Why drones deserve a second look

DIFFERENT HEAD COUNT: A drone being used in a wildlife census exercise at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.

DIFFERENT HEAD COUNT: A drone being used in a wildlife census exercise at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.

The successful and timely use of drones by India in its rescue missions in the flood-ravaged regions of Uttarakhand has challenged the dominant worldview that drones are merely indiscriminate weapons of war. Known as Unmanned Aerial Systems or Vehicles (UASs/UACs), weaponised drones with combat and surveillance capabilities have emerged as one of the most controversial weapons in the history of warfare. Their continuous use by the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Somalia, killing approximately 4,700 people, resulted in intense debates over the legality of these weapons, with critics providing arguments ranging from illegal, unethical and extrajudicial acts to violating the United Nation’s Charter, causing civilian damage, invading privacy, fuelling extremism and even terming their use as “war crimes.”


The increased momentum for advocating restrictions and bans on the use of drones recently became evident when the U.N. Human Rights Council called for a global freeze on the use of drones. On similar lines, the European Parliament report on “Human Rights Implications of the Usage of Drones” recommended the adoption of a binding international agreement to restrict the development, proliferation and use of drones.

Moreover in the U.S., 43 states have passed or are in the process of passing legislation to restrict the use of drones for surveillance and 17 states have banned the use of weaponised drones. Coupled with these government initiatives, a group of 33 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) launched the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in April 2013, calling for a pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production and use of drones.

In Uttarakhand

In the midst of these developments, the fact that the four drones deployed by India in the Uttarakhand region to screen inaccessible flood-devastated areas beyond Badrinath and Kedarnath, actually helped locate 190 survivors along with the bodies of victims which had been swept away, was an eye-opener on the unexploited potential of drones. Interestingly, this was not the first time that drones were used as vital technological tools — previous examples include uses in Japan after the devastating earthquake in 2011 to access damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and rescue operations in the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, drones are used in South Africa and Indonesia for the protection of endangered species and for mining-related 3D mapping of stockpiles and excavations in Australia. Drones can also prove to be most efficient for precision agriculture, delivering emergency aid, firefighting and monitoring weather patterns. Surprisingly, none of these uses and potential benefits have been adequately tapped or documented, and, as a result, drones are only associated with military power and warfare.

Given the humanitarian, technological and economic benefits of deploying drones, the classification of drones as essentially indiscriminate and illegal weapons prompting restrictions and bans on their use, is questionable and misleading. Yet, it is evident that international opinion is in favour of banning drones. This can be attributed to the confusion surrounding drones, which in turn can be explained by two factors.

A new technology

First, it is the resistance to new technological developments, which is a rather common phenomenon, for humans by nature do not adapt to technological changes easily. Till the time people do not become familiar with new technologies, a sense of resentment and confusion remain. Prominent examples include the invention of the internet as a military programme called Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) and the launch of the Global Positioning System (GPS). As drone technology is relatively new and its uses largely undocumented, it is only a matter of time before the resistance to and associated confusion with, drones will subside.

The second and more complicated factor is linked to the life-cycle of military innovations. Since the history of warfare, military innovations have exhibited a typical life-cycle, wherein a superpower develops a unique tool and uses it without codifying any rules and regulations, underestimating the capability of other states to copy its innovation. The situation becomes ambiguous and complex when other countries develop similar tools. In the case of drones, presently only the U.S. and the United Kingdom use drones in combat, while 76 other nations possess drone technology. It is only a question of limited time when countries possessing the technology, arm and operate weaponised drones for military combat purposes. Given the absence of internationally recognised guidelines and/or code of conduct for the use of armed drones, their aggressive use by the U.S. in the War on Terror as the only precedent, along with the rapid proliferation of the drone technology, the fear of unregulated and indiscriminate future use of drones looms large. This has resulted in advocating bans on drones.

Need for differentiation

However, professing a ban on drones is not the solution to the potential problem. In fact in addition to the fact that forgoing the tremendous humanitarian and technological potential and use of drones is unfeasible, any attempt to ban drones would also prove to be futile. For, given their military advantages, drones have emerged as indispensable weapons of choice for the U.S. Without the support of the U.S., an international ban on drones would be meaningless. What is essentially needed is a two-pronged strategy for the regulation of the use of drones comprising understanding and advocacy for their peaceful use and a code of conduct for their military use. Such a strategy would help prevent the proliferation and indiscriminate use of drones, while maximising the potential of this technology for peaceful purposes.

(Dr. Geetanjali Chopra is fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. E-mail: )

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2022 2:50:43 am |