torsdag 1. november 2012

Nano-technology drives development of new drones

The Norwegian Minister of Defence, Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen was on the news on October 28th trying to explain the Government’s position on drones. The background for the interview was the news that Norwegian companies produced missiles tailored for delivery by military drones. She seemed to have been surprised by this, and said in the outset that the Government is opposed to drones (!). In the next sentence she said that it is quite legal to use drones as long as one sticks to the limitations and regulations laid down in international law. She also said that producing and selling missiles were under the same control regime as other weapons for military use. Surprisingly she escaped with this wishy-washy statement. The journalist was apparently neither well enough prepared nor of the aggressive type. Hopefully, in a next round both the minister and the journalist will be better prepared. Because the galloping development of drones is about to make a giant leap into a dwarf world (‘nano’ is the greek word for dwarf).

I believe the initial statement by the minister was an instinctive defensive position, typical for a politician who smells something nasty and uncomfortable coming next. The increasingly frequent discussions and criticism about the US’ drone program, and how the Americans use drones in military operations, often for surveillance and subsequent attacks across boarder - sometimes with unjustified killings as a result - have caused distress and unhappiness with even the keenest allies, like Norway. The Obama administration has been caught lying about drone kills, as officials have given inconsistent and conflicting accounts of the drone attacks. An investigator operating on behalf of the UN has recently asked the US Department of Defence to provide the legal basis and justification for the increasing use of drones for military purposes, especially those strikes that have been carried out for targeted killings. The request indicates that US by these attacks, which take innocent lives, are violating international law.

Drones that can deliver missiles against a target are fairly big vehicles, almost the size of small aircraft. As the use of these types of drones is causing debate and criticism for violating international law and changing traditional norms for how war is conducted and military operations are carried out, a revolutionary new development of drones is taking place in military laboratories in USA, UK and Israel: the nano-drones are about to be operational. They have the size of birds and even insects. The Israelis have already started to test out a “Spy-Butterfly”, an insect type drone, for indoor surveillance. This butterfly shaped drone weighs only 20 grams, and is equipped with cameras for intelligence inside buildings.

In a not too distant future, say 5-10 years, nano-drones will probably enter battlefields in swarms, literally speaking. The challenges we see today with drones operating thousands of miles away from their ‘pilots’ and military headquarters, in and out of countries regardless of declaration of war or approval by governments concerned, are challenges that at least are caused by detectable flying vehicles. Governments may protest and react; the vehicles move slowly and may be shot down and identified, etc.. With nano-drones a totally new game is introduced, even if they cannot carry missiles and the kind of weapons we know today. Surveillance and intelligence gathering will improve tremendously; hence follow-on strikes by bigger drones, manned aircraft or cruise missiles may be much more effective and cause less collateral damage and unjustified killings.

The use of nano-technology to develop a new generation drones opens up for using results from research into how birds’ and insects’ wings have evolved through millions of years. Zoologist Richard Bomphrey said to The British Daily Mail earlier this year that this research will make it possible to aerodynamically engineer new drones that, because they are as small as insects and also fly like them, completely blend into the surroundings.

Think about the implications of these nano-drones entering into the non-military universe. That will surely happen, and I do not think we will have to wait long before we hear about the first event or incident.

Knut Nylænde is a businessman doing venture capital investments as well as investments in some more mature projects through his company, Moxie AS which is based in Oslo Norway. He is also active in public discussions in political and cultural matters.