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A Sign of the Times? UN Launches First Drone

With drones in over 70 countries, critics warn we must stem proliferation before 'furies' are fully deployed

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

For the first time, peacekeepers with the United Nations launched a surveillance drone on Tuesday.

The UN's UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, is being deployed over the Democratic Republic of Congo "to monitor the volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda."

Though a reportedly peaceful mission, today's launch is another example of the mass proliferation of drones, a technology that has grown at a "geometric pace" and, as civil society groups warn, has outpaced any attempt to regulate their use.

In addition to the UN, over 70 countries in the world now deploy drones. As Foreign Policy in Focus columnist Conn Hallinan notes, drones today have become a "multi-billion dollar industry" with countries across the globe "building and buying them."

The proliferation of drones is staggering. In 2001, Hallinan notes, the U.S. had 50 drones; today it has over 7,500. And between 2005 and 2011, the number of drone programs—public and private initiatives—worldwide jumped from 195 to 680.

"Occupying someone else’s lands is dangerous and expensive, hence the siren lure of drones as a risk-free and cheap way to intimidate the locals and get them to hand over their land or resources," Hallinan writes, noting that the number of killer drones in development are "expanding at a geometric pace," with 16 countries currently owning "the lethal variety."

And in July, the U.S. Navy successfully launched "Salty Dog 502"—the first fully-automated UAV, which can "launch, land and refuel in midair without human intervention."

"It is not often you get a chance to see the future," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said following "Salty Dog's" successful touchdown.

Whether drones are used for deadly aerial attacks, surveillance by a local police force, or a "peacekeeping mission," critics warn that we face a future in which technology has swiftly outpaced any oversight.

Autonomous weapons, notes UN special rapporteur Christof Heynes in his report on drone proliferation, "may seriously undermine the ability of the international legal system to preserve a minimum world order."

Last month, human rights watchdog group CODEPINK hosted the first international drone summit to draw attention to impact of drones on targeted groups and discuss strategies to stop the proliferation of the technology.

Likening drones to Pandora's box, Hallinan writes that the box is "full of armed drones, but the furies are not yet fully deployed. There is still time to close it and ban a weapon of war aimed primarily at the powerless and the peripheral."


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