Germany’s cancelled Euro hawk drone. Northrop Grumman photo

The Drone Zone

Tom Hart’s flying robot news for the week of June 5-12

Drones. Everybody’s worked up over drones.

Whether it’s techno-utopians who revel in science-fiction-come-true, politicians keen to wage war sans body bags, slightly paranoid citizens up in arms about surveillance or protestors who see drones as yet another war crime there’s no doubt flying robots move with the spirit of the times. While the humble landmine continues to kill and maim thousands each year, all attention falls on the less lethal but sexier drone. So it goes.

This column will provide a regular update on drone attacks, advances in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle technology and political controversies over UAV deployments.

Let’s get started with an update from the drone war frontline, the three countries where drone attacks have become routine: Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

A strike in Yemen is alleged to have killed one Al Qaeda commander and up to seven other fighters. As usual, casualty figures vary. Drone attacks commonly go unacknowledged; second-hand reports from locals are the main means for counting the dead and wounded.

The attack comes as American activists from Code Pink, an anti-war organization, are traveling to Yemen to meet drone strike victims, following a similar visit to Pakistan last year. For an insight into drone strikes in Yemen, watch this report on the first strike authorized by the Obama administration.

Pakistan’s new prime minister has vowed to protect his country’s sovereignty from U.S. drone attacks, although other than a finger wag, a stern letter and a good pout at U.S. diplomats it’s hard to see what Pakistan can – or, perhaps wants — to do to stop UAV activities. A drone attack in the tribal areas against fighters from Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed seven and injured up to four people early this month. Among the dead was Wali-ur-Rehman, the organization’s second-in-command.

An Air Force drone operator. Air Force photo

Seems like everybody has UAVs nowadays. Iran continues to drone on, with local media reporting that a new aircraft will be unveiled later this year. Bahrain has complained that Iranian drones have violated its airspace, and back in May Israel shot down a Hezbollah drone near Haifa. All this points to Iranian UAVs becoming a regional nuisance. The rumor is that drones are used to support Syrian government forces with artillery spotting. As Iran and other more powerful U.S. rivals acquire drone technology, the American defense establishment has started to consider counter-drone options.

Down in South Africa, arms companies are joining the drone race with local company Denel Dynamics entering a test phase. South Africa might be on the up, but Russia – despite unveiling the ever-so-slightly-obscene Skat stealth drone – faces problems, with the defense minister berating Russia’s drone industry for lagging behind foreign competition.

Also behind the times, France scrambles to keep up with drone technology, and aims to purchase two U.S. Predators for surveillance purposes, a deficit revealed during operations in Mali. While Italy rolls out Predator and Reaper drones, Germany remains mired in a political scandal over the aborted Euro Hawk project. On the domestic security front, a German rail company has started using surveillance drones to spot graffiti.

Political activism against drones continues to swell. The U.K.’s Reaper control center at RAF Waddington now has a small protest camp outside the base’s main fence. Six activists were arrested for breaking into for breaking into the base perimeter last week.

Meanwhile, veteran libertarian Ron Paul voiced his fears, albeit light-hearted, that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowdon may be killed with a cruise missile or drone strike. Hong Kong might be a tad too far for U.S. drone operations, but Paul’s concern over UAV attacks on his country’s citizens is well founded. The ACLU hit the government with a lawsuit this week over a drone attack that killed three U.S. citizens. A report from the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, released earlier this year, highlighted cases where U.K. citizens had their citizenship removed through executive action and were killed in subsequent drone strikes.

Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) issued an opinion on U.K. drone legality. “There is … a strong presumption that the U.K.’s drones program is in breach of international law,’ conclude lawyers Phil Shiner and Dan Carey. Autonomous drones enabled to kill, they contend, are completely unacceptable under international law.

If you enjoy long legal documents as much as I do, read it all here.

State-by-state, drones face increasing regulation across the U.S. The Oregon senate has approved a bill to regulate police drone use. The cops can now only use UAVs during emergency situations or with a warrant so routine surveillance is out. Down in Texas it’s the citizenry who give legislators cause for concern, with states legislators voting to restrict drone usage for surveillance across the board, even for hobbyists.

Back in London traditional sushi delivery has been replaced at one restaurant with a remote-controlled helicopters — but only for a brief publicity stunt. Operational conditions were reported to be less than optimal. Sometimes it’s best to stick to the old ways.