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Spying, flying and delivering tacos – with drones, the sky’s the limit

The Federal Government is considering allowing the US to base military surveillance drones on the Cocos Islands – an Australian territory located in the Indian Ocean between Australia and Sri Lanka. The…

Military drones, such as the Predator, are only part of the equation. balazsgardi

The Federal Government is considering allowing the US to base military surveillance drones on the Cocos Islands – an Australian territory located in the Indian Ocean between Australia and Sri Lanka.

The news comes four months after the US and Australia agreed to a closer military alliance during Barack Obama’s visit to Australia last year.

Aerial drones (otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles) are now a fixture of the modern skyline and the Cocos Island discussion is only the most recent mention of drones in the media.

The rise of drone technology is due largely to their flexibility – a drone need only be constructed to carry a camera for surveillance or a weapon. Not having to accommodate a pilot makes a huge difference to the design and, more importantly, the costs of building and running the machine.

While convenience and utility is driving the use of drones, important questions are being raised about their use for surveillance of civilian populations and in unmanned missions to target enemy combatants.

Drones come in many shapes, sizes and capabilities. An Israeli-made Eitan drone (see video above) for instance, is the size of a Boeing 737 (with a wingspan of 26 metres), can stay in the air for 20 hours and reach an altitude of 40,000 feet (roughly 12,000 metres).

At the other extreme, the Nano Hummingbird (see video below) is constructed to look like a real hummingbird, has a 6.5-inch (roughly 17cm) wingspan and can fly for eight minutes using the power of an AA battery.

US Predator B drones have wingspans of 66 feet (roughly 20 metres), can reach an altitude of 50,000 feet (roughly 15,000 metres) and stay in flight for 30 hours.

These are drones that have been regularly used in Afghanistan and Pakistan for targeted assassinations by the CIA. In the past eight years, the CIA’s drone program has been responsible for the assassinations of 2,223 alleged Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militants in 289 strikes.


The US police, and other countries’ police forces are using drones for surveillance operations with suggestions it is only a matter of time before they are equipped with non-lethal and lethal weapons.

Drones have also found their way into civilian use. In the US, a federal law allows the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones for commercial uses, include selling real-estate, monitoring oil spills, dusting crops and filming movies.

But possibly the most original drone applications include their use to play musical instruments and to deliver fast food.

San Francisco-based (where else?) start-up Tacocopter has set up a business in which orders for Mexican fast food made on a smartphone are delivered to the customer, wherever they are, by drone.

Unfortunately for the company, the use of drones for delivering fast food has not received FAA approval. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the difficulties involved in delivering a food package without maiming or killing the recipient.

But it isn’t the just the military and small businesses that are employing drone technology. You or I can head to our local store and purchase, say, the popular Parrot AR.Drone for around US$300.

This 380-gram “quadrotor” can be flown using an iPhone or iPad controller that displays pictures from on-board cameras. Although flying the drone still takes some skill, it has on-board electronics including an ultrasound device that enables it to hover when the controls are released.

It is not clear what the average person would use a drone for other than for spying on their neighbours or terrorising their dog. But in Poland, a drone was recently used to film police tackling rioters in Warsaw. CNN has even used consumer-level drones to film a town that suffered extensive storm damage.

Despite the obvious benefits of drone technology for a range of uses, there are some considerable drawbacks.

Although drones are uninhabited and some can even fly missions without control from the ground, one of the problems faced by the US Air Force has been, ironically, the lack of trained staff to fly them.

Another, more serious threat is the use of malware (or malicious software), such as the virus that infected US drone-control systems.

And then there’s the possibility someone could capture your drone, as was the case of Iran’s capture of a US RQ-170 stealth drone, possibly by fooling its GPS system.

As well as the technical and operational concerns about drone technology, there are also significant privacy concerns that need to be addressed. To concerned citizens, drones pose a danger of increased surveillance.

In a society that is already monitored by fixed closed-circuit cameras, the ability to increase that surveillance to any area is seen by some as yet another encroachment on the privacy of the individual.

But it would seem drone-related privacy concerns are being taken seriously in some circles. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in the US has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to records from the FAA detailing who is currently using drones.

In a similar vein, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has published a report looking at the privacy issues around the use of drones and recommending courts impose limits on the use of drones for surveillance.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has described the Cocos Island drone base as “very much a long-term prospect”. It’s clear we’ll be hearing about this technology for some time yet.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. William Bruce


    Allowing us to become financially & militarily dependent on USA is is not only foolish but a DISSERVICE to our allies.

    Like it or not, traditionally the UK are our grandparents & the USA are our cousins but who knows what future Govts over there will do.

    ..I am opposed to any US military bases here. If there is a War & they want to help they can be here in hours.
    Also, is there a written agreement re "the leaving when asked to"? This ought be an election issue.

    We need to be able to stand up for our own interests or we WILL get shafted.

  2. Tim Ryan

    Self employed

    Australians are smart, courageous and inventive.
    If Australia wanted to defend ourselves, we could.
    If we wanted to defend Cocos Island ourselves we could.
    We can make drones (and other military hardware) ourselves. We don't need to let contracts such as for military uniforms overseas. We can do it better ourselves and keep the money within Australia.
    Its a question of will.
    Australian made drones could be in the air, in the water or on land.
    We have honed our offensive capabilities so the we can fight for the US, perhaps we need to hone our defensive capabilities.
    Without the ability to defend ourselves and produce our own weaponry we compromise our sovereignty.

  3. Shirley Birney


    The use of predator drones, of course, is distinct from surveillance drones because surveillance drones can acquire information without bringing about death or devastation.

    However, there is an underlying message to those nations who are perceived as threats to the chest-thumping US in its plans for Australia to host spy drone aircraft, and more particularly, the proposal to host an increased number of US nuclear attack submarines at Garden Island in WA.

    From Hiroshima to Iraq ( and Fukushima…

    Read more
    1. William Bruce


      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Re "Ms Gillard’s claims...."...I think Gillard has no notion of honesty...& deception-speak flows like Lake Victoria Falls.....

      She got in with one seat...& Lab won by 80 votes in my seat ...

      So, she/Lab got in with 80 votes & lies...and, this is assuming no poll cheating.

      Look at the the consequences?

      In any case the voting system must be PROPERLY upgraded to ensure no more cheating.

    2. Shirley Birney


      In reply to William Bruce

      Legendary Queensland corruption fighter Tony Fitzgerald QC said this week the Westminster system was a flawed and outdated model of representative democracy and political parties had learnt to exploit its weaknesses. He said Campbell Newman's "jobs-for-the-boys gravy train has already started.”

      Liar List:

      John Howard Lie #1

      John Howard: “No, there’s no way that a GST will ever be part of our policy.”
      Journalist: “Never ever?”
      John Howard: “Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by the voters…

      Read more
    3. William Bruce


      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley. You are not being fair.

      #1 Howard changed his positing re the GST and made this very clear prior to his re-election & the introduction of the GST. There is no dishonour to Howard there.
      Gillard broke her election promise immediately AFTER just winning by 80 votes & roping in independents (partly with lies). Ask Wilkie.
      Total dishonour in my view ...worse still, I suspect there was poll cheating. We need TOTALLY publicly verifiable & honest voting urgently. This is the biggest real issue!

      Howar Lie #2 This was bad in my view however, it only MIGHT be a lie and can not be proved. Foreign policy is another ball game but Howard is probably about the most successful politician ever largely because he WAS so Honest (& fair to all I think).


    4. Shirley Birney


      In reply to William Bruce

      William, In 1995, John Howard pledged "never, ever" to introduce the GST. Howard led the Liberal-National Coalition to victory in the 1996 elections on a lie. The definition of “never ever” is forever, permanently, for eternity, but he lied.

      He eventually got the “never, ever” GST bill passed in 1999 but only by “roping” in five of seven Democrats.

      There is no evidence showing WMD in Iraq during inspections of 2002 or during or after the 2003 invasion. Speculation does not equal…

      Read more
  4. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    I posted a carefully researched and documented comment on the article and the Cocos proposition last night but it was subsequently censored out, presumably for containing material The Conversation does not want its readers to read, know about or think about. My comment - together with a comment about this continuing censorship by The Conversation - has been published elsewhere (e.g. see: )

    1. William Bruce


      In reply to Gideon Polya

      "....continuing censorship by The Conversation"???

      Posters much for the Conversations credibility!

      The thought police silencing dissent & debate?


  5. wilma western

    logged in via email

    This is a staggering example of technology outstripping international and international law. Supposedly assassinations of Afghans whether by special forces including Australian special forces or drones directed from bases in the US are categorised as acts of war since there is a declared war underway. But there is a big problem re assassinations in Pakistan.... and what about other known perpetrators of political assassinations such as Israel's Mossad? That was a problem even before drones took to the skies. As for civilian commercial use of drones- what about the safety of air travel .let alone the safety of the Taco orderers?

  6. Patrick Cape

    logged in via Twitter

    I think perhaps the greatest challenge that the rise of drone warfare has is on the notion of sovereignty. America currently has the capability to hit anyone anywhere in the world. The War Powers Act has given the President the autonomous power to decide who is a terrorist, and then who would subsequently be liable to be targeted. This is regardless of where that potential target would be in the world. Obviously the notion of law and order along with cooperating with the US plays a critical role…

    Read more