Maritime Drones as security multipliers

Like many other contemporary technologies developing at a rapid rate‭, ‬unmanned aerial vehicles‭ (‬UAVs‭) ‬or drones‭, ‬to use their more common moniker‭, ‬are subject to considerable speculation as to the uses which they will be put‭. ‬Often‭, ‬we cannot see the future impact of our inventions and all the ways they will be employed‭. ‬This is probably true to some degree in the case of drones‭. ‬Nonetheless‭, ‬UAVs have reached a stage of maturity whereby their utility across a range of prospective activities is now more readily discernible‭. ‬This includes their use in the maritime environment‭. ‬

Today‭, ‬numerous governments are implementing programs for maritime security that are increasingly leveraging drones‭. ‬Some of these programs are already active‭; ‬others are in preparation phase‭. ‬As this article goes on to explicate‭, ‬drones will be an asset in facing a myriad of maritime security challenges‭. ‬However‭, ‬these systems are not a panacea‭: ‬they possess limitations and thus will likely augment‭ ‬–‭ ‬albeit in important ways‭ ‬–‭ ‬rather than replace existing tools for maritime security‭. ‬

This article first provides an overview of the some of the most significant areas of maritime security that drones can make a contribution to in the near-term‭. ‬It then looks at current trends in the sector to suggest the possible ways in which their influence will be felt in the years ahead‭. ‬

Securing the maritime environment‭ 

As sensor carriers able to fly long distances‭, ‬drones are highly attractive for those countries with large coastlines and vast adjacent seas to monitor‭. ‬Securing Australia’s maritime environment‭ ‬–‭ ‬to take an example on the extreme end of the spectrum‭ ‬–‭ ‬is a gargantuan mission‭. ‬The Government of Australia is responsible for somewhere near 35,000kms of coastline and about 15‭ ‬per‭ ‬cent of the world’s seas‭. ‬Even for countries with more circumscribed coastlines‭, ‬the maritime domain presents a potpourri maritime security threats‭, ‬including‭, ‬inter alia‭, ‬unauthorized fishing‭, ‬drug and people smuggling‭, ‬and illegal immigration‭ ‬–‭ ‬not to mention conventional military threats‭. ‬Given these dynamics‭, ‬it is unsurprising that countries like Australia increasingly see drones as a security multiplier in the maritime domain‭. ‬The European Maritime Safety Agency‭ (‬EMSA‭), ‬for example‭, ‬is now using drones to help with border control‭, ‬pollution monitoring and the detection of illegal activities such as fishing and drug trafficking‭.‬

Many governments and inter-governmental organizations believe that existing maritime surveillance systems will not be capable of‭ ‬meeting anticipated changes in the threat environment in the future‭. ‬Drones are viewed as an effective means to make up this projected shortfall‭. ‬The following sections detail some of the areas in which drones will likely make a positive impact to maritime security‭. ‬

Maritime domain awareness for defense‭ 

Given the size of the maritime area to be covered‭, ‬detecting threats is often like finding a proverbial needle in a haystack‭. ‬Land‭- ‬or ship-launched drones‭, ‬however‭, ‬can amplify nations’‭ ‬intelligence‭, ‬surveillance‭, ‬and reconnaissance‭ (‬ISR‭) ‬capabilities across the seas‭. ‬

The Japanese Ministry of Defense‭, ‬for example‭, ‬is acquiring more drones to improve its maritime domain awareness‭ (‬MDA‭) ‬throughout its expansive waters and beyond‭. ‬That Japan deems this aspect of its national security so critical is of little surprise‭. ‬Japanese territory includes more than 6,852‭ ‬islands and the country is dependent on maritime trade‭. ‬Added to this‭, ‬it has extant territorial disputes with China‭, ‬Russia‭, ‬and South Korea‭. ‬Japan’s Air Self-Defense Forces aircraft frequently intercept aircraft or monitor naval vessels near disputed areas‭. ‬Other nations with similar challenges to their territorial waters are also acquiring UAVs‭. 

Drones‭, ‬including armed drones‭, ‬will also play an increasingly important role in anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare‭ (‬ASW‭). ‬US drone manufacturer General Atomics has recently publicized that it has successfully flight-tested a dispenser pod as part of‭ ‬a broader demonstration of ASW capabilities it is developing for its MQ-9B Sea Guardian drone‭. ‬The pods were used to release sonobuoys‭, ‬but the company has also stated that it will also be able to launch precision-guided munitions and numerous small‭, ‬unmanned aircraft to operate as an autonomous swarm‭.‬

Anti-piracy‭ ‬

Piracy is a serious problem in maritime transport with multiple impacts both on the economic level and on human resources losses‭. ‬UASs have been discussed as possible instruments of anti-piracy for several years as other efforts have proved to be of limited effect‭. ‬Recent years have seen drones increasingly employed in multinational anti-piracy operations‭. ‬For example‭, ‬the EUNAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta‭, ‬the European Union’s anti-piracy naval mission in the High-Risk Area off the coast of Somalia‭, ‬has been using drones to monitor the nation’s coastline and search for pirate activity‭.‬

In locations like Southeast Asia‭, ‬which has been described as a‭ ‬“paradise”‭ ‬for pirates‭ (‬largely because governments there have failed to establish early warning systems and thus develop their early warning and response capabilities‭), ‬drones may provide an affordable way to plug the gap‭. ‬As it currently stands‭, ‬surveillance in resource-strapped countries has been falling behind the growing challenge of piracy‭. ‬In the Gulf of Guinea‭, ‬for example‭, ‬the largest local navies have offshore patrol vessels‭, ‬but these have limited enforcement capacity against pirates‭. ‬Shore-based radar systems when they are not facing power or maintenance issues reach out only 30‭ ‬or 40‭ ‬nautical miles‭. ‬Drones provide a way for African navies and coast guards to greatly enhance anti-piracy operations in a relatively inexpensive manner‭.‬

Search and rescue‭ ‬

Drones have been proven to dramatically increase the effectiveness of just about any search and rescue effort‭, ‬and that difference is especially evident at sea‭. ‬A drone equipped with VIDAR‭ (‬Visual Detection and Ranging‭) ‬has a proven ability to autonomously‭ ‬detect hundreds of large and small objects at sea in a variety of conditions‭. ‬Small‭, ‬light‭, ‬and self-contained‭, ‬VIDAR has been‭ ‬employed to dramatically improve the cost-effectiveness of search and rescue‭. ‬Drones have been able to spot and positively identify numerous smaller objects such as stationary jet skis and buoys at 5nm‭. ‬

The advantages of the technology are not limited to finding lost people though‭; ‬drones have also taken an active role in rescue‭ ‬efforts‭. ‬Off the eastern coast of Australia in 2016‭, ‬two boys were caught up in a heavy surf‭, ‬and within two minutes‭, ‬a floatation device was dropped down to them by a drone‭.‬

Australia‭, ‬which has the world’s largest maritime search and rescue region and Security Forces Area of Authority‭, ‬covering over one-tenth of the Earth’s surface‭, ‬has been an early adopter of drones for this mission‭. ‬Many countries are following suit and ramping up their use of drones for search and rescue‭. ‬The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency‭ (‬MCA‭) ‬is undertaking a major new project to investigate how much drones can help with search and rescue compared with conventional air‭, ‬sea‭, ‬or land-based recovery teams‭. ‬

Enduring challenges‭ ‬

The new breed of high-end maritime drones‭, ‬like the MQ-4C Triton‭, ‬represent a whole different scale and class of the technology‭.‬‭ ‬The sensors on the drone can identify and monitor ships from 16.5‭ ‬kilometers in the air while sending data to naval officers in‭ ‬near real-time‭. ‬They are for the most part only able to be utilized by militaries and governments‭. ‬The US Navy uses the MQ-4C Triton‭, ‬for example‭, ‬to ensure near constant maritime surveillance around one of its key naval bases in California‭. ‬

Maritime drone technology has been moving forward rapidly‭, ‬but there are still some inherent limitations with the systems‭. ‬Drones offer endurance in flight time but‭, ‬like a candle in a dark room‭, ‬they only illuminate one area at a time‭. ‬How do operators decide between loitering over a small area for sustained periods of time for persistence or travel across vast areas for the sake‭ ‬of operational scope‭? ‬Short of keeping several platforms in the air at any given time‭, ‬much of the maritime environment will remain completely unsurveilled‭ ‬–‭ ‬most of the time‭, ‬at least‭. ‬Drone platforms may boast superior efficiency in relation to manned platforms‭, ‬but they are still dependent on fuel and require constant maintenance‭. ‬This is expense‭. ‬For example‭, ‬the cost per flying hour of the RQ-4‭ ‬Global Hawk‭ (‬from which the abovementioned Triton is derived‭) ‬was recently measured at US$18,900‭. ‬Those expenses are in addition to substantial acquisition costs‭.‬

While currently in adolescence compared to the well-established UAV industry‭, ‬future generations of Unmanned Marine Vehicles‭ (‬UMVs‭) ‬may offer an energy‭- ‬and cost-efficient supplement to aerial surveillance systems‭. ‬If they can be built cheaply enough‭, ‬passive surveillance by a large number of cheap platforms could prove even more effective than drones‭.‬


Where are current trends pointing‭? ‬Countries are experimenting with a widening menagerie of novel aerial drones‭. ‬The US Navy has‭ ‬recently tested a tube-launched rotary-wing drone called the Nomad and the hybrid flying-swimming Glider‭, ‬a drone that can deploy from a plane‭, ‬fly along the surface of the water‭, ‬and then submerge to a depth of 200‭ ‬meters‭. ‬But perhaps more important for‭ ‬maritime security than technological developments and the prototyping of new systems is the reduction in drone prices‭.‬

Drone costs‭ ‬–‭ ‬small and medium alike‭ ‬–‭ ‬have come down in recent years‭. ‬It seems increasingly likely that private companies‭, ‬as non-state security actors‭, ‬could provide help to fill the maritime security gap when it comes to this vital aspect of the global economy‭. ‬Sensors on drones that can identify and monitor ships from many miles away and automatically send that information to officials in near real-time will soon be available to commercial organizations‭. ‬One major hurdle to overcome‭, ‬however‭, ‬is how commercial operators will work within current regulations‭. ‬Civil aviation authorities impose restrictions on drone flights that make it difficult to launch quickly in a‭ ‬response situation‭. ‬

Drones will have increasingly important role in maritime security‭. ‬However‭, ‬maritime security is ultimately not about any one capability‭; ‬it is about how those different capabilities all come together to form a system to unable governments‭ ‬–‭ ‬and perhaps private companies also‭ ‬–‭ ‬to provide maritime surveillance coverage across the seas‭. ‬

‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Dr‭. ‬Ash Rossiter
Assistant Professor of International Security‭, ‬Khalifa University‭ )‬

Al Jundi

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