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The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.
They can monitor thousands of acres of Brazilian farmland and the border between the US and Mexico, but is the world ready for commercial drones?
SAO CARLOS, Brazil — With little more effort than it takes to launch a paper airplane, a man climbs atop a wooden table and tosses a yellow-and-white drone into the windy Brazilian skies.
With its four-foot wingspan and whiny, battery-powered engine, the drone, called Tiriba — or Parakeet in Portuguese — resembles a do-it-yourself model airplane. Yet many experts believe that portable UAVs — or unmanned aerial vehicles — like the Parakeet will refashion civilian life similar to the way militarized drones like the US-made Predator changed the face of modern warfare.
As he watches the UAV skid to a halt on a dirt landing strip after a five-minute flight, Adriano Kancelkis, the president of AGX Tecnologia, which manufactures the $35,000 device, predicts that legions of average people around the world will soon be operating drones.
“Drone technology will spread as the costs come down, just like cell phones or DVDs,” Kancelkis told GlobalPost. In the future, he said, even commercial air travel will involve UAVs.
Although the proliferation of UAVs raises serious questions about privacy, safety, and potential threats from terrorists, the non-military drone revolution is well underway across the globe. Dozens of countries have authorized their use for border control, police surveillance, firefighting, search-and-rescue, environmental operations and, in some cases, commercial purposes.
“In the future, I can’t imagine farming without drones.”~Adriano Kancelkis
Drones monitor illegal fishing off Libya, Japan and the Galapagos Islands and patrol oil and gas pipelines in Angola, Nigeria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Conservationists in Nepal plan to send UAVs into the skies to help save endangered tigers and rhinos from poachers. Archaeologists in Russia are using small unmanned systems with infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds. Researchers in Costa Rica have launched UAVs into volcanic clouds to try to predict major eruptions.
In Japan, unmanned helicopters now do most of the crop dusting. National Geographic is using a micro-copter camera to produce a documentary on the African Serengeti. In Brazil, the Parakeet and a larger model called the Parrot are being used by farmers to spot crop blights and apply pesticides with more accuracy.
It goes farther. The US military is testing a pilotless freight helicopter which could be the first step towards worldwide commercial air-cargo deliveries by drone.
Peter W. Singer, an expert on robotics at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of the book “Wired For War,” compared the proliferation of UAVs to the way aircraft and computer technology spread during the last century.
“Both were used by the military and then moved to the civilian sector as they became cheaper and smaller and developed more functions,” Singer told GlobalPost. “You once had to be trained as a pilot to fly a drone, but now some of them can be operated with an IPhone app.”
The dark side
Ironically, the United States — the nation that made drones part of the post-September 11th vernacular by using them to kill terrorists — lags behind other nations when it comes to using them at home. The resistance stems from both cultural attitudes and safety concerns.
Japan and other Asian nations are generally more comfortable with the idea of robots, which are sometimes cast in the region’s books and movies as science fiction heroes, Singer says. By contrast, Americans often view robots as part of a dystopian future in which cyborgs replace or undermine humans, as in the Hollywood blockbusters The Terminator and The Matrix.
Common criminals are already taking the new technology to the dark side. Last year, Singer said, a gang of thieves in Taiwan carried out a jewelry heist using remote-controlled helicopters.
On the practical side of trying to introduce more drones, the US is already home to the largest amount of air traffic for commercial and general aviation, which means there is potentially a greater risk for accidents, says Ben Gielow, the government relations manager for the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, the industry’s main trade group in Washington.
According to US government data, UAVs experience an accident rate over seven times higher than general aviation, and 353 times higher than in commercial aviation. One reminder of the perils came in 2010, when a Mexican drone crashed into the back yard of an El Paso home.
For now, UAVs monitor the US border with