Drones have become and integral part of warfare in much the same way as a mobile phone has become a fundamental platform of modern life. Both technologies emerged in the late 1980s, and both have advanced astonishingly quickly. The reason for the rapid development of mobile phones is simple; money. The smartphone industry spent US$150 billion on R&D in 2014. The Pentagon spent US$60 billion on all its research programmes combined. This is possible because of the economies of scale and the exploitation of free market economics.
- David Hambling
The same civilian technology firms are now turning their eyes to making better drones. For $25 you can buy self-stabilising multi rotor craft with a camera. For $7,000 you can buy a similar machine, but with a broadcast quality camera and better aerodynamic performance. This compares to the MQ-9 Reaper, which costs about US$18 million or the F22 Raptor which comes in at US$200 million or so (depending on who is doing the counting). Drones are now very cheap.
In this book the author, who is a technology journalist, investigates what is necessary to make small cheap drones more able to perform militarily useful missions. Not much, it turns out. There are already drones that can perch, drones that can recharge via solar energy or power cables and drones that can fly at higher speeds (50 knots or more). While there are trade-offs between payload and capability these are not insurmountable.
Moreover, if drones are cheap then a swarm of drones could cooperate to provide multiple capabilities. It’s happening already, and developing the artificial intelligence necessary for drones to cooperate with each other, or “swarm”, is also underway and not as complex as one might think. There are many potential advantages; currently a Reaper engages targets with Hellfire missiles at a cost of $110,000 and with 10 kg of explosive. Against a single man or soft vehicle that is significant overkill (spelt collateral damage). David Hambling postulates a drone that could deliver 100-gram hand grenade sized warhead at a cost of under $5,000 having first identified the target (face recognition software) and received human authorisation. The necessary technology exists or is in development.
The book is an engaging read and well referenced. It is at its best when explaining technologies work and parts of it are fascinating. This is not a surprise; Mr Hambling writes for the Economist. Unfortunately, like many technology journalists, he knows little about soldiering. He can’t resist cheap shots at the inevitability of cost overruns and seems unaware that many tanks are armoured on top as well as to the front. He has little understanding of the mechanics of warfare and dismisses those problems that he does not understand.
That said, the technologies exist and the book describes them and their potential well. Anyone with an interest in the future of warfare should read it, and just grit their teeth through the irritating bits and the too frequent typos.