What are Drones?

The term drone is popularly used to reference an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). There is no human pilot in the cockpit of a drone. Instead, either a team or an individual human operator controls the drone from a remote location. Although some drones are available for civilian use, the technology is most commonly associated with police and military use.

Military drones generally perform intelligence-gathering missions and combat operations. A single military drone is actually part of a larger unmanned aerial system. For example, a US military Predator system consists of four drones, a ground control station and operation and maintenance personnel. A team of three individuals, including a pilot, a sensor and weapons operator and a mission coordinator, controls a single drone. With the Reaper drone, there may be two pilots in separate locations who share flying duties during long-duration missions.

In the US military, drones are most frequently used for intelligence-gathering missions. Forces on the ground may request that operators send in a drone to monitor and identify targets or scan the battlefield for hidden dangers. The Predator drone can operate under the control of a human pilot or can fly autonomously along a programmed path. The Reaper is also capable of this type of flight. Other reconnaissance drones, like the RQ-11 Raven, require a human soldier to control the drone and conduct surveillance.

Drones are also capable of conducting combat operations. The Predator can carry up to a 450-pound payload, most commonly two Hellfire missiles. The much larger Reaper, however, can support 3,750 pounds of missiles, laser-guided bombs or other munitions. Though military officials contend that human operators will always determine whether to fire the weapons, drones in use by the US and British military are becoming increasingly autonomous. In July 2013, a US Navy X-47B drone managed to land on an aircraft carrier without human assistance.

Drones in the US

Drones often carry a bellicose and removed image, but they are not limited to unmanned Predator attacks in the global war on terror. The US Border Patrol utilizes Predator B remote drones for surveillance purposes and their use has been bolstered by increased border security measures. Other domestic uses include search and rescue operations, combating wildfires and dangerous police tactical operations.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed [PDF] in June 2013 that it has used drones domestically ten times. A 2012 comprehensive American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report on domestic drone use publicized that various police departments throughout the country have secured [PDF] government approval for drone use in limited capacities. Police deployments have stoked fears of "mission creep" with chilling effects of constant surveillance in a law enforcement embrace under the banner of crime reduction. The Fourth Amendment does not categorically prohibit warrantless aerial searches as the US Supreme Court ruled in California v. Ciraolo.

The hundreds of types of drones in operation span the gamut from Hummingbirds that weigh less than a single AA battery to massive aircraft the size of Boeing 737s. In July 2012, the US House Committee on Homeland Security encouraged Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to address the use of domestic drones, especially in relation to security and safety concerns. One such fear is that unmanned aerial vehicles flying in national air space will cause an increase in crashes. The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) predicts 7,500 civilian drones in use within the next five years and is anticipating the rapid increase by building six new test sites and approving the construction of 37 more.

The ACLU has documented the activity of state legislatures in responding to domestic drones, finding proposed legislation in 42 states, activity in 27 states and enactment in 6 states. Technological advancements have resulted in the increased use of drones domestically, which has lawmakers concerned that privacy laws are lagging far behind. Nearly all of the states' bills require law enforcement seeking to use drones to obtain a probable cause warrant, with exceptions in Arizona for drug crimes and human trafficking.

The FAA had forbidden the use of unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes until July 26, 2013, when it issued restricted certificates to an unnamed 'major energy company" in Alaska. In September 2012, President Obama signed the Modernization and Reform Act [PDF], allocating 63.4 billion dollars in part for the FAA to speed up its commercial approval process. Commercial entities have floated the idea of utilizing drones in the future. FedEx has expressed a desire for a commercial license in order to expedite their deliveries in emulation of large-scale military deliveries. Domino's Pizza posted a simulation video of a drone delivering pizzas to customers (DomiCopter), although the company confirmed no plans of pursuing drone delivery in the United States. A "Burrito Bomber" or "DomiCopter" may be in jest, but they demonstrate the vast potential of innovation in a field fraught with uncertainty.

US Drones Abroad

On September 30, 2011, the US government carried out a successful drone strike against four suspected al-Qaeda supporters, two of whom were US citizens. Two weeks later, the US launched another drone strike killing a teenage US citizen and six other civilians, including another teenager. These actions by the US government have sparked a debate on the legality and morality of drone strikes killing both US citizens and foreigners abroad.

Anwar Al-Aulaqi was a Yemeni-American born in New Mexico and an alleged senior talent recruiter and motivator involved in planning terrorist operations for al-Qaeda. A drone strike killed him and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, within two weeks of each other. Samir Khan, an American born in Saudi Arabia and the editor of al-Qaeda's English-language web magazine, was also killed in the drone strike. Opponents of strikes such as these argue that the US government is not allowing American citizens suspected or accused of being involved in terrorist plans or attacks their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution's due process clause.

In response to this accusation, the US government has claimed that the US citizens killed during these drone strikes were not specifically targeted, and thus, their due process rights were not violated. In addition, Attorney General Eric Holder stated three criteria in which the government uses to determine whether it is appropriate to carry out a drone strike against US citizens abroad:

the government must take special care and take into account all relevant constitutional considerations, the laws of war, and other law with respect to U.S. citizens — even those who are leading efforts to kill their fellow, innocent Americans. Such considerations allow for the use of lethal force in a foreign country against a [US] citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, in the following circumstances: (1) the [US] government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the [US]; (2) capture is not feasible; and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.
Critiques of these actions claim that these criteria are not legal bases for killing American citizens. They question the ability of these targeted individuals to surrender if they are not officially charged with a crime as well as the sufficiency of the evidence used to determine their association with terrorist actions. In an effort to be more transparent, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to show lawmakers its classified legal justification for drone strikes against US citizens abroad who are found to be terrorists.

Foreign Drones

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] in July 2012 that explored the rising international use of drones. A previous report [PDF] issued by the GAO in 2004 specified that that 41 countries owned drones, with 32 attempting to develop new drone technology. By 2012, the GAO declared that 76 countries owned drones. It also highlighted the potential for tension as US allies, specifically Israel, profit from the international drone market as the number and sophistication of drones themselves increase.

Drone technology is suitable for a wide variety of civilian applications. The GAO report indicated that countries such as Australia, Brazil and Japan use drones for law enforcement, border protection, crop dusting and environmental monitoring.Kenya, Namibia and Nepal are exploring the use of drones as poaching management tools. Drones could monitor more land area as well as identify the location and safety of tagged animals.

However, most drone technology is used for military applications. America remains at the forefront of drone technology development, but according to a US Congressional Research Service report [PDF] released in January 2013, most companies are prevented from exporting specific equipment by the US State Department. Exports from Israel and China fill the international market. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a report [PDF] in June 2013 indicating that China may be developing drone technology to assess the combat intentions of the US and Taiwan. Territory disputes between China and Japan have spurred drone technology development and acquisition. Experts fear that such technology will be used for combat, rather than surveillance.

Several countries have relaxed their national airspace laws in anticipation of the growing popularity of drones. The UK Civil Aviation Authority released its list of licensed drone operators in January 2013. In response to deep defense cuts across the European Union, the European Commission released a report [PDF] in July 2013 which emphasized the use of drones technology for security assistance.


3/15/2013: A federal appeals court judge reversed a ruling on CIA drone records .

10/23/2013: A Pakistan citizen sued the UK Foreign Office over intelligence sharing for US drone strikes.

2/7/2012: The ACLU sues the US government for information on targeted killings.

4/28/2010: A US House of Representatives subcommittee heard testimony regarding the legality of unmanned drone strikes.

3/17/2010: The ACLU files suit seeking information on US drone attacks

9/22/2006: 'Virtual fence' plans for US borders described by DHS include unmanned aerial surveillance.


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