Al Qaeda drone attacks on US? Soon it won't be so far-fetched.
An Al Qaeda sympathizer was arrested who allegedly planned drone attacks in Washington. An expanding market and improved technology could make small drones more available to anti-US terrorists.
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But the hummingbird is just a tiny blip in the gusher of global spending on UAVs expected to double over the next decade from about $5.9 billion annually to $11.3 billion, according to a recent study by the Teal Group, a Washington-based defense industry market research firm. Total sales of UAVs for that period are expected to total $94 billion, according to the Teal study.Skip to next paragraph
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US drone manufacturers are among those pushing to open markets overseas, industry watchers say. So is China, which displayed more than 20 UAV models at the Zhuhai air show in July. More than 50 countries have bought drones for surveillance, with a number ramping up the development of weaponized versions.
“Inevitably this technology is going to spread and the US can’t really stop that,” says Philip Finnegan, Teal Group's director of corporate analysis. “Inevitably non-state actors will try to get control of it. There are threats, not just that someone would get a drone on their own, but that they might take control of others’ drones.”
Today the UAV or drone most familiar to the public is the “Predator,” a US-built weapon extensively used by the US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to hunt terrorists. That missile-carrying drone is 27 feet long with a wingspan of 49 feet, can climb to 25,000 feet, and fly for 40 hours at time at about 80 miles per hour. It has radar, radio, and surveillance video capabilities – and can carry a 450-pound payload.
But the hulking Predator belies the increasingly intense development of miniature and slightly larger tactical drones in dozens of countries. Tactical UAVs include the RQ-7 Shadow, an 11-foot long US military drone with a 14-foot wingspan used widely for surveillance in Iraq. Even smaller minis, like the Raven – are small enough to be thrown aloft by an individual soldier and can then fly for more than an hour surveying the battlefield day or night.
But what if such technology were harnessed for other purposes? Drone use is, too, an ethical minefield.
“Our dependence on the Predator, particularly as a tool for targeted assassinations, raises a whole set of legal and ethical issues that many people are concerned about coming back to haunt us,” says Dennis Gormley, a senior lecturer on international security and intelligence studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
“There's a growing realization that UAVs are spreading globally, and that certain state and non-state actors might want to use them against us,” he adds. “That's probably inevitable – and the example in this FBI sting operation is just one small example of that.”