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by Lawrence Bush
ON AT LEAST FIVE radio news reports yesterday, I heard about the new Federal Aviation Administration licensing requirements for drone operators — a $5 registration fee, suspended until January — and the fact that some 700,000 drones, ranging in size from half a pound to fifty-five pounds, are expected to be sold this year.
Not one of those reports suggested that this might be a major national security threat.
Are they kidding? Here’s what motivated the FAA move: A December 15th report counted at least 241 reports of “close encounters” between drones and airplanes and helicopters in the past two years, including twenty-eight events in which pilots had to veer out of the way to avoid collision, and ninety events that involved commercial jets. All of these “close encounters” were presumably accidents — but what happens when a drone operator seeks deliberately to collide with a commercial jet?
Believe me, it’s been talked about: I’ve just skimmed a 2013 report by Tom Barry, a senior analyst with the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. He points out that despite its “lead role in the proliferation of drones, the U.S. government has failed to take the lead in establishing appropriate regulatory frameworks and oversight processes. Without this necessary regulatory infrastructure — at both the national and international levels — drone proliferation threatens to undermine constitutional guarantees, civil liberties and international law.” He also points to the big money behind the proliferation:
At the forefront of the money/politics nexus is the Congressional Caucus on Unmanned Systems (CCUS). Four years ago, the CCUS (then known as the House Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus) was formed by a small group of congressional representatives — mainly Republicans and mostly hailing from districts with drone industries or bases. By late 2012, the House caucus had 60 members and had changed its name to encompass all unmanned systems — whether aerial, marine or ground-based. This bipartisan caucus, together with its allies in the drone industry, has been promoting UAV use at home and abroad through drone fairs on Capitol Hill, new legislation and drone-favored budgets. CCUS aims to “educate members of Congress and the public on the strategic, tactical, and scientific value of unmanned systems; actively support further development and acquisition of more systems, and to more effectively engage the civilian aviation community on unmanned system use and safety.
Barry’s report limits itself to drones used for military, drug enforcement, and spying purposes. It does not even address hobbyist drones. But German authorities have already made arrests of “Islamic militants and right-wing extremists believed to be plotting drone attacks,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and drones have already crashed on the White House lawn. So why in the world has the FAA and the federal government permitted the sale of hundreds of thousands of drones in the U.S.?
IF YOU FOLLOW THE MONEY, the drone flight path actually leads to Hong Kong, where SZ DJI Technology Co. has become the world’s biggest consumer drone maker, selling thousands of a 3-pound drone for about $1,000 each. DJI’s competitors are “Parrot SA of Paris and 3D Robotics — the second and third-biggest consumer-drone makers, according to industry estimates,” reports the Wall Street Journal. (You can read an article by Chris Anderson — the founder of Wired magazine, who is also the founder of 3D Robotics, here.) It seems that the hobbyist drone industry is NOT controlled by the same companies that control the military and government drone industries — General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and the usual cast of military contractors, cited in Tom Barry’s report as major campaign contributors to the Congressional Caucus on Unmanned Systems and other Congressional advocates of drone warfare and surveillance.
Is it simply Homeland Security stupidity that has permitted this obviously dangerous technology from spreading so widely? Or the unwillingness of the federal government to tread on the “Don’t Tread on Me” crowd? Or has it been the judgment of our officials that it is good to popularize drones, to make them into toys, like G.I. Joe, that build popular support, in turn, for military and intelligence use of them?
Whatever the motivations, it is only a matter of time before a commercial airliner is deliberately brought down by a drone operator shouting “God is great!” Hell, he wouldn’t even have to commit suicide to pull it off.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.