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Drones: Life-Savers or Life-Takers?

Posted: 10/11/2013 23:14

Drones kill innocent civilians. What else is there to say?

This is the go-to argument for many opponents of 'remotely piloted air systems' (RPAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Even when drones eliminate 'legitimate' targets, their use sparks fervent public outrage. The recent media frenzy over the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud confirmed as much.

Mehsud's four-year reign as head of Pakistan's most barbaric militant group was characterised by brutal attacks on soldiers, government officials and civilians, but his death still caused widespread consternation. The government of Pakistan described the attack as a "violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity" and bemoaned that it derailed efforts at peaceful dialogue. Predictably, eristic peace activists relished the media coverage as a platform to condemn US forces.

Even before Mehsud's death, a UN human rights investigator called for a moratorium on the testing and use of 'lethal autonomous robots' due to the lack of legal accountability. The 'War Child' charity echoed concerns and suggested that drones will lead to increased child casualties in future wars.

So if we condemn drone attacks when they don't get the bad guys, but we also denounce them when they do, should we just ban the technology altogether?

No. The public debate on drones is too focused on targeted killings. The very mention of the word 'drone' conjures images of Islamic militants scarpering across a dusty desert whilst unmanned, emotionless killing machines whirl ominously in the skies above. Consequently, the use of drones in more peaceful settings, such as agricultural pest control and high resolution imagery, is routinely overlooked.

To brand the entire technology as 'immoral' is unfair. The drone debate must be approached with reason, not hijacked by the same type of short-sighted, hysterical activists whose blind, misguided ideology focuses more banning every type of human development which, with refinements, could actually aid some of their own overarching aims.

Most people partner drones with the 'War on Terror' in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, but the technology actually dates back to 1917 when the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane made its maiden flight in the United States. The first armed drones were not used until the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Two decades later, the US employed weaponised drones in Pakistan's tribal areas. Since 2004, nearly 400 strikes have hit the region, killing many al-Qaeda leaders and Taliban militants. However, civilian fatalities have overshadowed the efficacy of these strikes because groups of men are often targeted based on behaviour patterns rather than known identities.

The backlash is not wholly unwarranted. Around 2,200 people have been killed and at least 400 of those were civilians. A recent UN investigation identified 33 drone strikes that resulted in civilian casualties and violated international humanitarian law. The criticism has mainly been levied at the US due to its reluctance to declassify information about CIA operations. A senior UN official even commented that the CIA's intransigence caused "an almost insurmountable obstacle to transparency".

The oft-overlooked fact is that the military is not the only user of remotely piloted aircraft. Many drones are designed purely to save lives, rather than take them. RPAS technology helps air traffic controllers and those who create high resolution imagery. It is also being developed in conjunction with science, agriculture, environmental protection, transport and border security.

Drones are already used for whale spotting, academic research, rescue missions, sports and filming. They help prevent elephants from trampling on crops and deter poachers in Kenya. The 'Defikopter' is a defibrillator-carrying drone which can be on-hand to administer first aid within minutes. It can fly up to 43 miles an hour and isn't affected by a paramedic's worst enemy - traffic.

In the future, drones will fight forest fires. There are also plans to use unmanned drones to battle mosquitos. The insects are becoming such a problem in Florida that Florida Keys Mosquito Control is using drones with shortwave infrared cameras to locate pools where larvae are most likely being hatched.

Even Domino's is getting in on the action. The pizza-making giant is testing delivery by Domicopter; a robotic remote-controlled helicopter. This is surely nothing more than a clever marketing ploy, but it is not unprecedented. GPS-operated drones have also been used to deliver beer to revellers at the South African OppiKoppi music festival.

Pizza and beer aside, the legal moral, ethical and human rights implications of the targeted killing programmes undoubtedly deserve the highest levels of attention, but the drone debate needs to move beyond the confines of the current discussion.

Drones are not just emotionless killing machines. Yes, some targeted killings go wrong. Yes, civilian casualties are intolerable. Yet it is up to the law of armed conflict to set limits on to the military use of RPAS and provide guidance on military necessity, proportionality, surrender and the treatment of combatants.

Drone technology is ultimately a useful tool. It brings a competitive advantage to the battlefield. It will continue to be used by the military. We must not forget that UAVs may alter how some military tasks are conducted but they do not change what the military must accomplish. Beyond the battlefield, drones will soon assume a more prominent, and important, role in peaceful activities.

Campaigning for a ban on the technology is not only disproportionate; it is ridiculous. The inarguable fact is that, whether we like it or not, drone technology is the future.

 

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