In just the past two years, it seems as if drones have suddenly popped up everywhere in the news. This technology has been around for more than 60 years, but has only recently captured international attention. This is primarily because of its increasing military use, but also because of concerns that such technology will be turned on a country's own citizens.
The average person thinks of a drone as a flying spy camera loitering overhead, waiting to spot a target and then possibly launch a weapon if the target is labelled as a threat. To be sure, this is one drone mission, typically as used by such organizations as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
However, this is by far the least common mission. The vast majority of military drone missions are data and image collection. Their ability to provide "situational awareness" to decision-makers on the ground is unparalleled in military operations, since drones can essentially conduct perch-and-stare missions in perpetuity. They provide an ability to watch events unfold, providing a measure of clarity in the fog of war.
That said, in the very near future, these intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions will be dwarfed by other uses in operations inconceivable to most military personnel today.
They will be used to enhance communications, patrol the skies, intercept incoming ballistic and short-range missiles, dogfight with other aircraft in the sky, even deliver supplies. (The U.S. Marine Corps presently has two robotic helicopters that have moved millions of pounds of goods and have been critical in Afghanistan drawdown efforts.)
One of the most dramatic future drone missions will be the effort to move the locus of control of close air support missions from pilots to operators on the ground.
In the past, operators on the ground under imminent threat would have to navigate a complicated command hierarchy to call for air support.
A soldier would have to relay co-ordinates to a forward air controller, who would then talk the pilot's eyes onto a target in an extremely hostile environment. These missions have always been very dangerous for pilots, who have to fly low and avoid multiple threats, as well as for those on the ground. It is a human-error rich environment, and it's not uncommon for the wrong co-ordinates to be relayed, resulting in the deaths of friendlies.
In the very near future, the FAC and the pilot will be replaced by a weaponized drone that will be commanded by a soldier on the ground with a smartphone. This idea of drone control from a hand-held device will become ubiquitous in many other missions as well.
The U.S. Marine Corps and Army are already working to develop robotic casualty and medical evacuation robotic helicopters that will be summoned from an app on a smartphone, capable of landing on mountaintops and in extremely bad weather – something human pilots cannot reliably do.
This technology is developing more rapidly than even the U.S. military can grasp. The military has been the source of drone innovation for the past 20 years, but with the recent explosion of commercial applications, I predict that over the next 20 years, the bulk of drone innovation will shift to the commercial market.
This truly disruptive technology will present not just new capabilities for militaries and governments worldwide, but also serious and unexpected challenges. If the technology becomes so cheap and accessible to the masses, what will this mean for terrorists and non-state actors? Security is already an issue, with GPS spoofing so easy that commercial off-the-shelf technology can be used to trick any aircraft reliant on GPS-guided technology (including commercial airlines) to a dummy destination.
One countertactic to GPS spoofing is the development of an even more autonomous drone that navigates with high precision without the use of any external sensors. Known as "terrain relative navigation," there is significant research happening across the globe in open forums to allow drones to find their way to their destination without any human input or close monitoring.
This research is critical, particularly for drone industries that want access to commercial airspace, but it will ultimately mean that any drone can have this capability. While the U.S. military is actively pursuing anti-drone defensive technologies, it's not keeping pace with the rapid advances happening outside the military sphere of influence.
Drones have flown the figurative military coop, and because of rapidly advancing commercial development, they will only become a more disruptive military technology in the future.
Mary (Missy) Cummings is an associate professor at Duke University and director of the MIT Humans and Automation Laboratory. She will be speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum, which will bring 300 participants together from around the world from Nov. 22 to 24.