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7/31/13 Why drones deserve a second look - The Hindu 1/2
Opinion Op-Ed
Published: July 29, 2013 01:12 IST | Updated: July 29, 2013 01:12 IST
Why drones deserve a second look
Geetanjali Chopra
DIFFERENT HEAD COUNT: A drone being used in a wildlife census exercise at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
Damning these machines as weapons of war that kill civilians is to overlook their untapped humanitarian and technological benefits
The successful and timely use of drones by India in its rescue missions in the flood-ravaged regions of Uttarakhand
has challenged the dominant worldview that drones are merely indiscriminate weapons of war. Known as Unmanned
Aerial Systems or Vehicles (UASs/UACs), weaponised drones with combat and surveillance capabilities have emerged
as one of the most controversial weapons in the history of warfare. Their continuous use by the United States in
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Somalia, killing approximately 4,700 people, resulted in intense
debates over the legality of these weapons, with critics providing arguments ranging from illegal, unethical and
extrajudicial acts to violating the United Nations Charter, causing civilian damage, invading privacy, fuelling
extremism and even terming their use as war crimes.
The increased momentum for advocating restrictions and bans on the use of drones recently became evident when the
U.N. Human Rights Council called for a global freeze on the use of drones. On similar lines, the European Parliament
report on Human Rights Implications of the Usage of Drones recommended the adoption of a binding international
agreement to restrict the development, proliferation and use of drones.
Moreover in the U.S., 43 states have passed or are in the process of passing legislation to restrict the use of drones for
surveillance and 17 states have banned the use of weaponised drones. Coupled with these government initiatives, a
group of 33 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) launched the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in April 2013,
calling for a pre-emptive and comprehensive ban on the development, production and use of drones.
In Uttarakhand
In the midst of these developments, the fact that the four drones deployed by India in the Uttarakhand region to
screen inaccessible flood-devastated areas beyond Badrinath and Kedarnath, actually helped locate 190 survivors
along with the bodies of victims which had been swept away, was an eye-opener on the unexploited potential of
drones. Interestingly, this was not the first time that drones were used as vital technological tools previous
examples include uses in Japan after the devastating earthquake in 2011 to access damage to the Fukushima Daiichi
nuclear power plant and rescue operations in the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, drones are used
in South Africa and Indonesia for the protection of endangered species and for mining-related 3D mapping of
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stockpiles and excavations in Australia. Drones can also prove to be most efficient for precision agriculture, delivering
emergency aid, firefighting and monitoring weather patterns. Surprisingly, none of these uses and potential benefits
have been adequately tapped or documented, and, as a result, drones are only associated with military power and
Given the humanitarian, technological and economic benefits of deploying drones, the classification of drones as
essentially indiscriminate and illegal weapons prompting restrictions and bans on their use, is questionable and
misleading. Yet, it is evident that international opinion is in favour of banning drones. This can be attributed to the
confusion surrounding drones, which in turn can be explained by two factors.
A new technology
First, it is the resistance to new technological developments, which is a rather common phenomenon, for humans by
nature do not adapt to technological changes easily. Till the time people do not become familiar with new
technologies, a sense of resentment and confusion remain. Prominent examples include the invention of the internet
as a military programme called Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) and the launch of the
Global Positioning System (GPS). As drone technology is relatively new and its uses largely undocumented, it is only a
matter of time before the resistance to and associated confusion with, drones will subside.
The second and more complicated factor is linked to the life-cycle of military innovations. Since the history of warfare,
military innovations have exhibited a typical life-cycle, wherein a superpower develops a unique tool and uses it
without codifying any rules and regulations, underestimating the capability of other states to copy its innovation. The
situation becomes ambiguous and complex when other countries develop similar tools. In the case of drones, presently
only the U.S. and the United Kingdom use drones in combat, while 76 other nations possess drone technology. It is
only a question of limited time when countries possessing the technology, arm and operate weaponised drones for
military combat purposes. Given the absence of internationally recognised guidelines and/or code of conduct for the
use of armed drones, their aggressive use by the U.S. in the War on Terror as the only precedent, along with the rapid
proliferation of the drone technology, the fear of unregulated and indiscriminate future use of drones looms large.
This has resulted in advocating bans on drones.
Need for differentiation
However, professing a ban on drones is not the solution to the potential problem. In fact in addition to the fact that
forgoing the tremendous humanitarian and technological potential and use of drones is unfeasible, any attempt to
ban drones would also prove to be futile. For, given their military advantages, drones have emerged as indispensable
weapons of choice for the U.S. Without the support of the U.S., an international ban on drones would be meaningless.
What is essentially needed is a two-pronged strategy for the regulation of the use of drones comprising understanding
and advocacy for their peaceful use and a code of conduct for their military use. Such a strategy would help prevent
the proliferation and indiscriminate use of drones, while maximising the potential of this technology for peaceful
(Dr. Geetanjali Chopra is fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. E-mail:
Keywords: Drones, ARPANET, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Uttarakhand floods
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