Are drones already conquering the world? Hi-tech is exponentially and rapidly changing our lives.

We are observing the rise of AI technology in all sectors of society. A large number of industries, including both the military and commercial sectors, governments and recreational users are all adopting the technology of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — or drones. These can be controlled remotely by pilots or via pre-programmed paths or automated systems which enable them to fly autonomously. An UAV (drone), is controlled by someone on the ground and includes a communication system with the UAV. Essentially, it is a flying robot.

New drone technologies are powered by computer processors and artificial intelligence, and come in many different shapes and sizes. There are various pros and cons of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, with plenty of reasons to support their use. Among the advantages and applications of drone technology are:

  • AI powered drones can take risks and do manoeuvres which even the most skilled humans cannot;
  • drones can fly to areas that could be difficult or impossible to access;
  • drones are cheaper and easier to deploy than manned aircraft;
  • drones are excellent for taking high-quality aerial photographs and videos, and thereby collecting vast amounts of imaging data;
  • UAVs are used in search and rescue, shipping and delivery, geographic mapping, precision agriculture, weather forecasting, wildlife monitoring, fire fighting, traffic monitoring, real estate and construction, oil gas and mineral exploration, remotely carrying sensing equipment to assist with many kinds of functions and disaster relief, as well as for medical purposes. In addition, drones are used for day and night surveillance over vast areas for military operations, special forces, public safety entities and private security.

The specific benefits of drones for government use are in defence and security, public safety and telecommunications, and are an ideal solution for border security and humanitarian needs. There are also developments in the world of nano-drones, tiny devices which can infiltrate inaccessible places without being seen, and which could be the future of surveillance.

The future is also approaching fast in the field of urban air mobility where autonomous drones are so safely integrated into the air space above cities that they can routinely carry people as well as deliver goods. A two-seater autonomous passenger drone has been developed, with a complete suite of intelligent aerial logistics, for example the heavy-lift autonomous aerial vehicle ‘EHang 216’ for short-to-medium haul aerial transport. Unmanned aircraft systems for urban express deliveries have been tested in both China and Canada, and Amazon is developing drones to drop off purchases. This involves scanning the house of the consumer, which raises concerns about their privacy.

It is almost impossible to know what kind of data will be gathered by these flying robots snooping all over the world. Drones can fly with radio silence, so they do not easily draw attention to their presence. They may have a flight plan on board and execute their mission without needing any control from the ground. We need to be very concerned about any malevolent use of consumer drones, but even more concerned about military drones. Technological trends are dramatically transforming the legitimate applications of small drones, while simultaneously making them increasingly capable weapons in the hands of state actors, non-state actors and criminals.

The disadvantages of using drones include the military use of killing drones, armed drones, and video surveillance systems. Drones have been part of military forces worldwide for many years. However, today, the primary function of the military use of drones is for combat missions, research, development, supervision and as target decoys. There are drone machine guns, drones with missiles, autonomous killer drones and drones equipped with nail guns. There are also weaponised drones armed with shotguns that can fly indoors and identify targets using ‘machine vision.’

The future of drone warfare is terrifying. For example, killer drones can hunt down a human target without being told to and drones may already have attacked humans completely autonomously. A swarm of tiny robots lurking in the sky before dive-bombing could be a very real threat to ground troops. A single soldier might soon carry a kit of swarming nano-drones for urban operations. Swarms of a type of robot bee would rely on drones communicating with each other to achieve a mission. Large drones like the Predator and Reaper are equipped with high-tech surveillance gear and can provide support for soldiers on the ground, or even launch their own strikes.

Supporters of drones claim that they make war safer for civilians and soldiers by making it more technical and precise, but thousands of civilians have already been killed in American drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Africa. Controversial US drone campaigns against Al Qaeda, ISIS and terrorists have resulted in thousands of victims including innocent civilians and children. People in these countries live in fear of drone attacks because they have already been terrorised and traumatised by them. This has also had a significant mental and health impact on these populations. Testimonies of the civilians are shocking and upsetting, and they live in constant fear and terror of “death machines above.” Protesters in Hong Kong have used paint on their faces to confound government facial recognition efforts. And how could we know what happened if an unmanned aircraft received wrong or false instructions? My question is this: if these drones are as well programmed as we are led to believe they are, why would they kill innocent people?

Many countries have operational domestic UAVs and many more have imported armed drones or are developing programs. China is now the world’s largest armed drone exporter. America's drone fleet contains slow flying bombers and are used for counter insurgency, not for conventional war. There will be swarms of Black Hornet drones flying in support of U.S. soldiers. Black Hornets are extremely light, quiet and despite their very small size, can send live video feeds and HD images back to their operator, thus making them ideal for spying on enemy positions before engaging. At the moment, there are 12,000 of them flying in the service of defence and security forces worldwide. Other countries with armed drones include: Israel, the UK, Turkey, Canada, Iran and India. The first ‘UAV war’ was the first Gulf War in May 1991. There was at least one UAV airborne at all times during the Desert Storm battle. A huge amount of equipment and many analysts and commanders may well be involved in the so-called ‘kill chain’ in the use of operating military drones. The best military drones, combat drones, self landing drones and charging drones can now be controlled via the internet from many thousands of miles away.

An unmanned combat aerial vehicle, a combat drone, or battlefield UAV is used for aerial surveillance intelligence and inspection, target acquisition and carries aircraft ordinance such as missiles or bombs for drone strikes. There are drones that can recognise a person from 150m away, and are used for finding missing people. Then there are peeping drones which spy on citizens from outside their windows. Chinese engineers are creating a new drone for the inspection of the glass front of skyscrapers.

The most amazing drones in use today have the power to be either extremely frightening or incredibly useful. Throughout history there are many examples of inventions that are of great benefit to humanity, unfortunately it will be all too easy for drones to be used for malice when in the wrong hands. Drones can be used to spy on and harass people and the victims of such attacks have said that drones would fly above their homes, sometimes even peeping into their windows. Drones can be used to drop explosives, chemical and biological weapons. Traditional crimes, such as harassment, stalking, voyeurism and killing, may all be committed through the operation of a drone. Drones in the skies mean opportunities for people to do problematic things multiplies: from flying where they can threaten civilians and weaponising conventional aircraft, to invading people's privacy.

If we want to feel comfortable in a world with this invasive technology, and soon to be crowded skies filled with autonomous drones, we have to put safety first. A very strict set of rules are needed to manage the behaviour of possible bad actors and there must be restrictions on operating them in relation to ordinary citizens. The laws about owning and flying drones should also be very strict and clear. Drones are here to stay, for better or worse, but responsibility is everything and safety must come first.

At the moment, there are strategic systems designed to disrupt and neutralise UAVs. There are also anti-drone systems that provide detection, neutralisation and destruction of drones within a 50 km range. These work in all weather conditions and have a 3D multi-functional flight pass view. An extensive area of research and development is human-machine teaming, which could transform warfare on the ground and in the sea, as well as in the sky. Humanity has to have a global moratorium on killer robots, including unmanned aerial vehicles. Unfortunately, I doubt that this will happen. Killer robots are openly sold and deployed in the battlefield. China and the U.S. have both refused to ban development and production of fully autonomous weapons and are therefore providing cover for military drone makers. Studies show that this technology is dangerous and unwelcome. Current drone policy is nothing less than terrifying.

When looking into the sky and seeing a drone, we can no longer feel safe. This side of modern technology is very, very scary.