Advancements in Civilian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Security Implications
Intro UAVs were born out of a military need for information that lies outside of physical reach, active combat and terrain being major impediments. Over time, growing capabilities allowed UAVs to take on more complex missions like missile-guidance or targeted-hits. Though military UAVs still out-perform civilian counterparts in specifications and stat lines, civilian UAVs have seen tremendous advancements in design, software, and even application. It is almost expected to see a former “military-only” technology experience popularity and sector growth after reaching civilians, like what happened with the Internet. With the growth of civilian UAVs, concerns of nefarious use and the unknown have been brought to the forefront by both governments and civilians alike. This paper seeks to present advances in civilian UAV technology, analyze security concerns, and provide basic recommendations for US policy makers.
Applications and Advancement Civilian UAV usage and design have evolved in a variety of fashions to meet an ever-growing list of needs. The two areas of advancement that will be focused on will be “reach” and “spread”. Reach is having a drone get to its target and monitor or gather data; the idea of reach was later augmented by the military to include eliminating a target. Spread is using more than one drone to achieve a “blanket” of coverage and engage in UAV-to-UAV communication through “swarm” protocol.
Traditionally, reach UAVs have been used in military capacities to engage in reconnaissance, target-tracking assistance, and target-elimination. With growing popularity and public awareness, many civilian companies and groups have engaged in using reach UAVs. This year, Google has begun testing UAV-based delivery to farmers in rural areas that are cut off from traditional delivery services.1 Furthermore, Amazon has already made promotional videos of their proposed UAV-based delivery system in the US and plans to test it in India.2 Civilian reach UAV development has actually been present since the late 1980s and continues to evolve. Developed back in 2004, the Yamaha RMAX is an agricultural reach UAV that is used to gather data on crops with the option for visual relay in higher-end models.3 The drone resembles a scaled helicopter and offers relatively easy operation with pre-planned flight capabilities. However, the RMAX was still relatively large (at over 3.6m long) and could only fly out of line-of-sight (LoS) at higher-end models, in the price range of $150,000 to $260,000.4 In addition to agriculture, popular civilian applications for reach-based UAVs include: filmmaking, land prospecting, disaster-relief, and even emergency-medical-services (EMS). 3DRobotics, a US technology firm, has submitted a UAV design, called Hexo+, specifically created for filmmakers that implements proprietary tracking and spatial awareness algorithms to the popular crowd-funding platform: Kickstarter.5 As one of the first commercial options not offered through an agency or service, the goal was so popular that it outstripped it’s original funding goal of $50,000 twenty-six times over, $1.3 million raised. Finally, students at the Dutch Delft University of Technology have created an EMS UAV loaded with a defibrillator that promises to “increase the chance of survival following a cardiac arrest: from 8% to 80%”6. By flying instead of driving, the response time could be significantly cut down. However, major issues like operating outside of line-of-sight and loss-of-signal (especially trying to rely on GPS-only in an urban environment) limit its applicability. Nonetheless, the aforementioned examples all demonstrate dramatic development in civilian reach UAV usage.
Spread UAVs have seen little presence in military applications due to limitations in communication and fragility, neither of which are acceptable for military use. However, the idea…