How Drones Are Reshaping the World
Close to a million drones may be sold this holiday season. And in five years, the global market is expected to reach a billion dollars. There are drones for everything: real estate and construction, package delivery, journalism, search and rescue. They're used to deliver humanitarian aid to the world's most challenged regions and to find and kill the worlds most wanted terrorists without putting US soldiers' lives at risk.
In this hour-long program, we look at how drones are revolutionizing the skies, and how this technology has so quickly moved from science fiction to ubiquitous reality.
We visit Korea's DMZ where drones fly back and forth across the border, raising serious questions about the military capabilities of both countries and the power of drones to affect regional conflicts. In Nairobi, Kenya, we learn about the potential for drones in developing nations, and how a nationwide ban has halted progress in that country. And, in Northern California, we learn how one organization is trying to send aid to Syrian war victims via a fleet of humanitarian drones.
Plus, we'll learn what happens when practically everyone has drones — from the major world powers to the smallest non-state actors, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and ISIS.
- Walter Dorn: Professor of Defense Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada
- Ben FitzGerald: Director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security
- Sarah Kreps: Cornell University professor and author of Drone Warfare
- Patrick Meier: Founder of UAViators and author of Digital Humanitarians
- Paul Scharre: Director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security
- P.W. Singer: Strategist and Senior Fellow at New America and author of Wired for War and Ghost Fleet
When traveling by train in South Korea, you can’t go any further north than Baekmagoji Station. It’s then a 15-minute walk from the station to the demilitarized zone (or DMZ). After that, it’s all rice paddies and landmines, leading up to North Korea.
Even though the two Koreas signed a cease-fire agreement back in 1953, shots are still fired across this border. And according to Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense, Pyongyang dispatches drones over the DMZ, too.
In September, military officials here reported that they spotted a North Korean drone in South Korean territory. A helicopter and fighter jet were scrambled to intercept it, but the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) got away.
Others haven’t made it back. Since 2014, the Defense Ministry says it’s recovered four crashed North Korean drones.
Martyn Williams, who runs the North Korea Tech blog, believes these aircraft were on a recon mission.
“It looks like they were flying into South Korea to take photographs of the border area, which is where, of course, South Korea and the United States have a lot of troops and a lot of military equipment,” he says. “They did have these rather expensive digital cameras on board, probably cameras that cost about several thousand dollars.”
But it’s not only the border that North Korean drones have flown over. The Defense Ministry says at least one of these UAVs made it all the way to downtown Seoul.
Local media went into panic mode. On the front page of one paper was a picture taken from the seized drone. The headline said it was just 20 seconds away from the President’s house. This part of town is also home to the American Embassy and the U.S. Ambassador’s residence.
I’ve seen two of these drones in person. They’re painted sky blue with wingspans of about 6 and 8 feet. One was airplane-shaped, the other a glider.
Boo Hyung-wook, a researcher at the government-affiliated Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, has seen the UAVs too. He says they’re primitive, the kind you can make with open-source technology. But he says the Defense Ministry believes these aren’t the only type of drones that North Korea possesses.
According to Boo, they have 320 drones and 10 of them are American-made. That includes the Raytheon Streaker, a target drone that was first made in the 1970s and is no longer in production. Pyongyang is believed to have acquired those from Syria.
Boo says the regime uses these old American, as well as Russian drones as models to make its own modified UAVs — like the ones seen in the Pyongyang military parade. He says they’re designed to carry one kilogram, or about two pounds, of TNT.
But that’s not his biggest concern.
“What if they can carry chemical weapons?” he says, pointing out that one kilogram of anthrax could kill up to 10,000 people.
That scenario is still a ways off, according to long-time North Korea watcher Joseph Bermudez, chief analytics officer at All Source Analysis in Longmont, Colorado.
He says for now it doesn’t seem that North Korea’s drones are capable of relaying real-time images back to base or flying far distances. But the U.S. and South Korean militaries would have a problem on their hands if Pyongyang were to acquire the technology to do so from allies like China or Iran.
Bermudez says Washington is more concerned with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs than its drones. Plus, there’s no foolproof way for the U.S. or South Korea to prevent Pyongyang’s surveillance UAVs from infiltrating southern airspace. He says it would take a combination of better intel, radar systems, and weaponry.
The South Korean military has its own plan. It’s contracted with a local university to develop technology that could be used for a fleet of attack drones.
A soccer field at the science and technology graduate school KAIST is where Shim Hyun-chul, head of the unmanned systems research group, and his students are testing their quad-rotor UAV.
One attack drone works in tandem with another UAV. They detect the enemy aircraft, which is hovering on the opposite side of the field, and go after it together. The smaller of the two releases a nylon net over the enemy drone in mid air. The net gets caught in the rotors and it crashes to the ground. The second drone then delivers its payload — a small vehicle that picks up the fallen UAV and brings it back to base.
Shim says neutralizing drones with other drones could be the safest way to combat invading North Korean UAVs. Many other methods, like using bullets or lasers, wouldn’t be safe in densely populated areas. The Seoul metropolitan area is less than 40-miles south of the DMZ and is home to about 25-million inhabitants.
Defense analyst Boo Hyung-wook says that if fighting were to ever break out here, drones could be at the forefront on both sides. And because urban warfare is so complex, they would need drones of all sizes, from the very large, to the very, very tiny.
And as more North Korean drones make it across the border, or are put on parade, Boo says South Korean and American forces need to bolster their UAV programs faster than North Korea enhances its own.
Reporter Jason Strother is a freelance multimedia journalist who’s reported from both sides of the Korean peninsula since moving to Seoul in 2006. He makes frequent work trips around Asia and has also filed from Brazil. He got his start in the business as a producer at a 24-hour cable news channel in the Bronx, but always wanted the life of a foreign correspondent. He is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Montclair State Univeristy in his home state of New Jersey.
Mark Jacobsen leads me through a maze of children's toys in his little apartment a few miles from Stanford University. We head to a small patio out back. And here, sitting on folding tables, within earshot of kids playing and mothers pushing strollers, are the technological wonders that could save the lives of thousands of Syrian people.
Besides being a Ph.D. student, Jacobsen is also an active air force officer. During a stint in Eastern Turkey, he was frustrated at the inability to get aid into Syrian villages and neighborhoods that were cut off by either the government, or rebels.
“That got me thinking that maybe if you can’t get a big airplane in, you could get a lot of little airplanes in... a totally different paradigm for air-dropping aid,” he says.
Jacobsen shows me a couple of planes and how he can control them from his laptop. One plane is so small and light it can be launched by hand. Another is nicknamed Waliid, for a Syrian doctor Jacobsen met, who would rush to the sound of attacks to go help people.
With ten drones flying all night, he estimates they could deliver 400 pounds of high-value, low-mass aid.
“There are people who’ve died in Syria because they can’t get insulin. There’ve been hospitals having to reuse blood bags because they can’t get clean ones. During the Nepal earthquake, we had someone call us that was asking for help delivering water purifiers to isolated villages they couldn’t get to,” he says. “I don’t think two pound packages are going to apply for everybody, but in certain specific cases, two pounds can mean the difference between life or death.”
Jacobsen has developed strategies to keep the bad guys from hacking in and controlling the drones. And he’s lowered the cost of each one down to about $500. After running some test flights and raising almost $40,000 in an online crowdfunding campaign, Jacobsen was hoping he’d be delivering aid to Syria by the summer of 2015. But as winter approaches, these prototype UAVs sit on his back patio, waiting for funding, partners, and Turkish government approval.
“The whole idea of using drones in conflict zones has been controversial because of their legacy as weapons,” he says. “There’s a lot of skepticism and distrust among aid organizations.”
That skepticism isn’t limited to aid organizations, or even to conflict zones in the Middle East. Even in California there's an ongoing debate about drone surveillance and safety.
Back in 2013, a small group gathered outside a board of supervisors meeting in Alameda County, about an hour north of Stanford. Nadia Kayyali was one of a dozen people standing under a 10-foot long model of a predator drone.
“Alameda County Against Drones believes that the potential concerns with drones are too great to justify any use of drones at all in Alameda County. The potential payoff is miniscule compared to the potential abuse of civil liberties and privacy,” she said.
Inside, Alameda County sheriff Greg Ahern was facing a larger group of concerned citizens, defending his intent to spend $31,000 on a drone for search and rescue operations, and other emergencies. He promised the department would never put weapons on their drone, but Michael Rubin, with the local Green Party, wasn’t convinced.
“What I hear is that law enforcement is asking us to trust them. And frankly I believe that the level of trust required to embark on this is totally absent with large parts of the community,” he said.
On that day, the drone opponents had their way. The county government refused permission for the purchase. It’s just one of many examples of Americans pushing back against drones. More than a dozen states restrict drone use, and many cities and counties have passed their own drone bans or restrictions.
“There is going to be a great deal of public resistance to the use of UAVs, even in the case of humanitarian aid, because it's an unknown technology,” says Terry Miethe, a Criminal Justice Professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He’s part of a team of researchers who’ve been studying public perceptions of drones. In a 2014 survey, they found 93 percent of adults are opposed to the use of drones to monitor people’s daily activities. Less than half support the use of drones for monitoring criminal activity in public places, and only a third think governmental use of drones increases personal safety at all.
“There needs to be a citizen buy-in to any kind of technology, and I think that's the important sociological question: how do you get buy-in [for a] technology that has been used in military operations, and a technology that has enormous potential, but also some kind of scary consequences?” Miethe says.
Joel Lieberman, chair of UNLV’s Criminal Justice Department, says a major event involving drones could be a game changer.
“You can think about Hurricane Katrina, or a similar situation, where a river floods and people are cut off, and they're unable to get food and medical supplies, and the cavalry appears in the form of drones flying across that river and into the flooded areas and delivering those packages, and people seeing the good that can result from drone use. I think that really will shift public opinion,” he says.
Mark Jacobsen says his Syria Airlift Project could greatly benefit from some clarity from the government. Commercial operators like him have been waiting years for regulations from Congress.
“The biggest problem right now is there are no legal standards or rules for how drones should be used, and in that vacuum, a lot of bad stuff is happening. There’s not agreement over who can use them, where they can fly them, [and] that’s feeding the public distrust of drones,” he says. “So we’re all kind of working in a vacuum.”
For now, Jacobsen sits frustrated, while hundreds of Syrians die every week.
A small drone mounted with a GoPro camera lifts off, hovering over a field in the outskirts of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The drone operator keeps it low; the highest he normally flies it is 100 meters.
The drone belongs to two men who run an aerial photography company. They’ve asked me to withhold their names, because what they’re doing is technically illegal. In January of this year, Kenya issued restrictions on drones that, for all intents and purposes, have amounted to a ban. Anyone who wants to fly one has to secure permission from both the Ministry of Defense and the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA).
“There’s a friend of mine who applied in March and still today he hasn’t gotten feedback from KCAA,” the drone operator says.
The ban has certainly caused headaches for small businesses like the one run by these photographers. But it’s also put the brakes on bigger initiatives like a drone journalism project called African SkyCam.
Its founder, Dickens Olewe, recently returned from a John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford University. As part of that, he organized Silicon Valley’s first drone journalism conference. He has plenty of thoughts on how drone journalism could change the news landscape in Kenya, for example, giving journalists access to commercial drones to independently survey flood damage, separate from government-run surveys. Olewe has used drones in other ways too: creating interactive features with 3D models by stitching together hundreds of images taken with drones, and using the technology to explore live-casting virtual reality content.
“We’ve done all that, but as I speak to you today, we are not doing anything,” he says.
This, of course, is because of the ban — a ban that, by all accounts, was caused by a news drone that flew a little too close to the sun.
“The reason why the government imposed this ban in January was that in December 2014, which was the national day of celebration at Nyayo Stadium, somebody flew a drone a few minutes before the president arrived,” Dickens says. “They kind of messed up the space for us.”
An excess of caution is perhaps understandable in this East African nation. Kenya has suffered a series of deadly attacks at the hands of Al Shabaab terrorists in the last few years, most recently the April massacre of 147 students at Garissa University. KCAA director general Captain Gilbert Kibe is on the record calling terrorism a concern when it comes to drone proliferation. But Olewe is optimistic that the ban will not last much longer, mainly because of good old-fashioned competition between nations.
“What’s really interesting is that South Africa also did the same thing. They basically said, we are concerned about the use of this equipment, but we also appreciate the amazing potential for the technology. Therefore we are restricting a ban for one year as we engage the industry and we will publish some rule making in one year,” which Dickens says they did in May.
He thinks the Kenyan government is considering a similar move. An official at the KCAA confirmed that comprehensive regulations were in the works, but did not say when they would be released.
Coming up with these regulations will be no small task. Moses Gichanga is a researcher who has advised the Kenyan government on using drones in anti-poaching efforts. He ticks off a long list of hurdles. First, what happens if a drone hurts someone?
“Who bears the responsibility? Who’s culpable? Supposing they gave you a license, let’s talk about insurance. Who’s going to insure me? Right now insurance companies in Kenya have no framework for how they would even tackle [this],” Gichanga says.
These rank among other problems, like keeping unmanned aerial vehicles out of flight paths and balancing consumer drone safety with keeping them low-cost. They’re thorny problems that even developed nations like the US have struggled to answer. Until someone does, our Kenyan photographers will just keep on flying under the radar.
Reporter Emily H. Johnson is a freelance multimedia journalist who has reported in East Africa, Southeast Asia and New York, with a focus on human rights, health, and social justice. She graduated from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2010. She's an alumna of Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) training and a member of the Frontline Freelance Register.