Monthly Archives: February 2012

The end of history and the last drone

Drone quadcopter operated with iPad by Ville Hyvönen

iPad operated quadcopter

On 25 February 2012 the Financial Times published Francis Fukuyama’s op-ed on drones. It addressed how the world may change when “drones are cheap and ubiquitous.” Fukuyama questioned how other countries, private individuals, rogue states, and terrorists may use unmanned and robotic systems in the future.

Access to drone technology will invariably lead to its nefarious use, suggests Fukuyama. He fails to recognize that when transformational technologies become commercially available, their widespread adoption is inescapable. More importantly, historical precedent suggests that all extensively adopted technology is overwhelmingly used for good.

The article is full of other problems and inconsistencies. Fukuyama spends three long opening paragraphs advertising his own do-it-yourself (DIY) quadcopter. His personal story is useful only as a literary prop for the sweeping generalization at the end: “That’s why I want to build mine now, before the government makes them illegal.”

Not quite the end of history, but certainly the wrong conclusion.

After an arduous opening that advertises Fukuyama’s knowledge of the word “telemetry” he proceeds to tell us the big ticket items. The Predator and Reaper drones have been used to strike “deep into Pakistan.” Hurrah. The Air Force will have more drone pilots than F-16 pilots by next year. And imagine this; they will be piloted from “half a world away.” Of course, drone strikes have also killed civilians. And manned fighter or bomber strikes have not?

Let’s not dwell on the overview. Most articles are not aimed for a drone-news-following reader. The issue here is that this introduction is so clumsy and superficial that it is painful to get through.

Fukuyama then plunges us into the future. “Down the road,” he says, “are insect-sized drones that could be mistaken for a housefly or spider, which could slip in under a door-sill to record conversations, take photos or even inject a lethal toxin into an unsuspecting victim.” And further into the future are “nanobots, particle-sized robots that could enter people’s blood streams or lungs.”

This is all true. Although it would be helpful for us all, to start making semantic distinctions between what we call a variety of unmanned and robotic systems. He never claims that this op-ed is all encompassing. But it would seem reasonable to discuss autonomy and its implications if one is to make a leap towards nanobots and lethal toxins.

Fukuyama then enlightens us that privacy is “the chief concern” and proceeds to commercialize how his own drone could “look inside a neighbor’s third-floor window.” Of course he “would never ever be tempted to use it for such a thing.” Come on! This is in the FT, who edits these anyway?

On editing… Fukuyama calls the FAA the Federal Aviation “Authority” instead of Administration. This may be petty, but get it right!

After informing us that drones are used for targeted killings, Fukuyama suggests that as “the defense budget shrinks” using drones to “project power on the cheap” will be attractive. Sure… But the correlation is shaky at best. The proliferation of drones may lead to more targeted killings, but the defense budget – other than being a headline favorite – is really irrelevant here. Drones provide the US military and intelligence community a powerful capability and will be used (for right or wrong) based on overall strategy and tactical objectives. For the purposes of this discussion, we are passed procuring drones on a cost estimate basis. At 7,494 and counting, they are part of the arsenal.

On the other hand, miniature robotic devices do change the dynamics. Soldiers could use them to look into buildings before a raid to minimize losses. And intelligence agencies could employ them for an assortment of missions. However, will this change how they spy or kill? Using drones to deliver deadly pathogens is a possible scenario. But intelligence agencies have been successful at eradicating targets before. Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning in London is a case in point.

Fukuyama is also concerned about their domestic use. This seems to translate into his main argument that eventually the government will outlaw drones. I doubt it. For example, any enthusiast could procure advanced surveillance systems. A simple Google search using “surveillance AND DIY” returns more than 5 million results. There is a plethora of spy toys out there. Having your own drone and using it for degenerate ends won’t make this problem worse.

Fertilizer is used for bombs by some. And others use code for cyber-attacks. The government – rightfully so – now tries to keep an eye on fertilizer purchases. But it sure hasn’t made Java or C++ programming languages illegal. Drones will be used to spy on cheating spouses and to cause harm somewhere. But this should not make us “worried.”

Fukuyama continues. He asks what the world would look like when “other countries [will] operate fleets of drones.” And what would our attitude towards drones be “if our enemies could pick off visiting dignitaries as they stepped off the airplane” or attacked “soldiers in their bases in Europe or Asia.” Worse yet, Fukuyama seems concerned that China or Al Qaeda could use drones to target Americans in “Florida or New York.” He is especially petrified that drones in their ubiquity will be harder to trace and “without knowing their provenance, deterrence breaks down.”

Living in a world where we are “routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies is not pleasant to contemplate.” There is a point here, somewhere. But it is lost.

Stability restored

Yes, other countries are building drones en masse and will continue to do so. And terrorist organizations may try to use them to deliver an explosive. But making them illegal domestically would in no way change this paradigm. In fact, it would make us dramatically less competitive over time. Our systems would become outdated.

How would making drones illegal domestically protect us against these threats? It seems Fukuyama suggests that some dubious activity will be possible because there will be so many of them. That makes sense logically. But as alluded to above, there are websites that give us viruses and guns that are used to kill. Yet, we continue to visit the former and buy more of the latter.

Fukuyama mentions particle-sized robots in our blood-stream, but fails to imagine technologies that would be able to trace exactly to whom a drone belongs. A network of nanobots – to stay futuristic – would easily trace the origin of other drones.

He does cite the legitimate use of drones for police work and traffic management. But there are so many others. Drones could be used to monitor our electrical grid, to take care of the elderly, to assist during surgeries (or to conduct surgeries), to repair broken tissue, to fight cancer (hey, he went there). On the battlefield their usefulness isn’t perfect, but unquestioned.  And countries will not decide to attack us just because it costs less now than it did before or saves them a pilot or two.

Drones – and robotic systems in general – will soon become part of our daily lives. Already in South Korea they are being used as prison guards and as school teachers. Their proliferation could be as transformational as the spread of the Internet or the mobile device. Fukuyama – after redeeming himself with The Origins of Political Order ­– is sadly on the wrong side of history.

Image source: from Ville Hyvönen’s public Flickr page


Drone activity in progress…

Drones in every neighborhood by Alex Gibney

Drones in every neighborhood by Alex Gibney

Two weeks ago 11 street signs appeared in Brooklyn, NY. One read “ATTENTION: Drone Activity in Progress.” The signs were fake. They were posted by an Army veteran turned “radical art student” who remains anonymous.

The message was clear. Over the past decade expectations of privacy have diminished. In fact, most people either did not notice the signs or did not care.

The artist’s warnings are prescient because drones are coming to a neighborhood near you. And their use will vary. Privacy (see 1, 2, 3, 4) – or it’s erosion – may be of greater concern in the long-term, but safety may be compromised immediately.

Days ago Congress passed a bill (Senate 75-25; House 248-169), which will require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make drone flights available domestically. The bill awaits the President’s signature. Once signed – and it is expected to be – the bill will mandate the FAA to prepare US skies for unmanned aviation by September 2015.

The FAA estimates that 30,000 drones could operate domestically by 2020.

Congress authorized an unprecedented $63.4 billion to the FAA over four years. $11 billion of which will fund the nation’s air-traffic control system modernization. The system currently uses ground-based radars. It would switch to GPS satellites instead. Modernization has its benefits for the airline industry. Commercial and cargo pilots could set better routes and fly more directly, saving on time and fuel.

Without a GPS-based system, operating drones would be difficult. And there are other challenges. As the Air Line Pilots Association, a body that represents 53,000 pilots, points out “safety issues such as training and certification of those flying unmanned aircraft” are still under question.

One reason drones have been so successful in military operations is because they are primarily used in uncontested airspace. They are not designed to operate in busy skies. Drones are unable to detect and avoid other aircraft. They will need to have this capability before operating domestically.

It is estimated that air traffic will grow by 50 percent over the next decade. And this doesn’t include thousands of drones. Many countries have adopted satellite-based technology. But the US, which accounts for more than a third of global air traffic, “has moved cautiously.”

Remote control

The average American has probably never seen a drone, unless they live near the Mexican border where the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses them. Or North Dakota where the Air Force helped local police track down three suspects using a Predator B drone.

Some police departments are already using drones. But currently their use is restricted to public agencies and some of their private partners. Drone use is also limited by size and altitude (below 400 feet). They don’t fly near cities. You sure won’t see one over Brooklyn. The legislation also orders the FAA to “expedite the process through which it authorizes the use of drones by federal, state and local police and other agencies.”

The FAA has already granted “295 special permits for researchers, law enforcement, and the military to operate drones in the US.” And last year a defense bill ordered the FAA to “create six test sites where unmanned flights can operate beside regular aircraft.”

Unmanned systems will quickly expand to other industries. They are great for monitoring pipelines, ports, or power lines. Thus utility and power companies would adopt them immediately. The agriculture industry could use them. They are obviously great for surveillance and emergency response. Google would adopt drones for their Street View program. It won’t be hard to get to 30,000 drones when everyone from the local police department to the tech start-up will want one.

Securing the skies

Balancing security and privacy is a debate we will have for decades. Privacy will dominate headlines as drones begin to hover overhead. So will the threat of terrorists using them. But general safety – caused by accidents and not terrorists – needs to be actively considered and discussed. Drones are not foolproof. In fact, they are accident prone.

Who will train the pilots? Program future autonomous systems with routes and accident avoidance techniques? Manage the air traffic control system? Differentiate between corporate drones and those flown by the government or by enthusiasts?

Considering their expected volume, it is safe to assume most drones will be flown by amateurs and not trained pilots. The FAA’s timeline to modernize is ambitious. It is reassuring to see that benchmarks are set and frequent updates to lawmakers are mandated under the new bill.  But these conciliatory measures may not be enough. The industry and government needs to make sure things work before drones and planes meet unexpectedly.

Also, in a few years, slow down when you see the “Speed limit enforced by aircraft” sign. They are not kidding.

The nuclear power of arms sales

Dassault Rafale at the Paris Air Show

Dassault Rafale at the Paris Air Show

The Indian government selected the French Dassault Rafale as a frontrunner in its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Concluding (almost) a multi-year dog-fight between the Rafale and five other competitors: American Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16, European Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian RSK MiG-35, and the Swedish Saab Gripen.

Toward the end of this battle only two jets stood to win the prize, the French Rafale and – well – the quarter-French EADS Eurofighter Typhoon. Dassault will now begin supplying India with 126 freshly-minted jets.

The size of the order may amount to $20 billion, enough to help bolster the French defense industrial base.

And France pulled out all the stops to secure this win. Three primary reasons explain its victory. The last one may surprise some. First, it was cost. Dassault won because it bid the lowest; a benefit of government subsidies. Losing this competition may have ended French indigenous military aircraft capability, which it clearly thinks is worth protecting.

The games are not over, however. From now until April 2012, the company and its puppet-master the French government are likely to engage in fierce negotiations over details. But winning the frontrunner spot in India still has its risks “until the contract is physically signed.” Negotiations will determine the details of the acquisition: price, life-cycle support, training, and offsets.

This leads us to the second point. France and its national champion were willing to provide a technology transfer package to India. The competitors (and especially the US ones) were not. Thus, 108 of 126 Rafale fighters will be produced at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India’s largest aerospace company. Not in France. As a reminder, virtually all Indian defense enterprises are state-owned.

And Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has agreed to more than just offsets and technology transfer. Software codes – source codes par industry lingo – will also be provided. This would “allow India to re-program radars and other sensitive equipment.” And in doing so, reveal how they work.

One cannot accuse India of nefarious corporate espionage practices (in fact France would rank far higher on that list) or of being a technology proliferator. But in this deal, India will gain substantial know-how and it will use it for its own competitive advantage in the future. Who can blame them?

Finally, we need to understand why Dassault really won. Price, competitive specifications, technology transfer, offsets, and source codes add to the mix. But it is nuclear cooperation between India and France, signed a few years ago, that sealed the deal.

Don’t underestimate nuclear power

This is of little doubt. France signed a nuclear agreement with India in 2008; a year after the initial MMRCA tender was announced. France’s other national champion, the nuclear energy powerhouse Areva was contracted to build at least two nuclear reactors in India.

During negotiations that took place from 2008 to 2010, France and India recognized that “it is in their mutual interest to broad-base economic relations” and agreed to increase their trade, especially in sovereign industries (or so I call them): arms and nuclear energy.

The $9 billion contract to build two nuclear power-plants in India, solidified France’s position in the country. France and Areva plan to build four more “reactors for the Maharashtra nuclear plant.” Both the nuclear and defense deals are negotiated at the highest levels and during the same meetings, suggesting interchangeability of objectives and tradeoffs.


First, price, technology transfer, and offsets are indicative of requirements that all emerging powers will require. Weapons platforms such as the F-35 would lose on all counts. And while the US has already entertained the sale of F-35s to India, everything about the Rafale win indicates that the door is closed.

When India decides that it wants to acquire a 5th generation fighter, it may opt-out for the Russian PAK FA T-50. This would be a shame.

Second, instead of building a strong industrial base, Europeans are destructively competing for international tenders. France – and even Dassault itself – is involved in the Eurofighter Typhoon. The second place finisher in the MMRCA competition.

Europe continues to govern itself by protectionist sensibilities over defense industries. These policies are grounded in realism, which I appreciate. If all other headlines from Europe are of any indication, then this will surely continue. And this is exactly why the US – while formulating its own security strategy – may hope for allied assistance, but should not rely on it.

Finally, there is one more international fighter competition that has been brewing. Brazil plans to soon acquire 36 fighters in its FX-2 fighter deal. The competition, however, will be fierce. A decision is due in the next several months. And once again, the French Rafale may win.

The announced victory in India will only bolster its chances. All the usual suspects – which Brazil wants and demands as much as India – such as technology transfers and offsets will be offered. In addition, France is working with Brazil on a nuclear submarine project. If the Rafale wins in Brazil, then it may be time for analysts to pay closer attention to whole-of-government (to adopt a term) competitive advantages and not just specifications, offsets, and costs.

Image source: taken by the author at the 2009 Paris Air Show

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