The rise of the drone

Unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – have been a key technology in America’s wars. But now they are set to invade civilian life. Simon Wilson reports.

What are drones?

In the defence and aeronautical industries drones are known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aerial systems (UASs), or remotely piloted air systems (RPASs). But all of these names refer to the same thing: unmanned planes and helicopters that are controlled remotely by pilots on the ground, or by computers.

In one sense, drones are not new. Aeronautical engineers were experimenting with early versions of remote-controlled planes as early as the 1910s.

The US airforce began working on its unmanned programme in 1959, and used unmanned planes in the Vietnam war and for surveillance in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Israel has been using them since the 1970s for surveillance and missile attacks. But the real surge in the use of drones has come since 2001.

What happened?

In the years that followed September 11th, America ramped up its use of drones both for covert surveillance (by the CIA) and for lethal attacks on terrorist targets (by the US military). Between them, presidents Bush and Obama have ordered more than 500 deadly drone strikes.

In vast swathes of central Asia, north and east Africa and the Arabian peninsula, the Predator drone and its Hellfire missiles have come to symbolise US power – and lots of other countries are eager to catch up.

“UAVs have proved their value in Iraq and Afghanistan and are being sought by a growing number of militaries worldwide,” says Philip Finnegan of Teal Group, a defence analysis firm specialising in UAVs.

Who else uses drones?

Although America has only allowed its military drone technology to be shared with the UK, other countries – notably Iran – have managed to reverse engineer UAVs “with relative ease”, says Edward Luce in the FT. Iran uses drones to patrol the same skies over Iraq as the US does.

Last month, China signed its first big deal to export drones – its first customer being Saudi Arabia. And the Rand Corporation predicts that many countries will possess UAVs within five years. In terms of geopolitics, that means that America’s “unipolar drone moment” is coming to an end. In terms of economics, it means the market is expanding.

How big’s the market?

According to a 2013 study by Teal Group, global spending on drones will more than double over the next decade from $5.2bn a year now to $11.6bn (a total of $89bn over ten years).

America is likely to remain the dominant player: Teal predicts that America will account for 65% of worldwide research and development spending on UAV technology over the coming decade, and 51% of the procurement.

What are the civil uses of drones?

Patrolling borders (the US has been using UAVs to patrol is southern border since 2005); tracking forest fires, volcanoes and weather patterns; search-and-rescue missions, and criminal surveillance.

Civil drones use the same technology as military planes, but the big difference – other than the fact that they are not loaded with lethal weapons – is that they are much smaller and cheaper.

What are likely commercial uses?

Anything that requires the monitoring or photographing of a wide area. In the past year cameras fixed to cheap drones have provided news footage of the protests in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand – and of disasters such as the Australian bush fires and the flooding in southern England.

Drones also have large-scale industrial applications. Last month BP was granted approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration to use drones to conduct surveys at Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, the largest oilfield in the US. BP was lucky: many commentators have claimed that US regulators have been too slow in keeping up with the burgeoning technology.

In the UK, meanwhile, drones weighing more than 20kg are banned from civilian airspace, but overall UK regulators have been more open and pragmatic in the face of the evolving technology than their American counterparts.

How else will they be used?

Google is actively working on a scheme to use solar-powered drones to bring the internet to hard-to-reach parts of the world (and earlier this year acquired Somerset-based Ascenta in order to help this project).

Amazon has floated the idea of drones that could deliver small packages within half an hour of ordering; a headline-grabbing idea that is probably decades away. Hollywood is lobbying hard to be allowed to use drones more in filmmaking.

But by far the most widespread use, according to analysts, will be in the more prosaic realm of agriculture – allowing farmers to monitor their land much more easily, and apply nutrients and pesticides much more precisely.

Who makes drones?

The big makers of military drones include General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, AeroVironment and Boeing. The first three of these are based in southern California – a traditional centre for the defence and aeronautical industries and the site of many of the smaller start-ups focusing on the non-military markets.

These include Airware, which was set up by a former Boeing engineer, and Skycatch and 3D Robotics, which both have their roots in California’s community of hobbyist fliers. 3D Robotics, based in San Diego, sells small, self-assembly models for as little as $500, and was set up by Chris Anderson, a former editor of Wired magazine.

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