Connect to share and comment

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.

Drone marketplace takes off globally

International trade shows offer a window into a booming business.

is the paradigm of a ‘more bang for your buck’ kind of weapon system.

How much does the Hermes cost? The answer is not so simple, Dotan says. There isn't single sticker price. 

"It's like buying a Buick or a Cadillac,” he says. “They are both automobiles but the difference in price comes from what's inside them."

What will the system be used for? Surveillance, that's one set of equipment to be loaded in. 

Attack? That's more gear. 

Do you want state of the art anti-jamming systems — which Elbit also makes — or deflection systems to protect your Hermes from attack? 

All of these add to the sticker price.

The cost also depends on human factors. The Hermes is unmanned in the air, but on the ground there are many people involved in running the system. The cost of training them and providing oversight — all of this is subject to negotiation. 

If the Nigerian military buys a Hermes, will Elbit train Nigerian operators? Will they go to Israel for training or will Israeli experts go to Nigeria?

It all depends. Each contract is individually designed. 

OK, so if the Nigerian government buys a first-class machine with a training period, how much does it cost? Dotan shrugs and avoids giving a direct answer again.

"We are competitive,” he says. “We lease systems, we sell them. People have less money than before. We must be creative."

The British sales pitch from Thales deals with all these issues, salesman Andy Murphy explains. 

"We don't just sell the platform, we sell the system. A UAV platform is like a model aircraft, it's the system that makes each unit unique." 

What is a constant is Thales’ after-sales service.

Murphy adds, "We train them up. Countries buy it and run it with their civilians to extract intelligence, then the British military lands it." 

It's not just the Israelis or the major American and British aerospace giants hustling drones. 

In a corner of Hall 3 is a netted-in area, like an enormous batting cage, but instead of a pitching machine winging balls at guys trying to groove their swings, ALPI, an Italian drone manufacturer is giving a flying demo of its tiny Sixton. 

It looks like a metallic insect, takes off vertically and maneuvers easily. 

But this is a serious piece of war technology. Massimo Petrusa, speaking in charmingly accented, fluent English, explains the Sixton has seen combat in Afghanistan. The Sixton is small, and the whole system can fit into a backpack weighing around 55 pounds.

The actual flying piece weighs only 4 pounds. It requires just a single operator and adds eyes and ears in the sky for special forces units on patrol in hostile areas.

But Petrusa's pitch today is about the civilian uses for the Sixton. 

During the recent earthquakes near Bologna and Ferrara the little machines were flown into damaged buildings to send pictures back to emergency services that were used to determine the internal structural damage and carry out risk assessment.

Alpi also makes more traditional looking drones. How much do they cost? 

"We are 10 percent cheaper than the Israelis," Petrusa laughs. 

Price and portability is a good sales pitch. The Turkish sales pitch was that the equipment — which looked very similar to the Israeli equipment — was actually made in a Muslim country with full trade relations with other Muslim Middle East countries.

So better to buy Turkish and not risk offending your people's sensibilities. 

The rapid proliferation of drones has some military men asking serious questions about their use and just how effective they actually are. 

"We're lucky, in a sense, in that we've been fighting against a primitive enemy in remote places. But that's not what war is really like," says Admiral Lord West, former chief of Britain's Royal Navy and top security adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. "They are a lovely way of not risking your own lives and that makes it highly attractive."

The attraction is great for politicians, like President Obama, who can sit in the White House and pick targets. 

"Drones have been effective in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan),” West acknowledges. “We have killed some very senior terrorists." 

But he is deeply concerned that drone use is leading to military decisions being made by people not psychologically aware of what their actions mean.

West added, "If you've