The year is 2020. Two Air Force officers sit in a darkened control center at an Air Force base in Nevada, carefully watching a bank of computer screens. One of the officers gently pushes a joystick to the right, and half a world away a swarm of a dozen small drones, none weighing more than a few hundred grams, banks to the right and continues to skim almost silently across the ground at about 65 kilometers per hour toward a small settlement that has been identified as a source of possible terrorist activity. A large monitor in the front of the control center displays the live view from a night-vision camera in the lead drone. About 300 meters ahead, the first buildings pull into view.
The second officer enters a series of touch-screen commands, and three of the drones break away from the formation and begin to circle the perimeter of the settlement, acquiring video that will later be used to build a high-resolution three-dimensional model of the terrain, streets and buildings. The other nine drones fly just above the settlement, break formation and embark on a series of specialized tasks. Two drones sniff for minute quantities of chemicals associated with explosives, then combine the resulting measurements with on-site wind measurements to identify a building likely being used to store explosives. Another group of three drones with high-resolution cameras converges on the suspect building to collect imagery of the walls, roof and perimeter, including brief stops to hover outside the windows and take pictures into the interior.
The final four drones each hold a payload package slightly larger than a grain of rice containing a miniature video camera, microphone and radio transmitter. Each drone drops its surveillance payload at one of four carefully chosen sites, then retreats to a gentle landing a hundred metersoutside the settlement. There it will stay hidden in the scrub to serve as a radio repeater for the signal from the tiny bug left inside.
Science fiction? Not for long. All of the technologies to enable this scenario are either here today or close at hand. Drones, also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), benefit from many of the same technology advances that enable increasingly sophisticated smart phones, tablets and laptop computers. These advances, in combination with innovations in drone airframe and propulsion system design, are making it possible to build very small, inexpensive drones, and to control them using interfaces as simple as a touch screen, computer mouse or joystick.
Drones have transformed the way the U.S. military wages war, making it possible to gather unprecedented amounts of aerial imagery using nearly undetectable platforms, and to strike at targets without putting pilots at risk. However, these capabilities can be exploited by anyone with access to suitably equipped drones. As UAVs continue to become more numerous, smaller, cheaper and more widely distributed in the global supply chain, they will become easier to get. To believe that drones will remain the exclusive province of responsible nations is to disregard the long history of military technology. In fact, drones are already being developed and used in dozens of countries, and global spending on the technology is expected to approach $100 billion over the next 10 years.