For my first Flying Fridays post, I want to return to a favorite topic: drones. My first-ever published work was an article for the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) on some research work done there on unmanned aerial vehicles. I sure wish I’d kept a copy (their archives were no help, sadly). Ever since then I’ve had an abiding interest in the mechanics, ethics, and practical use of unmanned aircraft.
Anyway, here’s a little snippet from the New York Times this week:
China considered using a drone strike in a mountainous region of Southeast Asia to kill a Myanmar drug lord wanted in the killings of 13 Chinese sailors, but decided instead to capture him alive, according to an influential state-run newspaper.
Sound familiar? To put this in context: the publicly-disclosed criteria for droning a US citizen are that it must be infeasible for US or allied forces to capture or kill the target; the target must be a “senior member” of Al-Qaeda, and the target must pose an imminent threat of violent attack against the US. Non-citizens are subject to a different set of rules, detailed in this handy flowchart. In either case, the US government explicitly reserves the right to use unmanned aircraft to kill people who have acted against US interests.. and now the Chinese are copying us.
Thought experiment: imagine a search-and-replace of “Al-Qaeda” in the above paragraph with some other criminal or terrorist organization. Suppose a nearby country (say, Mexico, or Venezuela) becomes a base for violent, criminal-but-not-terrorist, attacks on US citizens. Internal governance is too weak to allow the local authorities to arrest the bad guys. Do you drone them? In other words, could this policy conceivably extend to pre-emptive strikes on drug lords or other violent criminals?
If so, who’s next? If not, why not, given the current legal framework?
If you think this is an unrealistic scenario, here’s a question to ponder. Law enforcement agencies can, and have, used manned aircraft carrying snipers to fire on suspects. What practical difference is there between an FBI HRT helicopter carrying a sniper and an armed FBI HRT drone? If it’s OK for US to stage armed counternarcotics missions into, e.g. Honduras and shoot people, why wouldn’t it be OK to just send a drone instead?
(nb. I am not arguing that it is a good idea for the US to be doing these things, merely positing a logical extension of our current policies.)
Meanwhile, the FAA is still trying to figure out how to integrate drones safely into the National Airspace System. There’s a ton of interesting commentary on this AVweb opinion piece that I commend to your attention; there seems to be an emerging consensus in the aviation world that mixing drones and manned aircraft is a recipe for disaster because current unmanned aerial systems (UAS) don’t implement the see-and-avoid behavior drilled into human pilots from day 1. Large, remotely-operated drones such as those operated by Customs and Border Protection are relatively safe: they are large (and thus somewhat easier to see), have elaborate command-and-control systems, operate in predictable areas, and generally fly at medium to high altitudes. What I’m more worried about are smaller, less-visible, less-well-equipped drones (such as the kind operated by police departments in Houston, Dallas, and various other locales). Small drones offer so much potential utility for surveying, traffic monitoring and control, crop monitoring, aerial application, and burrito delivery that their arrival is inevitable; I just don’t want to have to play dodge-a-drone when I fly.