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How should we govern drones that can be weaponised with impunity?

Researchers are highlighting the need for a greater understanding of the risks and threats associated with unmanned aerial vehicles.

From supplying medical equipment during the pandemic, to enabling terrorist attacks in Iraq and Syria, drones offer as much power to save as to destroy human life. Whether it be minor conveniences like Amazon delivery by air, or environmental protection tasks like monitoring deforestation and spotting illegal poaching, they are a carte blanche technology.

The market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they are formally known, is booming thanks to engineering innovations that have cut their cost and improved range, efficiency and functionality. As with innovations in artificial intelligence or autonomous vehicles, legislation and norms must keep pace with technical progress. “There’s a huge market opening up here, but you’ve got a new technology that is either unregulated, or is regulated in an inappropriate way,” says David H. Dunn, professor in International Politics at the University of Birmingham, who has spent the last half-decade analysing the security risks of drones. 

“Drones can circumvent traditional ways of preventing terrorist attacks,” Dunn argues. “They give you the ability to strike at a distance with immunity, with no forensic fingerprint, and no cost to the attacker. It doesn’t even have to be a suicide bomber”.  Suicide bombers in France attempted, and were foiled, from entering the Stade de France in Paris thanks to perimeter defences and access control systems, but those same explosives could be sent into crowded spaces via drone. Weaponised drones have already been used by terrorists in Iraq and Syria and, as their cost comes down, they are accessible to terrorist groups everywhere.

Even state-sanctioned use of drones is raising alarm as part of the wider pushback against lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS), which contravene international human rights laws, as currently framed, because enshrined principles of accountability rest on assumptions of human decision-making. “Can these things be regulated or are we happy to live with the fact that they are  pushing the boundaries of traditional interpretations of the legality of the use of force?” asks Professor Dunn.

Purposefully using LAWS to break the laws of international conflict, such as by targeting civilians, are not however the primary concern, since such actions  are already, in effect, covered by relevant conventions. A thornier problem is how to handle glitches or wrong decisions made by such robotic systems.  

Another often overlooked concern is  the less dystopian but more common criminal use. Drones have been used to smuggle illicit goods in ports and deliver contraband - including drugs, phones and SIM cars - to prisoners. They can also cause massive economic damage. When two drones veered into Gatwick’s restricted entry airspace zone, the entire airport had to close down, delaying or cancelling 1000 flights, affecting 140,000 passengers. “The Gatwick incident shows how easy it is to cause massive economic damage by flying drones,” says Professor Dunn. “The drone lobby says that everything's fine, that we should just put Gatwick behind us and move on. I’m trying to raise awareness about these risks.”

RHRNF20The Guardian front page headline, 21 December 2019. Image credit: Alamy.

Regulators are grappling with the burgeoning industry. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has passed a law governing recreational drones, with provisions including database registration, while  commercial drones policy covers issues like maximum weight, proximity to the pilot and speed limits. In the UK, a bill giving police powers to land, inspect and seize drones, has passed through the House of Commons and is now awaiting approval in the House of Lords. The European Union has passed a drone legal framework to supersede national legislation from December of 2020. It will combine market harmonisation measures that could support innovation – such as allowing drones registered in one country to be recognised in another - as well as imposing governance restrictions, like requiring new drones to be individually identifiable, which allows authorities to trace them if necessary.

Professor Dunn believes some current laws need to be fine-tuned to accommodate the entry of these new aerial actors. One international treaty the Montreal Convention (1971), for instance, forbids interfering with the flight of “any aircraft, which could apply to drones even if they are carrying explosives,” says Dunn.

He believes technical enhancements could, if mandated, provide authorities the powers they need to intervene in any malicious, negligent or criminal usage. Mandatory wireless transponder technology could provide information flows on drone ownership, for instance, and send advance notifications about flight paths, that would allow authorities to quickly identify errant or ill-intentioned arrivals. There may be a case to require investment in counter-drone technology like hologram radars around high-risk infrastructures like airports or political buildings.

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Regulators and manufacturers will have to be continually on the front foot. For instance, drone-makers already include ‘geo-fencing provisions’, to stop a drone being able to enter a restricted area like an airport or public buildings, but these systems can be hacked or disabled.

Professor Dunn is working with UK government bodies to flesh out the appropriate legal framework for drone technology, including the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and the UK Science and Technology Committee. He has also received grant funding from the Open Society Foundation to look at efforts to constrain the use of armed drones and from the Gerda Henkel Foundation for his work on the small drone threat. But there is much further to go, he says. “Innovations in law are needed alongside developments in this technology”.

Top banner image credit: Alamy. 

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