Drones: Beyond the Battlefield – In War and Peace The Sky is No Limit

Drone technology is probably watching you right now. Diplomacy, military strategy, recreation, culture are all being transformed by drones. The trade numbers for the drone sector, we can say, are taking off. We are also confident that this is an understatement.

By Gilberto García-Vazquez

Economic Impact and Trade Landscape

A generation ago the drone industry didn’t exist. Today it’s pilots in the cockpit that are vanishing. Currently valued at $36.41 billion, the military drone sector is projected to triple by 2030. Meanwhile, the consumer drone market is set to more than double. This growth reflects drones' diverse applications and increasing accessibility.

Nations are strategically boosting domestic dual-use (military and civilian) drone production and building complex international trade networks for advanced systems.

  • China’s Ascendancy: China’s drone exports surged by 74.1% to $237 million as of  September 2023, with a focus on Remote-Controlled Drones, Under 250g Take-Off Weight (115%).
  • UK’s Tactical Exports: The UK’s increased drone exports to conflict zones, especially Ukraine, are a low risk strategic move with potentially high impact on the battlefield and increased leverage in diplomacy.
  • US Export Dynamics: Despite a recent dip, the US maintains its strong drone technology portfolio, catering to Europe and the Middle East.
  • Turkey’s Emerging Profile: Turkey is a  growing drone player. Exports rose to $1.87 billion in 2022 from $1.05 billion the previous year. Turkey’s regional strength and relative neutrality give it competitive advantages over other exporters.

China’s DJI dominates the consumer and commercial drone space, along with US firms General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, and AeroVironment. These companies have blazed trails through complicated trade policies and geopolitical tensions, that follow-on competitors can use to their advantage. This is a fast moving trade space, maybe moving even faster than the drones themselves.

Geopolitical Influences

The strategic use of drones is reshaping global power play and alliances:

  • The US-China competition reflects a longstanding strategy by both countries of trading technology for geopolitical influence.
  • The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been a demonstration platform for the use of drones, driving trade and prolonging the war.
  • In the Middle East, drones will replace missiles as a means of attack and strategic deterrence.

Sanctions, such as those by the US against entities aiding drone technology transfer to Russia, illustrate the difficulty of making trade embargos stick. Drone proliferation in concert with these steeply rising trade numbers is probably unavoidable. The question is when will drones and their manufacturing components become commodified to the point where they can’t be controlled. Are drones the AK-47 with wings? Emerging alliances around drone technology, like the US-led Partnership for Drone Competitiveness, are at best a temporary brake on proliferation even as they accelerate technological innovation.

The debate on AI autonomous drones, a convergence of technology, economics, and geopolitics, features nations seeking legal limits at the UN against the resistance of powers like the U.S., China, and Russia. This will significantly impact drone technology's future in military and civilian use.

Drones are increasingly prevalent in civilian sectors, driven by technological advancements, these growing sectors may eventually outpace the importance of military sales:

  • In agriculture, drones are revolutionizing practices with applications in crop health and resource management. The global agriculture drone market is expected to quadruple by 2030.
  • Environmental Conservation sees drones playing crucial roles in wildlife monitoring and climate research. Projects like BioCarbon Engineering's large-scale forest replanting using drones exemplify this trend.

The consumer drone market is experiencing significant growth, with North America leading and the Asia Pacific region expanding to catch up. Collaborations, like the recently announced partnership between Montana based Skyfish and Japan’s Sony Electronics (with huge US based assets), are enhancing drone capabilities, further propelling market growth.

Charting the Course of Drones

Drones symbolize a technological leap not unlike the 20th century military-to-civilian transition of aviation, electronics, computers and communications. Drones are the leading example of this transition in the 21st century. As their use in agriculture and environmental monitoring expands, they offer solutions to contemporary challenges like sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation. However, drone warfare and its “fire and forget” tactical ease of operation will demand responsible innovation, with ethical considerations and international cooperation. Adapting strategies and policies to ensure the drone sector’s positive contribution to global stability and peace will be a principal challenge of this century.

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