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Drones: The New Cold War

Mon, 06/03/2013 - 9:54am
Chris Fox, Managing Editor

One of the most hotly debated topics in politics has a direct vein into the engineering community, drones (the hottest debated topic, unless of course you’re talking about 3D printed guns).

As recently reported by NBC News, a company known as Denel Dynamics, out of Pretoria, South Africa, is preparing to test armed drones, which it intends to sell to governments around the world. The article rightfully states, “The company’s move is but one signal that the era when only a small club of countries possessed weaponized drones is drawing to a close.”

I am a fan of not sending soldiers into battle, but I understand that wars still need to be fought (sometimes). Drones are a solution to that conundrum, firepower without the high risk for lives (on our side at least). Putting any ethics aside about drones killing civilians and the lack of a weight of responsibility because pushing a button is easier than risking the life of a U.S. citizen, this technology has already changed warfare for the better of the United States.

Then the mention of drones being used by our government within U.S. boarders boiled to the surface. For obvious reasons, this caused a stir about liberty and comments brewed about big brother and an Orwellian society. But, these ideas and murmurs have risen many times before, when new technologies made their presence known without our full understanding of its uses. Telephones, computers, the internet, RFID… the list goes on.

According to NBC News, “Only three countries are known to currently operate armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as drones are technically known -- the U.S., the U.K. and Israel… But China also is believed to have developed weaponized drones; the U.S. has said it would arm drones operated by Italy; and France and Germany also have decided to acquire them.” The new cold war will not be between two super powers. Our new enemy, holding their hand air-tight to their chest, will not be Russia or North Korea or even China. The new cold war will be against the scattered masses of engineers around the world.  

In a sense, this is great. Watch innovation take off, literally, and drones improve drastically over the next few years… err, months. An article by Lev Grossman in the February 11 issue of Time stated, “In a way, drones represent the much delayed coming of age of a field that has experienced a prolonged adolescence, namely robotics… Like Darwin’s finches, they’re evolving furiously to fill more and more operational niches and creating new ones as they go.” This is great from an innovation perspective. Rest assured drones will be flying out of every country that can afford to build them in just a few short months.

The downside is obvious. More countries, some who love the U.S. and some who hate it, will soon have the capabilities or the access to drone technology. Forget nuclear warfare at this point. Even the crazies that are toying with nuclear weapons know the worldwide implications of using such monstrosities. But drones are quiet, require little man-power, are fairly inexpensive (by comparison), and most importantly (or frighteningly), they are precise.

In Time, Grossman said, “Drones don’t just give us power, they tempt us to use it.” Only now, just a few months after the publishing of that article, others could soon have that power as well.

This new cold war will be scattered. We won’t be able to watch or compete with any single sovereign country. Denel Dynamics is owned by the South African government, which has said it would limit sales to governments that would be “accountable and responsible” and agree to “opportunistic” use of the weapons on justified targets.

As the U.S. continues to advance its UAV technology, we’ll be waiting for everybody else to show their hand, or maybe we don’t want to see it. What is certain is that the new cold war has begun, and engineers will be the sought-after commodity, again.

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