How the Pandora’s Box of Drones Was Opened, and What That Means for War; with Arthur Holland Michel

Published March 6th, 2019 - 10:17 GMT



By Ty Joplin


Earlier in 2019, the Department of Defense revealed that the U.S. military deployed drones 11 times in 2018—a steep increase from previous years. Though most of their missions related to natural disaster response, the military use of drones above U.S. soil raises age-old question regarding the technology’s use.

When drones first emerged as a potent weapon at the end of the George W. Bush presidency and into Barack Obama’s, their use seemed opaque and calls for transparency were everywhere.

But now, two years into Donald Trump’s tenure as president, drones of all shapes and sizes are used all over the globe for a range of purposes. Graffiti artists use them, terror and rebel groups rely on them in battles and for assassinations.They’re used for crowd control and for surveying vast expanses of land by companies and law enforcement agencies. Trump himself is on track to deploy military drones at a greater rate than Obama who was sometimes nicknamed 'The Drone President' for his reliance on the technology.



In the global drone market, the U.S. is relaxing its export rules for drones in an attempt to remain competitive with less-regulated Chinese drones.  Drones increasingly seem unregulatable.

To try and understand the uses and abuses of drones, and if there’s anything that can be done to respond to them, Al Bawaba spoke with Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.

Michel is an expert on drones, and is the author of an upcoming book regarding the new forms of surveillance technology outfitted for drones. That book is called "Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All."


Arthur Holland Michel (courtesy of Michel)

Conceptually, drones are a difficult subject to broach, because they have become a universal technology. “That’s why we called it ‘The Center of The Droneinstead of ‘Center of Drones.’” Michel says.

“It was an intentional decision, because the drone isn’t just a flying unmanned aircraft. It’s a proxy for so many broader issues. It taps into all kinds of fears we have that are deep and instinctual and primal. These are flying robots, so they also raise questions about the boundaries of human control and the notion of what happens when we hand over these key functions of society to machines.”

As drones continue expanding their reach into global markets and battlefields, their ability to be regulated has been diminished considerably. While governments push their own militaries to regulate the use of drones, non-state actors are modifying small scale, civilian drones for use as weapons.

“We are seeing the use of drones among terrorist groups; groups that by definition do not obey the fundamental principles of armed conflict. And that has been a tremendous concern because suddenly these groups, which didn’t have air forces, are now able to access the sky. They’re now able to have affecets on their adversaries from above.”

Michel claims this shift fundamentally transforms the power dynamic between armed non-state actors like terror groups and official state armies. In Aug 2018, two drones carrying explosives targeted Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro while he gave a speech to the Bolivarian National Guard in Caracas. In Jan 2019, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen successfully used an explosive drone to kill six government soldiers and injure several high-ranking commanders and politicians.  

Michel observes that countermeasures are quickly supplanting regulatory schemes as the way to control and contain drones, as drones become essential weapons in the arsenals of non-state actors.

To listen to the full conversation on Itunes here: 


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