Drones - The Next Technological Frontier Or Impending Threat To National Security?

31/08/2016 15:36 | Updated 31 August 2016

A few years ago, if you said the word 'drone', some would have thoughts of the recent war in Afghanistan and the news of the military use of surveillance and attack drones and thought this is just military tech, whilst others may have been ducking for cover in fear of a male bee swooping overhead.

Now, however, the topic of drones in the sky has become a civilian phenomenon in the news, not least following the incident a few months ago when a drone hit a passenger aircraft in mid-air. In the last couple of weeks, Amazon has been authorised to trial autonomous flying drones in the UK to speed up deliveries. Ingenious idea that will deliver parcels around the world faster than you can make your lunch or a new exploitable technology that could raise national security threat levels like never before?

PwC has predicted that global spending on the production of drones for both military and commercial use could reach $93 billion (£70 billion) in the next ten years, with endless opportunities for industry, retail and enterprise alike. Meanwhile the White House cites industry estimates of drones creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and over $82 billion (£61 billion) in revenue for the US economy in the same ten year period. With arguably some proven credentials - with drones already being used in television production; law enforcers using thermal imaging cameras to catch suspects; and utility firms able to check for leaks - what's not to like about speedy shopping or sending drones rather than humans on dangerous military or surveillance missions?

However, despite the clear benefits, in my view drones must be embraced and feared in equal measure. Where they might on the surface look fairly innocent, what you find after more detailed analysis is terrifying. As the versatility in configuration means they could be adapted to positively suit almost any industry and requirement, on the flip side, falling in the wrong hands, the opposite could also be the case.

Put bluntly, these drones are flying payload systems capable of delivering incendiary devices, grenades, and perhaps even worse, into uncontrolled airspace in the same way that unmanned aerial vehicles have in the past. There is nothing to stop someone flying one of these drones into a busy city or airspace - ever more scary if we think of recent events in France and Germany, not to mention the Rio Olympics that are currently underway with some of the world's best athletes competing.

So, are drones the greatest global security threat for the future? Some may argue not and that the advantages of drones outweigh the negatives however, in my view, a number of steps need to be taken regardless to protect against hostile drones before a real life disaster occurs. Even military drones have a 'Human in the Loop', autonomous drones don't. This must start by implementing strict and overarching regulations to help control drone use, especially autonomous drones that are guided by software and GPS location alone. This would include the standardisation of radio frequencies on which drones can operate making it easier for security teams to use jamming devices to stop a suspect drone from entering unchartered airspace. Automated drones would also need to have regulated flight plans, so enforcement agencies know at any time the owner of the drone, what it is carrying and its mission.

Putting in place stringent security measures is also vital. As with any connected technology, drones are at risk of being hacked by cybercriminals, meaning software programming needs to be considered more seriously in the development phase. Implementing the expertise of quality assurance specialists can help to plug any potential loopholes otherwise exploited by unscrupulous hackers and limit security and privacy risks from the outset. Although this may not completely remove all threats - what can in a society where MI5's computers can be hacked - it will significantly enhance the chances of drones being managed safely and for the purpose for which they were designed.

In summary, there sadly is no immediate 'fix all' solution to the drone dilemma, with clear - and significant - positives and negatives. Drones certainly have the potential to revolutionise industry as we know it, with obvious benefits across a range of sectors, from energy, logistics, to transport, photography and even to improve our crops to help our wine growers produce the best concoctions. However, is this outweighed by the national security argument?

It seems clear that drones will form some part of our future with the UK Government in particular recently going on the front foot to say that they want to create an environment where drones can be operated safely by 2020 - the partnership with Amazon is a step in the right direction. However, there are clearly many unknowns and without stringent regulation and quality software assurance implemented at the development stage by experienced and trusted programmers, some might argue that they, for now, would prefer to hear the humming of drone bees overhead than any other type of drone.


UK Drones