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Global proliferation of Drones

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Ritu Bhandari
Ritu Bhandari
The author is Head of Research, Smahi Foundation of Policy and Research. She is based out of Mumbai. She tweets at @Ritu_twt Views are personal.

Drones is the future of aviation. From being a technology used predominantly by the military for years, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), have gradually moved into the public sphere by offering versatile civilian uses. This is due to converging technological advances such as hardware miniaturization, sophisticated software functionalities and advanced sensors.

UAVs can no longer be viewed as precious aircraft of an elite few. For many years, UAVs capable of armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance were predominately operated by three countries: the USA, Israel and the UK. But there are now at least 15 nations operating these systems. 

In the Middle East, China and Turkey are two of the most prominent suppliers. UAVs produced by these countries are significantly less expensive than those made in the USA. Turkey has certainly become almost a superpower, using UAVs not only within its own borders, but also in Syria, and in Libya, and in Iraq as well. The aggressive use of drones instead of manned aircraft in geopolitically sensitive and risky areas is probably what we’re going to see more of in future.  

While several countries have seen this explosion of drone innovation in the civilian airspace, China stands out with the dominance of Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) as the market leader. USA has seen the rise and fall of many drone start-ups, alongside a realization on the part of leading aircraft manufacturers about the immense potential of the technology. U.S. dominance in adjacent fields – artificial intelligence, robotics, and 3-D printing, to list some here – is significant, making it a force to contend with in this sector.

India has primarily witnessed the proliferation of drone service companies that offer solutions across a range of areas, from agriculture to event photography. But Indian companies have not yet made a mark globally when it comes to the manufacture of drones or supporting hardware elements. In short, the innovation landscape and relative strengths and weaknesses are significantly varied across countries.

Misuse of drones for terror attacks 

Drones have the ability to reach inaccessible places at low costs and can carry out precision strikes. In recent years, drones that used to improve our daily lives with logistics and mapping support can now be programmed to destroy things remotely. What makes them lethal and effective for warfare are advancements in video-camera techniques, precision operations with improved GPS, stealth operations and faster speed. 

With rapid proliferation of drone technology and a bumper growth of its global market in recent years, the possibility of a drone attack cannot be ruled out even in the safest cities in the world. In other words, making drones has become child’s play today.

Drones are becoming security threats particularly in conflict zones where non-state actors are active and have deep pockets that make such technology easily accessible. The same characteristics that make drones attractive to militaries can make armed drones particularly susceptible to misuse. 

In the last few decades, drone technology has become incredibly popular and its rapid proliferation among combatant groups isn’t surprising. The primary reason for this proliferation is that drones are relatively cheaper in comparison to conventional weapons and yet can achieve far more destructive results. It is easy-to-procure and easy-to-operate. Drones can also be used for smuggling of goods.

In September 2019, Saudi Arabia suffered the deadliest attack on its oil facilities in recent times when a small army of drones attacked its two major oil plants, destroying nearly 50 per cent of the country’s global supply of crude. These drone attacks were claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Something once equivalent of a do-it-yourself kit was enough to blow up half of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil output.

The 18 low-cost drones (along with cruise missiles), supposedly deployed by Houthi rebels in Yemen to attack the Saudi oil facilities, caused oil prices to jump more than 10 per cent in a day. Not only Houthi rebels, many other armed groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, Libyan militias, Ukrainian separatists, Kurdish Peshmerga, Al Qaeda in Syria, Colombian FARC, among others, are known to possess and use drones. 

Downings of military drones 

The number of suspected or confirmed downings of UAVs grew to 14 in 2019 and surged to 24 in the first six months of 2020. The crashes almost entirely appear over the Middle East, in particular, active conflict zones in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Increases in suspected or confirmed downings of UAVs coincide with the growing use of UAVs in the Middle East and with the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles in the region. Similar scenarios are playing out in Syria and Yemen, where surface-to-air missiles supplied by Iran and Russia have claimed a significant number of downings. 

The increase in the number of shoot-downs is already having an impact on the UAV manufacturing industry. The US Department of Defense is worried that its larger UAVs are vulnerable to integrated anti-aircraft defences fielded by China and Russia. They are developing UAV countermeasures pod, which is a self-protection pod comprised of a full-complement of mature, fielded aircraft survivability equipment, which will provide full-spectrum protection for the aircraft. Full-spectrum protection would include infrared countermeasures to confuse heat-seeking missiles or jamming to make it difficult for a missile to be radar guided to its target.  

The true number of UAVs brought down is difficult to know because governments are reluctant to confirm successful downings and some combatants are eager to claim credit for crashes whatever their cause.

Brief Global History 

The very first attempts to devise a contraption that could fly on its own were reported in 1849, when Austrians attacked the city of Venice with balloons laden with explosives. However, due to the wind changing after launch, most of the balloons missed their target, and some drifted back over Austrian lines and the launching ship Vulcano. UAV innovations started in the early 1900s and originally focused on providing practice targets for training military personnel.  

UAV development continued during World War I, when the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company invented a pilotless aerial torpedo that would explode at a pre-set time. The US Army used pilotless aircrafts, called ‘Kettering Bugs’, which were meant to fly as aerial torpedoes using gyroscopic controls to bombard further across enemy lines. Later, during the 1930s, USA and England, both independently developed radio-controlled aircrafts. Nazi Germany produced and used various UAVs during World War II to fly attack missions.  

In 1959, the U.S. Air Force, concerned about losing pilots over hostile territory, began planning for the use of uncrewed aircraft and started a highly classified UAV program, after the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 in 1960. 

During the War of Attrition (1967–1970), the first tactical UAVs installed with reconnaissance cameras were first tested by the Israeli intelligence, successfully bringing photos from across the Suez canal. This was the first time that tactical UAVs, which could be launched and landed on any short runway (unlike the heavier jet-based UAVs), were developed and tested in battle. 

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel used UAVs as decoys to spur opposing forces into wasting expensive anti-aircraft missiles. In 1973 Vietnam war, USAF flew 3,435 UAV missions at a cost of 554 UAVs lost to all causes ie roughly 16 per cent loss rate. Later, during the Lebanon War in 1982, the Israeli military used drones to locate targets. These drones would carry out surveillance and identify targets that would be later bombed by the air force. 

In 1991 Gulf war, UAVs demonstrated the possibility of cheaper, more capable fighting machines, deployable without risk to aircrews. These have laid the foundation for the military drone programs as we know them today. 

Closer to date, the USA has been actively using drones to target militant groups in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. Then President Barrack Obama oversaw at least 563 drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, killing many civilians in the strikes, in his two terms as the president of the United States of America. Human rights organisations have routinely accused the USA of killing civilians in its drone strikes and brushing these killings under the carpet by calling them “collateral damage”. 

Recently in the Persian Gulf crisis, in January 2020, a United States drone strike near Baghdad International Airport targeted and killed Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force, a designated terrorist organization, a division responsible for extra-territorial military and clandestine operations. Nine others were killed alongside Soleimani, including four Iranian and five Iraqi nationals. 

Brief History of Drones in India 

The Indian Army was the first to acquire UAVs, in late 1990s from Israel, and the Indian Air Force and Navy followed. India first used military drones during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. At first, the Indian Air Force deployed manned English Canberra PR57 aircraft for photo reconnaissance along the Line of Control, but this system proved highly inefficient and strategically weak over the mountainous Kargil terrain. After India lost a Canberra PR57 to Pakistani infrared homing missiles, Israel discreetly supplied the Indian Air Force with IAI Heron and Searcher drones, which were useful for acquiring target information along the Line of Control. 

Since Kargil, India has procured numerous Israeli military unmanned aircraft. In 2009, the Indian Air Force purchased 10 Harops in a $100 million contract with Israel Aerospace Industries. In 2103, the Indian Air Force made a USD 280 million deal with Israel Aerospace Industries for a new series of Heron medium-altitude, long-endurance drones. 

In June of 2013, India began deploying Heron surveillance drones in a limited capacity over Maoist rebel strongholds in the east. Such activity has been limited to Andhra Pradesh-Odisha and Andhra-Chhattisgarh. These states are densely forested, however, so the UAVs have been of little use in reconnaissance and surveillance. 

Back in the 1990s, the Indian Army bought Israeli drones for recce and surveillance. But in 2019, India has procured 54 Harop attack drones from Israel. The Air Force already had an inventory of around 110 of these drones. These drones are equipped with electro-optical sensors to loiter over military targets such as surveillance bases and radar stations before exploding them. It has been designed to have a minimal radar-signature allowing it to perform stealth operations. 

Meanwhile, state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and a clutch of private Indian companies are making drones and developing UAV technologies. DRDO has developed its own domestic UAV/ UAS program. The project aims to develop a domestic arsenal to replace and augment the existing fleet of unmanned vehicles. Let us discuss a few examples.

DRDO Lakshya

This is a target drone used for discreet aerial reconnaissance and target acquisition. It is launched by a solid propellant rocket motor and sustained by a turbojet engine in flight. 

DRDO Nishant

Primarily designed for intelligence-gathering over enemy territory. It is also used for reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction and damage assessment.  


Similar to the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealth drone that is capable of releasing missiles, bombs, and precision-guided munitions. 

DRDO Rustom

Modelled after the American Predator UAV, the Rustom is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) system. Like the Predator, the Rustom is designed to be used for both reconnaissance and combat missions. It is expected to replace and supplement Israeli Heron model UAVs in the Indian Air Force. These drones can travel at 200 kmph and fly at altitudes of 6,000-10,000 feet. A higher version of MALE can fly up to an altitude of 30,000 feet and travel over 200 kmph. HALE or High Altitude Long Endurance drone can go beyond 30,000 feet. 

 In India the usage of all aerial vehicles, manned or unmanned, are governed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and foreigners are currently not allowed to fly drones in India. 

Notably in 2018, Harshwardhansingh Zala, an Indian teen, invented a drone to detect and defuse landmines. He watched a YouTube video where soldiers were trying to defuse a mine, and the mine exploded suddenly, injuring several of them. He thus, designed a drone that could detect the mines without seeing them off, and then drop a marker to allow mine clearers to detonate them safely. There are more than 100 million active landmines across the globe and such drones would be useful to save thousands of lives across the world. 


Current drone technology has already surpassed manned aircraft in endurance, range, safety and cost efficiency but research and development is far from over. Drone sensor technology currently in development can map 2.7 million square miles in a single flight nearly the area of the 48 contiguous US states. The next generation of drones will widen the gap between manned and unmanned flight even further, adding greater stealth, sensory, payload, range, autonomous and communications capabilities.

Furthermore, while drones have many possible functionalities, their scope across industries, has not yet been fully explored such as leveraging emerging technologies like AI, AR/VR, IoT and 3D modelling, which therefore, means that there is a lot of room for innovation and development as tastes and preferences change and get more refined. The usage of UAVs is only going to increase as the technology itself gets more advanced as well as accessible to the average consumer. In the current scenario, governments and large private companies like Amazon are exploring the possibilities drones offer in terms of recon, surveying, deliveries and so forth.

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Ritu Bhandari
Ritu Bhandari
The author is Head of Research, Smahi Foundation of Policy and Research. She is based out of Mumbai. She tweets at @Ritu_twt Views are personal.
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