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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?
Canada and Mexico. But only about a dozen of the nation’s police and fire departments have been authorized to use drones, Gielow said. The commercial use of UAVs in the United States is still illegal.
But all of this is about to change.
Under a law signed by President Obama in February, the Federal Aviation Administration must come up with new regulations to integrate UAVs into the nation’s airspace and provide guidelines for their use in law enforcement and commercial endeavors by September 2015.
“It could turn into a very big business,” said Patrick Egan, president of the Silicon Valley chapter of AUVSI, who used to photograph organic farms until he was grounded by the FAA for flying drones without a permit. “You can have actionable intelligence. Pictures that you took an hour ago can be immediately uploaded into a farmer’s email inbox.”
“What the opening of the civilian airspace will do to robotics is akin to what the internet did to desktop computing,” Singer predicts. “If you are a maker of small tactical surveillance drones in the US right now, your client pool numbers effectively one: the US military. But when the airspace opens up, you will have as many as 21,000 new clients — all the state and local police agencies that either have expensive manned aviation departments or can’t afford them.”
Yet on all sides of the political spectrum, the proliferation of cheap, easy-to-fly UAVs is sowing fears of police fishing expeditions and the prospect that the United States could turn into a “surveillance society.”
“All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life,” said a recent report on UAVs by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Indeed, the celebrity photo agency Splash News has already announced plans to deploy “flying paparazzi drones” to track the rich and famous from above. Even though the flights would be considered commercial — and therefore illegal — experts say the FAA lacks the capacity to track all unauthorized drones.
These developments could quickly produce a backlash, according to the right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer. He told Fox News: “The first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that's been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in this country.”
Safety and security in Brazil
Yet as US involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts winds down, the American UAV industry is looking for new ways to deploy unmanned aircraft at home and is closely watching developments overseas.
In Latin America, the nation that has done the most to open up its skies is Brazil. Not surprisingly, Brazil is now grappling with both the benefits and the Big Brother concerns brought on by drones.
In 2010, Brazil spent more than $350 million on 14 Israeli-made Heron UAVs for surveillance of the Amazon rainforest and border regions. In June, Bolivia’s top anti-drug official credited these UAVs for helping authorities detect 240 drug labs along the country’s frontier with Brazil.
Still, news of the purchase prompted an editorial cartoon in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper speculating that the drones could be used for more nefarious purposes. It shows a UAV hovering over a slum as a Brazilian policeman tells his Israeli colleague: “Now we can kill the poor in Brazil with the same efficiency you kill Palestinians.”
That has yet to happen, but Brazilian authorities were planning to use drones to monitor drug-dealing gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s violent slums ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics which will be held in Rio.
“We believe the UAVs are going to help us save lives, despite the fact they could be downed by enemy fire from these criminal groups, some of which have heavy weapons and have even attacked our armor-plated helicopters,” Maj. Montenegro Magalhaes Neto, who heads the UAV program at the Military Engineering Institute in Rio, told the MercoPress news agency in September.
However, in a December interview with GlobalPost, Maj. Magalhaes walked back his earlier statement. He said that new laws from Brazil’s version of the FAA prohibit drone flights over urban areas and that UAVs, at least for now, would not monitor the slums.
In Sao Carlos, located just north of Sao Paulo and the home of AGX Tecnologias, Adriano Kancelkis bubbles over with enthusiasm for what he sees as a potential “green revolution” by using drones for so-called precision farming.
Just as more and more US farmers are using self-steered, GPS-guided tractors with inch-level accuracy, he says Brazilian farmers are turning to UAVs to cut costs and improve yields.
Like the United States, Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse and home to massive farms, some covering more than 100,000 acres. Instead of sending workers into the fields to spot infestations, flooding, or crooked corn rows, famers can buy or rent AGX’s Parrot and Parakeet drones that can immediately provide video and still photos to spot problems.
In his office, Kancelkis puts up color images on a computer screen and shows how they can be used to count orange trees and help growers estimate their output. The photos are far clearer than satellite images, which are sometimes obscured by cloud cover.
“In the future, I can’t imagine farming without drones,” Kancelkis says.
Next he puts up a photo showing how the course of a Brazilian river had been altered by illegal dredging for sand. The image was captured by an AGX drone used by the Environmental Police of Mato Grosso do Sul state and it helped officers track down the perpetrators, he said.
Still, Kancelkis is an odd mix of trendsetter, traditionalist, and worrywart.
Though fascinated by drones, he fears what could happen if the technology falls into the wrong hands. He is Brazil’s most high-profile advocate for commercializing unmanned aircraft, yet his office walls are decorated with photos of the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart. As for security at his own shop, one of the main lines of defense at the AGX drone factory is a growling guard dog.