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Oil prices were in for a shock on a mid-September Monday morning, when two of Saudi Arabia’s oil production facilities were attacked by multiple drones. Around 5% of the world’s oil supply was hit and it took the US’ reserves opening news to calm the oil price jump.
But the important question is how powerful are drones? If the news that has come out is accurate, 10 drones were successful against arguably the single most important piece of infrastructure in the global oil industry, present in a country whose defence spends are only next to the US and China.
Before we conclude how drones could change the world, let us take a peek into the journey of drones.
The drone is the popular name for unarmed aerial vehicles (UAV). These remotely controlled machines can fly without any physical human intervention on board.
The first recorded use of a UAV predates the actual airplane and goes as early as 1849 serving as a balloon carrier for military purposes. The first truly successful example of non-crewed remote-controlled aircraft was the de Havilland DH82B Queen Bee, which entered service in Britain in 1935 and seems to have been the motivation for calling such aircraft ‘drones’ (stingless male bees). Over time it was powered, used as target practice, used for reconnaissance and data collection, as decoys and finally in actual combat. The other documented use of drones includes package delivery, in agriculture (spraying pesticides, insecticides), environment monitoring, aerial photography and surveillance and during search and relief operations.
The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research quoted a report saying that the global drone market is expected to increase four times by 2022 from its 2015 value and surpass a net worth of $22 billion, inclusive of both combat and non-combat drones in military. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs Research points out that the overall drone market including the consumer drones will be around $100 billion by 2020, which says the non-military market will be far bigger.
The consumer drones take a lot of inspiration from radio-controlled (RC) airplanes and smartphones which has led to the exponential growth of the above-mentioned commercial drones. Let us take a look at how it has been used commercially.
In the agriculture sector, drones are being used to survey the health of the crops. Crop health can be assessed by using special multispectral cameras to take pictures. The relative intensity of colour in particular frequency bands is measured and thus identify undernourished and diseased plants. This can be done without having a manual checking of the crops which is more expensive and time-consuming. Satellite photography might also not be as economic as drones. Later, a GPS enabled tractor can do the needful and prevent chemical runoff.
The construction industry is using it for “reality capture”. Thousands of photos are captured aerially and then stitched and crunched together to make a 3D model. It is later matched with the digital model to check the deviations between the construction and the design. This helps to take corrective steps and also prevents errors. They are also being used to measure the mining stockpiles, whose manual stockpiling has been dangerous.
We can also take a look at how drones will be used by the Indian Government. The Government is trying to map the entire country with precision. It wants to use the results for marking boundaries and help future property buyers. The State Government in India used drones for search and rescue after the 2015 floods in Chennai. Drone photography seems to be already in use in the entertainment industry and weddings.
Drones could revolutionize the delivery market. Amazon has already announced its ambitious Prime Air that can deliver packages up to 5lbs within a 10-mile radius post-launch. Dominoes has also announced their drone delivery plans. But we can see how drones have helped save lives. San Francisco based Zipline took off in Rwanda in 2016. It has now become a national on-demand medical drone network that is used to deliver 150 medical products (blood and vaccines mostly), to places that are difficult to reach. Thanks to the on-time delivery of blood, maternal mortality rates are declining. This shows that in parts with difficult accessibility drones can help save precious lives.
With further advancements of AI, sensors, and cameras, usages of drones are only going to increase. But we also need to remember that the drones created panic at Newark, Gatwick and Heathrow. Flights had to be suspended. It also caused revenue loss and panic attacks. The same advancements in technology can be implemented to limit the damage of drones. Companies such as Indra with its Anti Drone system ARMS try to jam a single or swarm of drones. Radars that identify drones pass on the message to ARMS and later use infrared cameras to confirm and identify the type of drone. Sensors then sweep the radio spectrum to determine what signals the drone is using. This is followed by careful jamming that excludes all other airfield machinery.
Various countries have their own regulations. These regulations generally cover where they can be flown, ranges, heights, sizes, types, etc. Some countries also demand registration. As I write this article post the Saudi attack, governments and experts are commentating on how ready they are for facing similar attacks. We will see many countries going on a purchasing spree of anti-drone capabilities.
However, we might not see an all-out ban on drones. Once technology hits the market, there is no stopping it. With all the benefits that drones can provide, they complemented so many industries in their use cases. Truly, drones have revolutionized photography, videography, surveying, and logistics. Only time will tell whether these drones priced at thousands of dollars can challenge defence mechanisms worth millions of dollars and cause ruckus again.
- Air Power in the Age of Total War -By John Buckley