December 29, 2013

  People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 52

December 29,






are all too familiar,
and unpleasantly so, with the advent of military drones and
their extensive use
particularly by the US
theatres all over the world and especially, although not
exclusively, in
counter-terrorism operations in Yemen,
various parts of
West Asia and Africa, the Philippines
and, or course, in Afghanistan
and the undeclared war in north-west Pakistan.
Whatever be the legal and
ethical issues surrounding these obvious transgressions of
sovereignty and
airspace of other countries, the use of military drones is
expanding rapidly
with France and the UK now using them quite regularly, and
Israel doing brisk
business given its sound basic technology, early entrant
advantage and
relatively lower cost drones.


we are perhaps less
familiar with a less visible but nevertheless swiftly
building momentum of
altogether different kinds of drones, whose use in a variety
of civilian, more
day-to-day and perhaps even mundane contexts, are set to
make their presence
felt dramatically over the next few years.


are advised to
clear their minds of pre-conceptions. Even the word drone
can be misleading if
the term is associated only with military, conventionally
sized armed aircraft.
The more correct term would be Remotely Piloted Aerial
Vehicle (RPAV). As we
will see below, these now come in all sizes and shapes,
especially the ones we
will be mostly discussing in this article, ranging from
full-size fixed wing
craft to tiny palm-sized frames powered by helicopter-type
motors. But for
convenience, and for catchiness, let us call them drones!    


who were watching
live telecasts of the massive street protests in the Thai
capital Bangkok
a fortnight back
may have noted that a BBC reporter, quickly followed by
those from other
agencies, was broadcasting a live report accompanied by
aerial video coverage
of the massive gatherings (see
The video was being shot not from helicopter or a camera
planted on some
rooftop, but by a small remotely controlled camera-equipped
drone which the
reporter had borrowed from a Thai protestor, who was among
demonstrators using this technology to see what was
happening in different
parts of that enormous crowd which they could not otherwise
reach due to
congestion, teargas or even stray bullets. Press-persons too
were finding it
challenging to be physically present in different location,
especially since there
had been several displays of anti-press hostility by
sections of anti-government


week earlier on December
2, Jeff Bezos, CEO of, unveiled a surprise on
live TV in the US
where he even offered to give half his considerable fortune
to any of the
reporters present if they could guess what he was about to
reveal. Bezos then
showed them a range of small drones and a demonstration of a
home delivery system
using them. Of course, actual roll-out may take several
years, but most basics
are in place.


and other applications
now await further developments in technology, economics,
logistical synergies
with other ways of doing similar tasks and regulatory
frameworks governing use
of airspace.




as the US
war in Afghanistan
appears to be winding
down, and although there appears to be a substantial and
growing market for
military drones, there is also a proliferation of
manufacturers. Partly with
this in mind, and also of course with an eye on future
diversification, drone
manufacturers are pushing the envelope and enlarging the
scope of drone use
through a wide range of applications, while simultaneously
lobbying for new
regulations that would accommodate routine rather than
exceptional use of
drones in everyday civilian contexts.


manufacturers in particular
are expecting fast expansion of opportunities in the
domestic market. After
intense lobbying by the industry, President Obama signed a
new law in February
2012 directing the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which
regulates use of US airspace,
allow extensive use of drones for all sorts of civilian and
commercial purposes.
That is a huge move away in a very short time, considering
that even in 2007,
the FAA was warning commercial users not to use drones for
purposes, that is to say only toy drones usually flown over
parks were
tolerated. We will return to the subject of regulation


industry estimates,
for example from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle
Systems International, put
the current demand for non-military drones at around US$ 6
billion (Rs 3,600
crores) and expect this to easily double over the next five


stores are of course
already filled with drones that cost as little as 200
dollars, or even less for
simpler models, which can be easily controlled and can
perform quality
aerobatics in experienced hands. But toys are just kids’
stuff, and many
serious demands for drones of all sizes have emerged in
recent times, both for
commercial and developmental applications.


potential use that has
grabbed headlines recently is the home delivery system
promised by Amazon. The
idea is that orders for small goods received over the
internet by Amazon would
be delivered by drones at the very doorstep and the drones
would return to
base, guided throughout by GPS-linked navigation and not
even requiring a
remote pilot.


idea is not as
fanciful as it appears at first glance. While acknowledging
it will take years
of time and effort to work out a range of technical and
regulatory issues to
convert this into reality, serious interest is being
expressed and money
invested in drone-based home-delivery by the likes of UPS
and FedEx courier
giants, and the pizza company Dominos.


demo video by Amazon
can be seen at


concept is not to
replace the delivery truck, but to complement it in
last-mile delivery. After
all, drones have limited range, would find navigation
through congested areas
quite difficult and longer-distance coordination could pose
problems.  Delivery
companies estimate
that 80 percent of all packages delivered are small enough
to be delivered by
drones. So one may imagine a delivery truck coming to a
neighbourhood, opening up a bee-hive type panel with drones,
which then
autonomously deliver packages within that locality, while
the driver himself
physically delivers larger packages.




uses have emerged
for drones of different kinds, taking advantage of their low
operational cost, ease
of operation, less reliance on skilled personnel and more on
technologies, greater flexibility and access to all sorts of


photography has
clearly taken an early lead since it can be done with very
small drones. Apart
from news coverage, slightly larger ones carrying
high-quality cameras have
been used in disaster management, environmental
surveillance, wildlife
photography, urban planning, location scouting for films and
a host of similar


hiker lost in a remote
area of Saskatchewan, Canada,
have been the first person to have been rescued because of a
drone. After the
usual helicopter searches even with night-vision equipment
yielded no results,
and with below-freezing night temperatures looming, the
Canadian Mounted Police
or Mounties sent up a Dragan Flyer X4-ES drone with
heat-seeking cameras which
located the hiker and enabled his rescue.


both large and
small have begun to be used in storm surveillance.


of tiny six-inch copter-drones
controlled by laptop have also been used in the centre of
storms, and even
underwater, to record otherwise difficult to get data on
temperature, pressure,
wind speed and so on.

size Global Hawk
drones, normally used for long-duration military
surveillance, are being
extensively tested for gathering data in the heart of
cyclones in a
collaboration involving NASA, the US National Oceanic and
Administration (NOAA) and Northrop Grumman. These drones are
capable of very
long flights of over 30 hours covering over 17,000 km and
with long wing-spans
can deal with high wind conditions.


smaller yet fixed
wing drones finding valuable use in agriculture are there. Japan
has been
using more conventional remotely controlled aircraft for
agricultural survey
and spraying on inaccessible hill slopes for over 30 years.
But the much lower
cost of modern drones, the navigational and surveillance
equipment they can
carry, their far greater manoeuvrability and precision
control, have enabled
deployment in much wider contexts.


and retired
military drones are also being used by civilian government
departments such as
the US Geological Survey and Wildlife Departments for
studies in land-use, deforestation,
impact of mining, wetlands, and wildlife populations and
behaviour. One
invaluable Orang Utang survey using aerial photography by
drones is on-going in
and Malaysia
dense and often remote tropical forests pose huge challenges
for conventional,
physical surveys. In Africa,
surveillance programmes are planned as part of efforts to
combat poaching of
rhinos and elephants linked to the still-thriving illicit
trade and smuggling.


is seen as a
highly promising area, especially in the US
and other regions with larger,
modern farms. Apart from aerial spraying and routine
surveillance for crop
diseases, drones are finding increasing application in the
growing movement of
precision-farming in the US
and parts of Europe.
Specialised cameras and
instruments are used to monitor plant health through
infra-red observation of
photosynthesis, to check soil moisture or nitrogen levels
and then apply
requisite irrigation or doses of fertilizer at precise
locations, to similar
study efficacy of pesticide use and apply it only where
essential, to check for
irrigation leaks and field canals, and to monitor specific
field areas or


of different sizes
and capability can be used for these and myriad
applications, depending on the
equipment and load required to be carried, task profile,
flight duration and
other parameters. For most of these, technologies are well
on their way to
becoming available and cost-effective, although several
problem areas remain.
However, it is likely that regulation, legal and
institutional issues will pose
the greater challenge.




have come a long
way indeed since young schoolchildren 50 years ago
used to carefully
glue together balsam-wood model aircraft and fly them using
tiny petrol-driven
engines and radio controls.


large military drones
came into their own with rapid developments in avionics,
computing ability and
computerised controls, satellite-aided navigation and of
course complementary
improvements in aerodynamics and engine design.


new small drones, and
especially the copter drones have benefited from all these,
but especially from
advances in extending software applications to small
portable platforms such as
tablets (most small copter and toy drones are today flown by
tablets) or even
mobile phones, miniaturisation of devices and control
systems. In copter
drones, the big advances have come in engines, particularly
the peculiar
aerodynamic problems encountered by tiny propellers which
meant that, for many
decades, these small engines could not even lift their own
weight leave alone
the craft and whatever appliance or device it was to carry.
Propulsion has also
shifted from the earlier gasoline-driven engines to electric
micro-motors with
lithium ion batteries, marking a major departure in engine
design and
capability, dramatically increasing the manoeuvrability and
controllability of
these machines. More further challenges are likely to lie in
the software


the years to come,
though, airspace regulation is likely to be the major issue.
The US
has taken the first steps, and Europe is feeling its way slowly. Restrictions on
altitude, operation in crowded areas, requirements for
collision avoidance,
security are the foremost issues that airspace regulators
are dealing with at
present. With more crowded skies, more challenges are sure
to loom.


it is clear that a new
age is dawning. And other, civilian, drones beckon. Even if,
as some suggest
because of their unsavoury association with military drones,
they should really
be called something else.