We should embrace drones, but also question it as we go forward, says James Rogers from the University of Southern Denmark and the London School of Economics in conversation with Maciej Chojnowski

Maciej Chojnowski: Three years ago there was a pseudo-documentary “Slaughterbots” about smart miniature drones that can be learnt to automatically recognize humans and be used in targeted killing. Professor Stuart Russell took part in this movie to warn about the possible threats of unrestricted tech development. Is this sort of murderous machines the only reason why we should worry about drones?

James Rogers*: I think “Slaughterbots” was fascinating. It really grabbed peoples’ attention about what the future of drones could be. However, I don’t want to engage in that kind of hyperbole at this point. I’d prefer to keep this grounded in real life examples, because these are disturbing enough.

The current generation of drone technology has been used to try and assassinate world leaders and they have even been flown to the top of the Japanese Prime Ministers’ house, where – crammed full of radioactive material – they sat radiating for 2 weeks without anyone noticing.

We’ve seen attempted hostile drones use by terrorists in some of the major cities in Europe. Recently in Manchester, alleged terrorists went with a low-tech option by hollowing out eggs, putting crushed glass and chili peppers inside them and then hoped to drop them from a drone onto people, causing panic.

Of course, the drone is but one part of the way in which a terrorist can undertake an attack. Because once you’ve caused that initial panic, you start to spread people out into areas where there may be a terrorist waiting with more rudimentary tools to increase the potency of that attack. So, drones are becoming a system which a terrorist can harness for quite a powerful terrorising effect.

And we’re just talking about drones with non-lethal materials.

Yes. And now let’s look over to ISIS and the way in which drones were used alongside suicide bombers, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers, to create a quite sophisticated tactic of causing chaos and mayhem for Western forces on the ground in Syria and in Iraq.

ISIS had hundreds (if not thousands) in their arsenal. Tens of drones at a time would fly at high speed into the troop formations causing panic. They would then run at the back and the same wave of drones would be coming around the back, pushing the troops and creating a squash in the middle. That would make troops filter out to the sides and then there were vehicle-born IEDs, snipers and suicide bombers that had already been deployed to easily pick off troops. These drones are really hard to spot in terms of the human sight, but also in terms of the radar technologies and the counter drone technologies that we have.

Youtube movie URL: https://youtu.be/9CO6M2HsoIA

“Slaughterbots” was fascinating. It really grabbed peoples’ attention about what the future of drones could be.
Source: Stop Autonomous Weapons / YouTube

When you talk to force protection officers in Western military forces, they all tell you that their screens are lightning up like a Christmas tree because their own drone’s signature look a lot like the terrorist drones – it may even be a similar technology! Western and allied forces also have their own counter drone tech and their own larger drones in the sky. So, they have hundreds of different electronic signatures and to pick out that small, hostile drone is very difficult.

Just a couple of years ago, drones were considered a safer alternative to traditional weapons. Now this perception has changed. Why? What’s the most important factor here?

You are absolutely correct. During the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of casualties and fatalities were due to the IEDs. Those improvised bombs had been placed just under the surface of the ground, so that if troops or troop carriers went over they’d explode and kill or maim personnel. Western forces could no longer trust the ground they walked on. What’s the alternative here?

There was massive public pressure in the US and across Europe from the countries that had most casualties. Especially president Obama was faced with a real dilemma, because how can you continue to pursue national security threats globally and keep your promises about bringing the troops home?

Then drones came in. They can be controlled from thousands of miles away, stay in the air and loiter much longer than manned aircraft. They can stay over a target, gather intelligence, and then take out a target when needed.

President Obama said drones were a part of a ‘just war’. They saved lives, absolutely, but these were Western lives. Where we come down to the nitty gritty of it, a drone’s precision means increased and guaranteed destruction of the target that is aimed at. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right target. It only means whatever you’re hitting, is going to be destroyed.

So, when the wrong targets were hit, due to intelligence failures, you still had the end result of death and destruction. Thousands of civilians have been killed by drone strikes. But drones fulfilled the purpose in that moment in Western warfare. We pulled our troops back and moved much more towards a remote warfare modus operandi.

What has changed since then?

It used to be easier then, to analyse how Western forces used drones. Now we have around 140 different state and non-state actors that have military drone or hostile drone technologies. This is hand in hand with at least 40 nation states that are acquiring the biggest drones with armed capabilities. This means that you have a range of actors, both hostile and allied, that have the same capability that Western forces once had to kill with perfect precision.

Our enemies seek the weak points in our societies and right now drones are a weak point in our society

You can no longer operate drones with impunity and that’s going to change the way in which we fight wars. And this is happening at the moment because over the last 10 years we’ve got used to having low cost, risk-free wars. When the other side can now hit our troops, no matter how small the deployment or our base is, we have for the first time in generation an air power threat.

People in the US military say, especially when it comes to ISIS terrorist, that the US and Western forces have lost air superiority at that tactical level, that level between 400 and 4000 feet. The US of course has domain over that higher up level, but when it comes down to the ability to stop anyone operating in that lower level, it’s really difficult.

So drones were considered safe only when the West had an advantage over its enemies. But when the bad guys also got access to drones, this weapon is not safe any longer.

This is the case around the history of warfare. You invent the crossbow as a weapon of the elite and in time it spreads to those who are poorer. It’s easy to use and with very little training you can take out the elites with the crossbow. So you have to change the way in which you can conduct the practice of war.

Look at nuclear weapons. If only one side has the nuclear bomb, it has the domain over other nation states. But as that technology spreads, it changes the world. And we see now with drones that power that was once in the hands of one nation state, or a set of allies, has now spread to hostile actors and will again change the way in which we practice war.

But drones are not limited to warfare and it’s not only drones as weapons that are dangerous. What’s the main feature that makes drones dangerous in general?

Humans designed commercial drones to fulfil a range of ever more advanced purposes. The biggest drone manufacturers in the world create drones that can go ever longer distances with more sophisticated transmitters and more powerful motors, which means that the controllers have the ability to change the frequency in which the drone is programmed on. All these things were good for the commercial practice, because it meant they were more reliable and useful.

But someone who is a hostile human being may use them as well. The ever longer range affords ever greater deniability, because the further you are from the drone you’re using, the harder it is to know where you are and what you’re doing and what your purposes are.

The ability to carry ever more greater loads means that the person flying the drone for hostile purposes can carry more deadly cargos. And the speed and motors mean that they’re even harder to detect.

So, these seemingly positive technological capabilities can be used for more hostile means. The commercial techniques are advancing. That would be great if the counterattack and the legal and governmental administrations could keep a track of that. But there is far more investment in the advancements of the commercial drone technology then those counter drones tech. And of course, government mechanism always lack behind.

My push here would be for the drone manufacturers to work hand in hand with counter drone manufacturers on an increasing level and with governments as well. Otherwise the public will lose trust in the drone. Just look at the Gatwick airport drone incident or other cases where there were whole shutdowns of infrastructures.

I really think that drones can be used to foster good in the future and provide some absolutely vital capabilities throughout societies, especially in terms of logistics and medical supplies. But let’s not jump on this. Let’s make sure that we’re creating societies that can handle this technology and build up the infrastructures without losing complete trust in the drone.

During your Infoshare talk you mentioned that the increasing usability of drones during the COVID pandemic is putting pressure on decision makers to relax regulations in this area. Should we allow using drones on the broader scale in this context?

I think there should be a controlled use for drones at this point. Pilot schemes can be useful to help us work out the positive and negative practices in drone use. But my worry is that throughout history, technology has been seen as a panacea to solve our society problems. And we push forward technological advances without thinking of the longer-term consequences.

We’ve built up regulations around drones for a reason. And I have not seen any great advancements in counter drone tech that shows that we’re ready to relax those regulations. So at this point, I think we should not have mass relaxation of drone regulation. Instead we need to think very hard before we do that.

I think there should be a controlled use for drones at this point. But my worry is that throughout history, technology has been seen as a panacea to solve our society problems. And we push forward technological advances without thinking of the longer-term consequences

As I said in my talk, our enemies seek the weak points in our societies and right now drones are a weak point in our society. Just look at the attacks or the hostile encounter that we’ve had with drones across the United States. Some of the sensitives sites in America were reached by commercial drone technologies, from the White House and the Pentagon to one of the world biggest producer of nuclear energy in Arizona that was swarmed over a number of days by drones that we don’t know where they were from.

And it isn’t just hostile either, because we’re starting to see drones being used in our police and front line responders. And we’ve had worries from US recently that some technologies made in China are sending information straight back to Beijing. If this is the case and our police forces across Europe and across the US are using these drones to gather intelligence on our own populations and they’re used for front line policing, that’s something disturbing there. Where is all this information going and is it secure?

As far as regulation is concerned, should we consider drones being part of broader sector of digital ecosystem including AI or IoT, or should we think of them as something separate?

As with any emerging technology, I think drones do fit into that broader framework, especially including AI. They help us to consider those ethical issues connected with technology.

And I work closely with drone teams here in Denmark and in the UK as well, trying to work out those needling problems in the back of an engineers’ mind about how these things can be used. So I’m more than welcome to keep those drones within a broader framework of analysis there because there’s lots of discussions in AI that apply to drones and many drone discussions apply to AI.

In fact, a lot of people that work on drones are also pushing through to work on AI because one of the arguments is that drones will be ever more AI systems and automated systems. So I would welcome continuing to have an interdisciplinary discourse and to frame those together.

Apart from the regulations themselves, how can we protect ourselves from the possible threat of drones? You’ve mentioned counter drones technologies.

First of all, I find the counter drone technologies are very much dealing with the last generation threats of single drones, or maybe even drones in ones or twos that fly in lower levels. We now have that capabilities to attach drones to free apps and free software so you can link 6 or 7 drones all at once to a computer system or a phone and steer them from wherever 8 kilometres towards the target very easily.

In fact, we don’t even need to fly them ourselves. We just press the location on the map and the drones will go up, take off, and fly towards that target. If the law enforcements are confronted with this threat, how are they actually going to bring those drones down?

Aren’t there systems that can simply shoot down drones?

With regard to drone guns or drone nets, each one is designed to bring down one or two drones. And that’s provided that the counter drone system is even there. So we need to start off by really securing those sites that are most sensitive to our country and our vital infrastructure. Our power stations, military bases, government offices, they all need to be protected.

But if the counter drone technology is still one step behind, then how can they be adequately or suitably protected?

I don’t think they can at the moment, but that’s our first point of call.

Next up, as a concerned public, I think we should embrace drones, but also question it as we go forward. Do we really need to have that level or technical sophistication or perhaps the size of those drones, or the payload, for the given purpose? Or could we perhaps have a system that still fulfils its job but without maximizing the risk if it was going to wrong hands. Because drones can be hacked.

The other thing is that, in places like the UK, there is a threat from gun crime, but not every single police officer is armed with guns. What we have is rapid response police teams that are armed and if there is a case of someone with a gun, or presenting that threat, then you send the response team with their guns. So analogically, why can’t we have that in terms of drones and counter drone technologies? We don’t need to have a police officer out there with their own drone guns over their shoulders at all times. Instead we need to have dedicated rapid response local teams that are able to pick up and show up when necessary.

We would like to thank the organizers of Infoshare for their help in arranging the interview with James Rogers.

*James Rogers is DIAS Assistant Professor in War Studies, within the Centre for War Studies, at SDU, and Associate Fellow within LSE IDEAS, at the London School of Economics. He is currently Special Advisor to the UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, Advisor to the United Nations, and a UK MoD Defence Opinion Leader.

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