When the bee stings
In the early hours of June 27 this year, two Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, laden with explosives crashed into the Indian Air Force (IAF) station at Jammu.
Though this was the first drone assault on a military installation, Pakistani surveillance drones have been regularly spotted hovering near the India-Pakistan border area in the past few years. Security forces have detected UAVs dropping off weapons for terrorists operating in Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab. Drones are being used for surveillance and smuggling narcotics as well. According to Indian government figures, there were 167 and 77 sightings of drones along India’s western front in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
It seems drone attacks are becoming the preferred choice of militant and terror groups as they are cheap and easy to use. Besides, since these UAVs are small and fly low, they are hard to detect and counter-terrorist units find it difficult to intercept. Moreover, such attacks can be executed anonymously, unlike suicide attacks by humans.
Around the same time when the IAF station at Jammu was facing the drone attack, US airstrikes hit weapon storage facilities in Syria and Iraq used by Iran-based militias suspected of engaging in UAV attacks against US soldiers and facilities in Iraq. According to the US, those militias have used small explosive-laden drones that dive bomb and crash their targets in late-night attacks at least three times in the past two months.
These new drones are quite sophisticated as they use Geographical Positioning System (GPS) technology to find their target, making them far less visible and harder to defend against. Since the “suicide drones” are not guided by remote control, there’s no link with any human operator — no surveillance system can jam their control and movement.
The drones used by Iranian rebels are far smaller and less lethal than the American-made MQ-9 Reaper drones known for being one the deadliest UAVs in the world. Last year, the drone was used by the US to assassinate Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport in Iraq. A pilot and a sensor operator controlled the drone remotely from a distance of 1,900km. The death of Soleimani opened a floodgate of drone attacks in West Asia.
Today, drones are used for aerial photography, film shooting, home delivery of small items by e-commerce operators, inspection of industrial sites, infrastructure monitoring, creation of maps, crop monitoring, emergency response and security surveillance. Last April, Nasa went on to demonstrate the drone Ingenuity’s flight on Mars, opening up a new avenue for planetary exploration. Yet, when drones first emerged, they were strictly used for military purposes.
Modern military drones are usually sleek and advanced quadcopters — helicopters with four rotors, or moving components of an electromagnetic system. However, the world’s first drones were balloons, torpedoes, mini airplanes and even boats.
In 1898, Serbian-American innovator Nikola Tesla developed the first radio-controlled boat, the ancestor of today’s remote-controlled drones. In 1915, Tesla wrote about launching a swarm of unmanned aerial combat vehicles. The first attempt at a self-propelled drone as an aerial target, however, was completed in 1916 by English scientist and inventor Archibald Montgomery Low, the “father of radio guidance systems”. It wasn’t until WW I that the first pilotless torpedo was invented by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company.
These radio-controlled aircraft were called RPVs, or “remotely piloted vehicles”, but their military creators in Britain gave up the acronym for something more interesting in 1935.
So how did an aircraft come to be named after a male honey bee? The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains the etymology — “Drones are bigger and heavier than worker bees, and they leave the hive and swarm in the fall.
They are renowned for a sort of mindless, driven existence: they don’t gather honey, they don’t defend or maintain the hive, and their only purpose is to impregnate a queen bee… Using “drone” for the RPVs emphasised the fact that they had no mind of their own. And no doubt the buzzing flight of an RPV also reminded them of another flying buzzer.”
After WW I, companies worked to push drone technology forward with inventions like the Kettering bug, an unmanned aerial torpedo. During WW II, both Allied and German forces used drones to train aircraft gunners and aid in missions. Reconnaissance UAVs were first deployed on a large scale in the Vietnam War.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US in particular has significantly increased its use of drones. They are mostly used for surveillance in areas and terrains where troops are unable to safely go.
But they are also used as weapons and have been credited with killing suspected militants. However, drone strikes are not always as precise as claimed and it is hard to determine how many civilians get killed as “collateral damage”.
Information about US drone strikes remained mostly classified until the Obama administration was obliged by court order to release data in July 2016.
In the last two years, drone strikes have become a regular affair in West Asia and other conflict zones. For obvious reasons, their use in some countries has raised questions about the ethics of this kind of weaponry, especially when it results in the death of ordinary citizens, either due to inaccurate data or because of their proximity to a “target”.