Last month, a fresh diplomatic row broke out between two Himalayan neighbours as Chinese state-run media reported that an Indian drone crashed in Chinese territory. The crash site appeared to have been in or around Doklam, where soldiers from the two sides were locked in a months-long face-off in the summer. It might seem like a one-off, but the crash points to an increase in the use of drones for both military and commercial purposes in recent years. Next year, however, looks set to be a period of great expansion in their use, making 2018 the breakout year for drones.

So, what is a drone? Most simply put, it is a pilotless aircraft. If you like acronyms, you might call it a UAV or a UAS, but whatever you call it, the drone has been in use for more than 100 years. The first time drones were used in large numbers was in 1944, when the Germans hit on the charming idea of launching large numbers of V-1 flying bombs at the British mainland. They were about the size of a small plane and had a jet engine, but could not be steered. My father saw one, its underside painted light green. It flew over his house on Leswin Road in London, glided silently over the next two streets and crashed on the third.

Drones to love

Drones are now used by armed forces in greater numbers than ever before, as well as by Asian spy agencies like India’s RAW (this is one of the few areas where India has the upper hand on China), but civilian use is even more widespread. Many pioneering companies and individuals use drones to supplement their business processes. These include inspection services (of monuments, pylons and power cables, oil rigs, solar farms, etc), media, journalism, fire and rescue, law enforcement, crop-spraying, bomb detection, flood monitoring, wildlife watching and cinematography, map surveys and anything else you can think of. You do not need to be a company or organisation to own a sophisticated drone: individual enthusiasts can buy a very capable observation drone like a DJI Phantom 4 for as little as US$2,000 (HK$15,600).

Wider drone use can bring great benefits to humanity. The Christchurch earthquake of 2011 unfolded a large area of the South Island of New Zealand and destroyed the coastal road to Kaikoura; in the aftermath not only were the roads blocked by whole hills that had collapsed, but telecommunication masts were down and cellphones rendered useless. Drones were deployed to film inaccessible areas, their findings alerted emergency teams to the whereabouts of people who were stranded. Lives were saved.

Drones to fear

The sinister side to drones – such as being used to kill alleged terrorists – has been much debated, but there is no slowing of their development as weapons. In the US, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding research on micro-drones of many types.

Some are intended to hide in plain sight, for example, by being disguised as moths. The US Air Force has already tested micro-drones at its Wright-Patterson base in Ohio. They can be armed, and relatively small ones can still carry a charge equivalent to an L109 grenade.

At least 50 nations, as well as terrorist groups, possess drones.

Off-the-shelf drones can also be deadly. Criminals have already tried loading a quadcopter with explosives, poison gas and remote-operated firearms. They have tried to deliberately crash them into targets, and used them to deliver weapons and drugs.

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Even when handled properly, commercial drones are insecure because they use unencrypted data links, which are vulnerable to hacking. You can lose control of them, even without hacking, if flying them in an urban area, because of higher electromagnetic interference created from the heavy use of communications equipment. Sometimes GPS signal can be lost due to masking by buildings.

We shouldn’t be too scared, however. Some of the horror stories about drones bringing down passenger airliners are simply that: stories. You might remember the excitement in April 2016 when news media described a drone strike on a British Airways A320, which landed without damage. The investigation concluded it was probably a plastic bag, but not before much media speculation about the deadly dangers of drones at airports and predictions that fleets of aircraft would tumble from the skies as terrorists cackle with glee. This was all nonsense. According to Barry Harris of Proelium Law, a security-focused law firm, counter drone technology is already offered by specialist firms to companies and governments. The advanced products have been designed with military application in mind – such as the Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS) made by the UK company Blighter Surveillance Systems – but civilians will benefit from this too.

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The market has been growing exponentially since the emergence of the user-friendly AR drone in 2010, but it was 2015 when commercial use really took off. The machines were previously popular among model aircraft enthusiasts and a few forward-looking people, but after ready-made but technically capable drones became available, sales increased dramatically, doubling and then tripling in 2015 and 2016. Portability, duration, range and reliability – all have been drastically improved. Yet 2018 will see drone induction of a scale not seen before.

Why 2018?

The current rate of innovation probably is not sustainable, according to Malek Murison of Drone Life magazine. But two factors will propel a massive increase in drone use this year. First, there is the tendency towards smarter, safer, cheaper, more autonomous drones. Second, and more important, is that regulators have caught up with drone technology. The UK, China and several other countries all issued sensible and easily enforceable drone regulations in 2017. These will not slow the market, as some have predicted, but will add the armour of legality to drone purchase and use, which will attract bring the new technology to mainstream buyers.

This is 90 per cent of the market: it is not enough to rely for development on people who like to be at the cutting edge of technology – you need to convince the average buyer to invest as well. In 2016 and 2017, the market was still very chancy, as GoPro and Lily learnt to their cost. Meanwhile, established manufacturers have been watching the market and waiting for their moment to get in on the act.

The manufacture of technology – real technology, that makes things happen in real life, as opposed to “tech”, which is a buzzword used by people who make data-crunching applications for the internet – is still in the hands of the Panasonics, the Boeings and the GEs of this world. Many of these companies spent the past two years refining their approach and poaching top engineers and designers from existing drone companies – including from DJI.

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These newcomers are poised to enter the market in 2018, and when they do, the enormous resources that these corporations can bring to bear, and economies of scale, will make the current market look tiny. About five million drones were sold in 2017, which sounds like a lot, but is nothing compared to 80 million cars, 200 million LCD televisions and 1.5 billion smartphones sold last year.

We should treat this as good news. Despite some of the alarming applications of drone technology, it has plenty of positive uses. Bomb detection and disposal are much safer with drones and have saved many lives. Disaster relief work has improved in the intervening six years as emergency supplies are now routinely delivered by drone to places that were unreachable.

Movies and television have also changed as a result of drone cinematography: Skyfall, the Wolf of Wall Street, the Harry Potter films, and Game of Thrones all made extensive use of drone filming – this too will become routine. Delivery companies will habitually use drones as postmen. And lastly, archaeologists have started using drones in zone mapping and observation. We all know the legend of the First Emperor’s Tomb in Shaanxi province: allegedly, archaeologists are terrified to excavate the enormous underground mausoleum for fear that they will die when the crossbow traps and rivers of mercury are activated. This year, they might send in a drone.

Nicolas Groffman spent two decades in China and writes on law and security

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