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Not a day goes by without another spectacular story about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones: Amazon announces it will deliver packages via drones, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worries that drones given as holiday gifts will become safety hazards as they take to the skies, the New Zealand government releases a request for proposals to use drones to combat pests and disease on the ground, and Google renames itself Alphabet, whose marquee innovation is its future drone delivery service. These stories have a way of captivating the mind. They bring together the world of science fiction and 21st-century consumer culture that values instant gratification and personalized service. Yet the commonplace, and now barely newsworthy, stories remain about American drones killing suspected militants in Pakistan.
Drones, both for the civilian and military applications, are clearly here to stay. The aerospace analyst Teal Group projects that spending on unmanned systems and sensors will increase 73% in the next decade, totaling $89 billion.1 Much of that increase is on the military side, where the United States but increasingly also other countries are investing in drones. Drones are also in high demand by civilians with both recreational and commercial interests. By some estimates, the number of drones in US airspace could reach 30,000 by 2020.2 Those drones will operate in the service of law enforcement, border patrol, real estate photography, crop inspections, and other tasks that are too "dirty, dull, or dangerous" for humans yet well-suited to drones.
The increased use of drones raises a number of questions and concerns. First, how does the proliferation of military drones both within and across countries affect international and regional security? President Obama acknowledged in 2013 that being able to deploy drones with little scrutiny or risk caused him to see drones as a "cure-all" for terrorism, with the United States using drones more often than it would alternatives such as manned aircraft or ground troops. This tendency to rely on drones at times and in ways that actors would not otherwise use force has enormous and troublesome implications if replicated in countries that acquire armed drones in the future, in other words, each of these countries could come to see drones as the cure-all to their domestic or regional security challenges. This is especially true in regions such as East Asia and the Middle East, which are already susceptible to conflict. The proliferation of armed drones also has potentially destabilizing consequences in a domestic context where states might be more inclined to use drones as a low-risk option against insurgents, for example in China, Turkey, or Russia.
Second, can the use of nonmilitary drones including for recreational purposes increase without compromising safety? The FAA reports about 25 incidents per month in which drones have flown too close to manned aircraft or airports.3 There have been a number of well-publicized incidents involving hobbyist drones meddling with wildfire prevention efforts, flying around major sporting events, or landing near heads of state. Federal regulations may seek to limit such activities in part by requiring that individuals register their drones, or companies themselves may try to limit where individuals can fly drones through "geofencing" software, but enforcement promises to be a challenge.
Third, does the increased use of drones raise potential privacy concerns? Americans express reservations related to recreational use of drones but especially about the use of drones for law enforcement. As of 2013, 30 states had initiated legislation against drones. As one state senator in Virginia argued, "I think it's important to get ahead on issues like these before they get out of control ... we can imagine the problems that drones will bring in the future." He proposed a bill that would put a moratorium on drones because of potential violations of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, the right against "unlawful search and seizure." It was the first anti-drone legislation passed in the country.4
Cities and countries have followed suit. Seattle's Police Department had acquired two drones only to have them decommissioned and transferred to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) without having been used. The LAPD, in turn, then faced public outcry over the question of how the drones would be used and put a moratorium on their use. Some countries have outlawed domestic drones altogether. The FAA still bans commercial drones in national airspace, though it has granted more than a number of exemptions and is reviewing hundreds more as of the end of 2014. This pattern in itself creates the prospect of writing policy through a series of exemptions, which would reflect a certain ad hocness rather than purposeful design.
In order to understand the implications of drones as their uses change, the book begins by looking at their roots in military use. It then surveys commercial use and the regulation of drones both domestically and internationally. As Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, describes drones in the context of agriculture, "what started as a military technology may end up better known as a green- tech tool, and our kids will grow up used to flying robots buzzing over farms like tiny crop dusters."5 While commercial applications seem to be growing, they still represent only a small percentage of the market, about 11% of that spending, compared to 89% of the spending on military drones. While the proportion of investment in civilian drones is expected to reach 14% within a decade, it is still a small fraction compared to that spent on military drones.6
Consistent with the investment of resources over time, the book focuses its analysis on the military use of drones. However, it also looks into the burgeoning uses of drones for civilian purposes, including individual industries and the turn to recreational use. During the 2014 holiday season, "drone" joined "house," "car," and "stock" in populating the top of Google's auto-fill list when someone typed, "I want to buy." Or as The Verge put it, "there's no cooler toy right now than a drone."7 For as little as $100, individuals can increasingly buy small drones such as the minidrone made by Parrot, a French company whose sales have increased 300% per year since 2012. While recreational drones flown in the United States are still required to fly within the line of sight and no higher than 400 ft., they are increasingly popular as "the functional descendent of the thoroughly nerdy RC plane; [with] an injection of edginess due to their big brothers' militaristic misdeeds."8 The same is true abroad. Even the Pope now has a yellow and white drone, the colors of the Vatican flag, with the papal emblem emblazoned on it. As the school that gave Pope Francis the drone noted in a statement, the drone represents "the values of technology in the service of man," noting the helpful applications for earthquake relief after the big Nepal earthquake.9
With the increased demand for drones has come increased attentiveness toward their regulation. The question of how to regulate drones is a nettlesome one, given the vast range of applications, both recreational and commercial, and the growing volume of each. But the status quo is also problematic, as made manifest by the January 2015 incident in which a hobby drone, operated by an inebriated government worker, landed on the lawn of the White House. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the new world of drones has been referred to as the "wild west" when it comes to regulations on their use, referring to the growing number of such incidents, uncertainty about how to balance safety with the seemingly inevitable spread of drones, and ability to enforce any existing and future legislation.10
Beyond starting with military drones and turning to commercial drones later in the book, the book largely focuses its lens on the United States before turning to other countries. Although Israel helped initiate and deploy many of the unmanned military technologies in the 1980s, it has been the United States that has represented more than half of the world's research and development and procurement costs until now, according to the Teal Group's forecast. The United States accounts for 62% of worldwide spending on research and development and 55% of procurement. As the Congressional Research Service concludes, "the Department of Defense Remains the Key Driver" of drones because of its development and acquisitions related to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, "and other countries where terrorist groups were or are active."11 This dominance is projected to change in the coming years as the rest of the world increases its spending, especially in procurement, but the United States and in particular the United States military represent a useful starting point in terms of understanding drones in general.12
Nonetheless, the next chapter in the story about drones is about proliferation to countries other than the United States. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of countries with drones went from 41 to 76. The increase consisted primarily of tactical drones that have limited range and are nonlethal, but a number of countries have observed the US experience with combat drones and sought to acquire them as well. As President Obama himself acknowledged in a major speech about drones in May 2013, "the very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites."13 The ability to use force at no risk to one's own troops while skirting domestic criticism is clearly attractive to states, evidenced by the growing proliferation of armed drones. Russia reports that its development of a combat UAV, which it plans to begin testing in 2017, is meant to emulate the US drones that have conducted strikes in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Russia now has a base near Moscow dedicated to the training of drone operators.14 Israel and the United Kingdom have already used drones in combat; Iran and China are thought to have armed drones; and others such as Pakistan, India, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are trying to acquire armed drones as well.
Lastly, the book focuses most on aerial systems as opposed to unmanned sea and ground vehicles. Almost all of the development having to do with drones has taken place on the aerial side. In the United States military, for example, more than 90% of the research and development and procurement has been allocated for aerial systems, and that trend is projected to continue into the foreseeable future. In 2014, air systems funding amounted to $3.8 billion compared to just $13 million for ground and $330 million for maritime, with air making up the lion's share of the $4.12 billion total. The trends are consistently tilted toward aerial systems through 2018.15 While ground and maritime systems receive treatment later in the book, the aerial drone is its primary focus.
In short, the book covers quite a bit of territory, but a survey of every country, every technology, and every modality is beyond its reach. Nonetheless, it seeks to highlight the most prominent developments of the past, while looking at likely or promising developments in the future. While that journey is sometimes technical, as it travels from avionics to political science, its other aim is to reach an audience that reads the news headlines about drones on a daily basis and wants to learn more.