by Assad Bhuglah

A drone, also known as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is either controlled autonomously by computers in the drone, or under the remote control of a navigator on the ground. A human operator needs to tell the drone only two things before it sets off from the launch base: where it is and where its objective is. Although it is largely used within military applications, it is now gaining importance for non-military uses, such as firefighting, surveillance of pipelines, search and rescue, remote sensing and data collection.

The drone uses a camera pointed at the ground to navigate and pick landing spots. It can even identify people and other objects. It has the tremendous capacity of scene perception, mapping, planning, controlling and achieving its target in real-time. Drones are getting smaller and smarter and are able to navigate and identify targets without GPS or human operators. The micro-drones can run reconnaissance missions in indoor spaces by penetrating inside buildings and inspect suspicious objects without risk. Until now the drones have been operated from an airbase or from the bay of the ship. There has also been considerable progress in manufacturing hand-launched drones. There is now move to build a next-generation drone that will operate from aircraft carriers.

The use of drones has revolutionized warfare for the Western powers in the last fifteen years. Given that human air crew is not put at risk in this system of warfare, the US Forces have become increasingly reliant on drones, ranging from tiny aircraft operated by infantrymen to those that can fly hundreds or thousands of miles and stay aloft over 24 hours. The technology is evolving so rapidly that the drones can fly silent and stealthy at lightening speed and can weigh around 2 kgs with a wingspan of around 1.40 metres. It is capable of sending real-time colour or infrared imagery to ground controllers and to remote viewers day or night. It is used to identify target for strikes by ground forces or other aircraft. It is the weapon of choice for the US administration in pursuing targeted killings of leading al Qaeda militants as well as a favourite tool for long range spy flights over potentially unfriendly countries.

Until now the drone technology has largely been the exclusive purview of the US and its handful of allies. The US has systematically rejected requests from other nations, in particular UAE and Saudi Arabia, keen to acquire this technology. Washington exercises considerable control over even those drones sold to its allies. The US has been making unilateral use of the drones in firing on targets inside Pakistan’s borders and is adamant in not supplying its Pakistani ally with the weapon systems despite persistent requests from the Pakistani Army to share the technology.

In the wake of the growing international interest for drones, the US is worried that its attempt to prevent the spread of drone technology cannot hold for longer. Russia is hoping to fly its first prototype of domestically produced armed drone by 2014. China is trying to develop similar system by persuading Pakistan and Iran to provide all data of intelligence on the drones flying over or crashed on their territories.

Pakistan has been able to hack drone technology to the extent that it can now command transgressing drone to land in Pakistan. Experts in Pakistan have gained knowledge from the wreckage of Stealth helicopter secured from the Abbotabad episode relating to the killing of Osama Bin Laden and have developed insight about the programming and remote controlling of the CIA-operated drones. This critical technological insight led Pakistani experts to decode sensitive gadgetry of the drones. Now, the Pakistanis are building an attack-drone on home soil with foreign help. This drone will be called “Burraq”, a name inspired from the celestial winged creature that transported Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). It is also reported that some Pakistani experts are working hard to develop anti-drone technology, but they are fearful of their own personal and family security since they could become vulnerable target of assassination/harassment/abduction by spy agents.

Last year, one of the US drones, Martin Sentinel, crashed in Iran and was captured by the Tehran authorities. It is reported that Tehran has been able to build its own drone by gleaning insight from the captured US Sentinel. The homemade Iran drone, Mohajer 4, is tiny (about 3 metres) but non-stealthy with limited capability. The Mohajer 4 relies on control signals radioed from its launch base, unlike the US device which can be controlled via satellite facilities from anywhere in the world. It has been reported that the Syrian government has been using Iranian-built drones to track and target Free Syrian Army rebels in their strongholds.

Apprehensive of international competition forthcoming from emerging rivals in the drone sector, the US firms are pressing their government to move fast in relaxing the export controls and get the lion share of the lucrative market for drones which is growing by leaps and bounds. The US industry is contemplating in modifying the models of drones destined for export, possibly detaching the device that carries missiles and incapacitating it from being re-engineered to add new weapon. The US manufacturers envisage to retail the unarmed export drone at $3 – 4 million, much cheaper than most equivalent aircraft. It is expected that there will be some 30,000 drones in the airspace in five years. As the drone market is expected to double over the next ten years, a trade group for drone manufacturers and operators, based in the US, has recently published the industry’s first code of conduct in response to the growing privacy concerns. They pledge to “respect the privacy of individuals” and to abide to “safe, non-intrusive operation” of drones. A Pakistani firm, Integrated Dynamics, owned by Raja Sabri Khan, has already started manufacturing civilian drones for peaceful use. His firm which is based in the industrial zone of Karachi, supplies 12 to 18 drones per year at the cost of $10,000 to $15,000. His markets are primarily the Pakistani government and foreign exports for search and rescue operations and agricultural monitoring. In a futuristic urban society, clustered in high-rise buildings, drones are expected to play the role of errand-boys tasked to perform routine jobs for the residents of towers, such as fetching freshly baked bread, green salads, milk, vegetables, daily newspapers etc from the corner stores.

Mauritius does not have military ambitions, but it will definitely need drones to protect its economic interests over the large span of territorial water. It will have to enhance its capacity in patrolling the Ocean, rescuing ships, searching boats lost in open sea, tracking the pirates, gathering marine data and undertaking risky operations. Drones will help Mauritius to play an important role in future reconnaissance, search and rescue operations in the Indian Ocean and in monitoring the resources of its continental shelf. The drones will be an indispensable tool in our move towards an Oceanic State.