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

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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