High-ranking military officers and their aides mingled with salesmen and potential customers at the 11th annual drones conference. Some had paid as much as £3,000 to attend Unmanned Aircraft Systems 2011, a two-day event that opened on 16 November in a plush hotel in Kensington, west London.
Outside the main hall, stalls promoting new technologies vied for attention. A Dutch company tried to interest delegates in a sound detection system for mini-drones. Another rep used a joystick to chase a speedboat around a screen ("My Miami Vice moment") as he showed off a flight simulator.
There are more than 800 models of drone, ranging from tiny nano-spies to gigantic inflatables, and many were on sale. Away from the stalls, lectures were spattered with military jargon. A lieutenant-colonel gave an overview of Canada's experiences with unarmed drones in Afghanistan. A Nato spokesman explained how 13 member nations are trying to run a joint surveillance-drone project. Even Nasa uses scientific research drones, delegates were told.
General Atomics has probably profited most from this first decade of armed drones, although the private firm's annual turnover and profits remain a secret. Its agent, Stephen May, is less happy to learn a member of the press is present: "It's in our contract," he growls. "I can't talk to you." He is more forthcoming in his talk: "Every second of every day, over 58 of our Predator-series aircraft are airborne somewhere in the world."
For the dozen or so protesters outside, armed drones represent runaway technology. Chris Cole, who runs the Drone Wars UK blog, accepts not all in the industry are involved with warfare. His quarrel is with those who are: "We don't accept this idea of remote risk-free warfare as the drone industry likes to call it. It isn't risk-free. There are hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties of drones."
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