Bombings, missiles, propaganda, animal protection, farming, journalism and smuggling drugs—what do all these things have in common? These activities seem impossible to relate or share any commonalities with each other, but they can all be conducted with drones in contemporary society. Once used only for military purposes, drones have gotten smaller and cheaper and are now into the hands of civilians to serve myriads of tasks—ranging from protecting endangered species to smuggling illegal drugs across borders.
▲ Typical Drones. Provided by nbcnews.com.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS), were originally developed for military
purposes in the beginning of 20th century. The name “drone” was adapted to refer to these UAVS as the sound made by the aircrafts was similar to the monotonous low tone: humming or buzzing sound made by bees. In the beginning, drones were used as flying targets for missile strike drills. Later their purposes diversified as they were used for surveillance as well as for launching attacks.
▲ People standing over the debris of U.S. drone strike (Yemen, Feb 3, 2013). Provided by KHALED ABDULLAH / REUTERS FILE.
The widespread usage of drones in the military arena, especially by the United States (U.S.), has been a controversial issue since 2004, the year drones were first used to initiate air strikes. Since drones are unmanned, countries using drones could launch large scale attacks and kill hundreds of people without a single drop of blood lost on their side. The U.S. has been severely condemned for not only killing soldiers, but also innocent civilians in Pakistan and Yemen over hundreds of times during their “War on Terrorism,” as they tried to terminate terrorists.
However, thanks to the development of technology that has largely driven down the cost and size of drones, civilians started to get their hands on them. It has been estimated that 127 thousand drones were sold just on Ebay from March 2014 to January 2015, with its profits reaching 16 million U.S. dollars. The market for drones is expected to expand on an unprecedented scale. According to Asahi News, the market for drones will be as big as one billion U.S. dollars by 2023, equal to the size of the current global television market.
▲ Drones used for agricultural purposes. Provided by U.S. News.
American farmers have started to use drones to sprinkle water and pesticides over large areas of land. In Mexico, in order to stop endangered dolphins from being further hunted, the government has decided to use surveillance drones to keep an eye on poachers. Smugglers even tried to use drones to smuggle 2.7 kg of methamphetamine from Mexico to the U.S.
This trend has gained the attention of Internet giants as well. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have been avidly developing drone technology or choosing to acquire drone startups. In December 2013, Amazon announced that it had succeeded in developing a new shipping system named Prime Air. Google acquired a drone manufacturing company, Titan Aerospace, in April 2014. Facebook, which had also wanted to acquire this company, resorted to buying a British drone company named Ascenta instead.
Internet giants envision that drones will enable the spread of the Internet in developing or underdeveloped countries. These corporations are competing to expand their markets not just by waiting for the Internet to be installed but by bringing it themselves to the countries. Before the development of drones, the installment of such infrastructure was too expensive for private enterprises, but drones have solved the problem.
Media companies are also hurrying to join in this rush. Their aim is to use drones to photograph and capture video images from above. Drones have especially proven to be useful in filming disaster stricken regions or war zones. National Geography used drones to film the life of a lion in 2014 in Tanzania. CNN has utilized drones to capture the riots in Turkey and a typhoon in the Philippines. It also negotiated with the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use drones in the acquisition of information and news in the beginning of 2015.
Governments around the world have also decided to jump in the wagon, further fostering the growth of the drone industry. By September, the FAA plans to deregulate the current policies that limit the usage of drones. The European Union (EU) also plans to allow all kinds of drones to be of widespread use by 2016.
The optimism over drones, however, should not shadow some critical drawbacks of using them. It is true that drones are useful, as they have many advantages. Their major selling point is that drones can be sent to areas too dangerous for human beings to enter—regions affected by nuclear energy, countries in severe war, treacherous terrains, and so forth. It is also cheaper to use drones as they can sufficiently replace human labor.
Nevertheless, the widespread usage of drones sheds light into escalating security and privacy problems. Just in January, a drone fell near the White House raising a major security alarm. Although it turned out that the drone belonged to a government official who bought and flew drones for amusement purposes, this incident highlights how drones can become a major security threat, for their small size makes them difficult to detect on radar.
On top of that, since drones can be flown virtually anywhere at a very low height, drones with cameras attached on them could pose as major threat to privacy. Some experts even argued that the privacy of individuals have evaporated in the age of drones. In response to the security and privacy conundrums, governments are struggling to find a correct balance between regulation and deregulation.
In Korea, the drone market is relatively small compared to other developed countries. The regulations related to drones are also much harsher, thus restricting the growth of the drone market. The public has not yet gotten interested in drones as much as their counterparts in other countries. Although organizations, such as Fighters for Free North Korea (FFNK), plan to use drones to drop propaganda leaflets to North Korea, the Korean drone market has still a long way to go.
The year 2015 will certainly be the year for drones. Further development of drones will allow mankind to take another big leap forward in technological innovation. However, the security and privacy issues involved should not be overlooked so lightly. Embrace drones, but stay wary.