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Drones: deadly killing machines or evolving technology?

Don McCullough

Ten years on since the first recorded targeted drone airstrike by the CIA in Yemen in 2002, and in Pakistan in 2004, the US has resumed deadly drone strikes in the region after a 6-month hiatus amid emerging concerns over Isis in Iraq, the Taliban, and the threat of Al-Qaeda.

Over 386 airstrikes have killed an estimated 2,878 people yet Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, continue to be shrouded in secrecy with official figures for death and casualty tolls widely unknown, according to the Bureau of investigative Journalism.

Despite more drone strikes taking place in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world, public records of the impact of drone strikes in the region remains largely unverified in comparison with those in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau, an organisation that has tracked drone strikes and their consequences, estimate dozens of people in Pakistan and Yemen were killed in June alone. Despite a large majority of the deceased claimed to be targeted Al-Qaeda linked militants, human rights activists argue these claims are often inaccurate and unverified with many unknown civilian casualties, according to the Rolling Stone magazine.

Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent blog post: “Never before in US history has such a lengthy and lethal military campaign been so inadequately described or justified by the government, which retains the fiction that these strikes are ‘covert’ and unworthy of public examination.”

As Pakistan and Iraq continue to call for security assistance to eradicate Taliban strongholds, the impact of the evolving use of drones in Middle Eastern countries and on home soil is being scrutinised once more.

So why are drones beginning to patrol our skies?

What are drones?

Drones are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are generally navigated to their destination by ‘pilots’ on the ground or pre-programmed to go to a particular destination with a mission before jetting off.

Drones can be used for a variety of purposes, and can be loaded with explosives, used for surveillance, or for recreational use.

Why are drones used?

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles have increased as they are thought to be cheaper, more efficient and can fly for longer periods of time in comparison with manned aircraft.

Death, bad press and serious concerns

Many are becoming increasingly concerned of the implications of drones on privacy, the largely unknown worldwide death toll from strikes, and how they may shape the future with all-seeing patrolling drones.

According to the New America Foundation, drone strikes in Pakistan rose steadily under President Barack Obama in 2009, to their peak of 122 in 2010. Only 58 known militant leaders have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, representing just 2% of the total deaths.

Rachel Reid, director of regional policy initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, asks why the US have ramped up airstrikes since the Bush administration started them: “Did the US resume drone strikes because the Pakistani talks had failed, or because of the Bergdahl release, or the second round of the Afghan elections, or a mix of the above?”

Does the UK have any involvement with drones and will they affect us here?

Yes, some British police forces use drones as surveillance tools to help them record major incidents. Alongside CCTV, drones are used by recording live footage of incidents by beaming high quality images from the sky to officers patrolling the streets and from the comfort of their offices.

Viewed as cost-efficient technology and perhaps a new addition to improve the effectiveness of British policing, Sussex Police are trialing the new ‘Skyranger’ drone as part of a scheme funded by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The aim is to monitor major incidents in and around Gatwick Airport and Sussex.

The ‘Watch Keeper’ drone is also expected to play a “significant role” in British military campaigns in the future after being trialed in Afghanistan.

The unarmed drone is now being used for surveillance across the UK’s skies. Colonel Mark Thornhill, Commander of 1st Artillery Brigade told Huffington Post: “Watch keeper is a state-of-the-art system coming in to service now. It can fly for longer, it flies off rough strips, and it has better sensors.”

War on Rant, an anti-poverty charity, condemns the use of the Watch Keeper drones in the UK claiming they have been field-tested by Israel in attacks on Gaza, killing many Palestinians.

Drones can be purchased by anyone for recreational purposes leaving many fearful of breaches of privacy that surveillance drones may pose.

However, the Civil Aviation Authority states drone use is regulated in the UK, banning any objects heavier than 20kg from hovering around British airspace. Permission needs to be sought to have larger objects or if they are used for surveillance or data-gathering purposes.

While it is argued drone strikes inflict unnecessary harm to civilian populations in conflict stricken countries when identifying suspected terrorists to target, some consider drones to be just another consequence of dependency on evolving technology and the need for security on home soil.

As technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, drones may be used in a similar way to CCTV by capturing our every moment from a machine in the sky.

With the unverified civilian casualties in covert drone strikes across Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan from drone strikes continuing to rise,  what will the future be with the use of drones, and how long will it be until we too are fearful of the machines patrolling our skies?

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