Industry grows, spreading technology

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Just as the AK-47 rifle has made its way to virtually every army and backwoods militia world-wide, experts said unmanned aircraft could follow the same path. That is because as the drone industry grows and the technology becomes more accessible, a number of countries will want to get their hands on aircraft that puts eyes and guns in the sky for a fraction of the cost of a conventional fighter or surveillance aircraft.

"The technology of drones is going to be far ranging," David Fastabend, retired US Army general and currently vice president at ITT Corporation, told dpa. Unmanned aircraft have in recent weeks grabbed headlines for the killing of top al Qaeda operatives, most notably last month when Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by two Predator drones firing hellfire missiles.

Drones have revolutionised the US fight against terrorism, striking with laser-like accuracy - although innocents often are caught in the crossfire - unlike the clunky cruise missiles that the Clinton administration lobbed at al Qaeda training camps in response to the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa. Moreover, US forces need not risk their pilots or land forces and can avoid the political fallout that comes with a hostage situation.

Brazil, South Africa and Israel are among the countries that have drones. Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at global Intel company Stratfor said that India and Pakistan are developing and fielding the technology, and in Asia, South Korea and Japan have shown much interest in the equipment. There are conflicting reports on whether China plans to have drones, Stewart noted. Iran also claims to have the technology but Stewart said he is sceptical.

According to a study from the Teal Group, which analyses the aviation industry, unmanned aircraft comprise the most dynamic growth sector of the world's aerospace industry. Teal Group's 2011 market study estimated that drone spending world-wide will nearly double over the next decade, from current annual expenditures of 5.9 billion dollars to 11.3 billion dollars.

The United States will account for 69 per cent of global procurement. Second in procurement percentage will be Asia Pacific countries, and Europe will come in third. The report expects Africa and Latin America to be very modest markets for drones. Indeed, the Washington Post reported last month that the administration of President Barack Obama is setting up a number of secret drone bases for counter-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula in a bid to target al Qaeda agents in Somalia and Yemen.

The Post reported that one instillation was being established in Ethiopia, and another in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Stewart said that everybody is going to be in the market for surveillance drones, although at first not all countries will have weaponised models, which require a command and control structure that is "significantly" more expensive and includes secure links and satellite networks.

Few countries besides the United States have this level of capability, although reports indicate that Israel has been using drones for ground strikes for a few years now, Stewart noted. Still, a wide-range of options available for countries interested primarily in battlefield surveillance. Smaller drones include the Kiwit mini-drone - a fixed-wing, unarmed mini drone weighing less than 4 kg and transported in a small case. The unit, manufactured by South African-based Advanced Technologies and Engineering, is controlled by a PC-based ground control unit and the launch, flight and landing does not require a pilot, according to the company's website.

The company also makes the Vulture, a-fixed wing, unarmed mini drone that South Africa's defence force has used for three years, the website said. Germany-based EMT makes the ALADIN, a hand-launched drone used by German forces in Afghanistan, according to the company's website.

Israel is believed to have used surveillance mini drones in the 2006 war in Lebanon to monitor the position of opposing forces. Surveillance drone technology is becoming less costly in part because governments can simply purchase it from the manufacturers, instead of having to have their own program, experts said. Higher-end, armed drones can run in the tens of millions of dollars, whereas unarmed mini drones can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Fastabend said less affluent countries might use smaller drones for battlefield intelligence - if a commander wants to see over a hill before sending his unit forward, for example. Fastabend said one of the reasons for the technology's spread is US forces' success with using drones to kill al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. And as the technology spreads, countries will adapt it to their needs, making tweaks and improvements.

The US has also used drones to kill terrorist operatives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Steve Zaloga, senior analyst at the Teal Group, which analyses aviation, told DPA that the US military has been working with drones since 1917 - they were essentially remote-controlled airplanes back then - although the technology did not mature until recently. In fact, drones have been used in WWII and the US war in Vietnam, Zaloga said.

Courtesy: Business Recorder

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