design Consideration
This Turkish source outlines UAV requirements and specifications based on battlefield experience


  1. You have listed several reasons why the military uses drones but what about civilians and NGO's? I came across this article a couple days ago about PETA using drones to target hunter and poaching.


    1. Hi Greg, Thank you for your question and interesting article on non-military use of drones.
      As I mention in the blog post, whilst the use of drones is predominantly for military applications, they are increasingly being used in a small but growing number of civil applications by both government and non-government agencies. This increase in the use of "civilian" drones came following the Obama administrations request for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “expedite the process of integrating UAVs into civilian airspace” (Grossman, 2013). As you suggest, there are many possible uses of UAVs within society. For example, police departments have used them to study crime scenes to collect recent evidence in a more accurate and descriptive manner than would be possible with previous investigative technology.
      The use of drones by civilians today remains, in my opinion, a "grey area" within the law. As the article you posted suggests, there is a need for regulation over the sale and use of drones to ensure appropriate use. Currently within the United States "people can fly model aircraft without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration if they keep the drone in line of sight, lower than 400 feet above ground and away from airports and air traffic" (Russell, "PETA eyes drones to watch hunters, farmers', 04,12,13). All other types of unmanned aircraft systems require FAA approval.

  2. You mention that drones can be made more quickly than cruise missiles. To that end, are drones ultimately a better economic option? With the current economic state of the country, and the cutbacks set in place for the U.S., do you see the U.S. scaling back the drone program to accommodate the lack of funds or increasing it to compensate for other cut areas?

    1. Julia, thank you for your question.
      I think there may have been a misunderstanding in my comparison of the launch preparation time between drones and cruise missiles.
      "Unlike cruise missiles, which have to be laboriously targeted and prepped for launch over a period of hours, drones can be made readily available quickly"
      To clarify, one of the most commonly publicised advantages of drones is that they can be quickly prepared for launch from almost any where is the world (depending on its individual capabilities). This is advantageous as drones are capable of having a faster, more accurate response time to conflict situation as they do not require the preparation time that a cruise missile would.
      Drones can range in cost from around $250 USD for a civilian hobby drone, to approximately $4 million USD for a single MQ-1 Predator drone. However, as mentioned above, the cost of military UAVs depends heavily on the individual type of drone and the type of equipment it carries. While the cost of most military drones appears excessive, there ability to perform many functions at once makes them the 'better economic option'. The rumoured increased spending by the Department of Defence on improving drone technology suggests that drones will remain a priority for the United States in the future. From a security perspective, I believe the US will continue to fund the advancement of drone technology to maintain its 'upper hand' within the global community. As former CIA Director Leon Panetta famously said, drones are currently "the only game in town".

  3. You have listed some uses of drones. Do you think there are ways drones could be used in a civilian context?

    1. Hi Meghan, thank you for your question.
      As I mention in the blog, while drones are predominantly used for military applications, there has been a recent increase in their use for civilian applications; such as policing, firefighting, and nonmilitary security work.
      In my opinion, we are yet to explore the many possible uses of UAVs within society.
      The manufacture of civil UAVs, specifically designed for civil and commercial applications, have the potential to revolutionise current technology practices. For example, police departments could use them to study crime scenes to collect recent evidence in a more accurate and descriptive manner than is possible with current investigative technology.
      They have also been trialled in the past as search and rescue "eyes-in-the-sky" as a means of tracking down a fleeing criminal.

      However it is obvious that this form of technology needs to be heavily regulated to ensure its appropriate use in a civilian context. Currently it is legal to fly a civilian drone within the United States (without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)) as long as the drone is kept within line of sight, lower than 400 feet above ground and away from airports and air traffic. The FAA is currently deregulating civilian airspace to allow surveillance drones a greater physical presence in U.S. cities.
      However, privacy advocates argue that it's far too easy for the government, corporations and private individuals to to use drones as a form of surveillance. Many lawmakers are pushing for greater control over when and how surveillance drones are used and several law enforcement agencies are starting their own drone programs. According to Mike Wehner ('Civilian drone use on the horizon', Feb 27, 2012), there are active drone programs in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Washington. Overall I think that as long as there is effective regulation, the use of drones in a civilian context has many potential benefits.

  4. You briefly mention that the term drone could apply to a land-based vehicle or a ship out-fitted as a drone. Does the military or the CIA actively use these vehicles? And if so, why not expand their official definition from just aerial drones?

  5. Currently Lockheed Martin is developing a drone that is capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. Throughout your blogpost you've mentioned the numerous functions drones already have as well as their rapidly growing use by the U.S. military. Especially as new jets such as the F-35 become more costly to produce and drones can perform more and more of the functions that a human operated plane can, is it possible that drones could phase out traditional fighter jets?

  6. After your presentation, there was some discussion about whether or not the inability of targeted populations to retaliate against the bomber (primarily the US) constituted a legal, moral, or other concern. You mention in your piece the fact that drones "prevents the risk of incurring American casualties." Do you think the previously mentioned concern should be weighed against this positive aspect of drone use when determining why or why not to use them?

  7. Hey Jenny Sue,
    I think the inability of the targeted populations to recognise the source of a drone attack does constitute a legal and moral concern. The use of drones challenges the limits of acceptable wartime conduct, jus in bello, and suggests the need for both domestic and international regulations. As "unmanned" vehicles, drones do not require the presence of soldiers in conflict zones and thus minimise the risk of casualties. In my opinion, these concerns must be weighed against the positive aspect of drones to ensure that the future use of drones is both ethical and moral.

    · Prevents the risk of incurring American casualties

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