Have you ever wondered why we have drones in the first place? The initial use for them is definitely not for amateur photographers trying their hand at aerial shots, but today, anyone who can afford to dish out some money can have this technology, so we might as well know more about the device that’s all the rage today. Here are some things that you didn’t but should know about drones.
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The first armed drones were created to help capture Osama bin Laden
Former US Pres. Bill Clinton‘s administration shut down an operation to kill al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 1998 in Afghanistan because he had little confidence with in-the-cruise missiles. Back then, collateral damage estimated 300 casualties. After this, however, the 9/11 Commission noted, “After this episode Pentagon planners intensified efforts to find a more precise alternative.”
In 2000 and 2001, the US Air Force had to struggle to reconfigure a Hellfire anti-tank missile to fit onto a surveillance drone. Just a week before the 9/11 attacks, the National Security Council agreed that the Predator Surveillance Drone is not yet ready to be deployed.
The first known killing by armed drones, however, happened just a couple of months later, when Predator targeted top al Qaeda commander Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan the following November.
Drones have a tendency to crash
On December 4, 2011, an RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone crashed in Iran. The US official involved in the program said that the lost data link caused the crash, as well as another malfunction that wasn’t specified. Two weeks later, an unarmed Reaper drone also crashed at the end of a runway in Seychelles.
A defense official shared with Aviation Week & Space Technology that this should not be a surprise, considering that the US, by then, already lost nearly a hundred drones. In fact, by July 2010, the Air Force identified 70 drone accidents, each costing the government at least $1 million each.
There are several factors that contribute to these crashes, including bad weather, loss or disruption of communication links, and even human error. According to former Air Force deputy chief of intelligence Lt. Gen. David Deptula, “Some of the [drones] that we have today, you put in a high-threat environment, and they’ll start falling from the sky like rain.”
Drones are taking over America
A lot of people have been worried about the militarization of the US airspace by unmanned aerial vehicles, but their worries so far have been unfounded. However, by October 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration reportedly issued 285 active certificates for 85 users, covering 82 drone types. The FAA also refused to say who received clearances, but it was estimated that about 35 percent was held by the Pentagon, 11 percent by NASA, and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The drone numbers and clearances have also been growing. US Customs and Border Protection operates eight Predator drones. Due to the pressure from the congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, two additional Predators were also sent to Texas by fall, though Homeland noted that the department did not ask for them. In June 2011, a predator drone intended to patrol the US-Canada border helped locate three suspected cattle rustlers in North Dakota in what was reported as the first reported use of a drone to arrest US citizens.
The scope of U.S. military drone missions is expanding . . .
Drones have come a long way since the years that it was used purely for military strike operation. Five-pound backpack drones have now been used by infantry soldiers for tactical surveillance and will soon be deployed for what can be called magic bullet kamikaze missions. Special operations forces were even able to develop a warhead fired from a Predator drone that managed to knock down doors.
K-Max helicopter drones can transport supplies to troops at operating bases in Afghanistan. Balloons, for instance, were able to unleash Tempest drones, which then send out smaller surveillance drones (Cicadas) to fly around collecting data. Today, the US State Department has been flying a small fleet of surveillance drones over Iraq to protect the US Embassy. In short, more and more drones have been used by the military as they seem to have infinite uses for surveillance and warfare.
. . . but not as fast as civilian use
While drones are practically a staple in the US Military, other organizations and even civilians have a lot of use for it as well. For instance, safety inspectors used drones to survey the damage at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the tsunami in 2011. Russian archaeologists used small drones with infrared cameras to reconstruct an ancient burial mound in 3D. Osprey drones have been used by environmental activists to track and monitor Japanese whaling ships. GALE drones are expected to fly into hurricanes to monitor the strength of the storm more accurately. Even photographers are making use of drones to get their paparazzi shots of celebrities.
The advancement of drones, however, does not limit only to their use—even the technology that makes them has become more advanced. For example, engineers from Southampton were able to build a nearly silent drone with the help of a laser 3-D printer, which can be assembled by hand in a matter of minutes.