Drones are mechanical devices that provide utility to military, commercial and recreational end users. There are about two million drones operating throughout the American empire today. Most of these airborne systems are used by individuals for personal reasons. The U.S. government and corporate entities such as Amazon also use drones on an extensive basis. 

Risks of drone use in general and throughout the Marianas Islands

Increasing use and total numbers of drones will bring about new kinds of risks to the general population. Guam happens to be the military home of some of the most up-to-date and lethal drones used for war. Ongoing drone storage, testing, use, and research activities take place throughout the Marianas Islands and the broader region. Because there are many kinds of militarily sensitive activities taking place, the presence of recreational drones flying near Big Navy or Andersen is probably not the best thing to do.

From a villager perspective, there are risks associated with the drones interfering with commercial runway operations in Guam, Rota, Tinian, and Saipan. The last thing Guam or the Northern Mariana Islands needs is a bunch of drones loitering near the flight paths of incoming and outgoing commercial airline flights. 

Hobby-type drones do not weigh much and if a United Airlines aircraft for example got a drone sucked into its engine, it would most likely result in the aircraft crashing. Commercial drones, by contrast, weigh around 50 lbs and the heaviest drones by far are the ones used by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence communities. 

There are a host of other possible risks such as using drones to spy on neighbors or residents nearby. Drones may also introduce risks to drivers if they are used at persistently low altitudes, potentially distracting drivers transiting major roadways such as Marine Corps Drive. 

Drones can be used by the Chinese government to spy on all U.S. military activities throughout our island chain. Drones can be used by the American military to spy on village happenings, social gatherings, or individual leaders. Drones can be used by people to engage in moving about firearms, drugs or other illegal substances or contraband. 

One very dangerous and possible scenario that could take place in our region is that a fleet of armed drones could be used to attack any number of Guam’s critical infrastructure nodes to include the airport, the seaport, energy infrastructure, water infrastructure, hotels, key government buildings or any number of military installations and military platform targets. 

This is not out of the question because of our island chain’s proximity to Asia is relatively close, Guam’s level of importance with regards to projecting deadly American military power is high, and the vast open-air space that surrounds the entire archipelago helps enable adversarial military assets the ability to successfully loiter in the general region. 

Ways to curb possible accidents with drones

One way to curb future accidents with drones is founded on common sense. Drone use by individuals should not be conducted near the airport or around areas that could cause a car accident or damage to critical infrastructure. Second, the American national government, the government of Guam and the CNMI government have tremendous opportunity to anticipate and manage future risks associated with remotely identifying drones in areas that are heavily used by civilian aircraft and/or military operations. 

Limits for protecting civilian aircraft operations are traced to the massive regulatory frameworks in place, and the technical challenges associated with detection, communications, and navigation, privacy and jamming. 

Other challenges include how to deal with drones that are viewed as fully autonomous, as opposed to locally operated drones. Focus also needs to be revisited on how commercial and recreational drones can be made into flying unmanned armed aircraft systems, which pose a series of new additional risks. 

Possible insular governmental opportunities to pursue if they have not yet already been undertaken

Insular lawmakers, the governors of Guam and the CNMI, autonomous line agency entities of the local government(s), and executive line agencies such as public works all have some part in the overall discussion of how to protect the community from risks associated with drones and how to also think about rolling out possible future legislative and executive efforts to deal with this ever-evolving aircraft technology. 

While drones may also pose a variety of risks to the community, they can also be used for emergency response efforts ranging across the realms of search and rescue, wildfires, law enforcement, traffic enforcement, and traffic management. 

Drones can also be configured for dual use purposes that include military, commercial and personal use activities. This provides an additional opportunity to address how drone operator standards can be crafted and/or updated. 

Young Chamorros and villagers interested in unmanned aircraft systems are well positioned to learn about the engineering, mechanics, and physics behind current and potential uses of drones. Educational leaders, government officials, and private sector leaders have yet another opportunity to visit and revisit how future uses of drones will look like in the Marianas. 

The entire Marianas Islands chain is at many levels the ideal region to beta test ongoing ways to fully integrate use of military, commercial, non-profit, recreational, or individual use activities. 

The reason that our island chain is a tremendous test bed region is that the amount of landmass available for villager, commercial, civilian, business, and military actions involving formally labelled domestic airspace is limited. This limitation, along with mixed use developed and undeveloped areas makes for a great place to draw up and implement on a phased basis how drone activities can and should be conducted. 

Our region also allows our Chamorro people the opportunity to work with the federal executive line agencies who have various oversight responsibilities to come up with a national plan on how to manage and enhance safety when it comes to use of drones.  

Rick Arriola Perez | Author
Rick Arriola Perez is a U.S. military veteran who has worked for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Bank of Hawaii, and the government of Guam. He holds several degrees including ones from UCLA and the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Rick is passionate about national security and foreign affairs in the Pacific Asia region and runs a blogsite called Guam Affairs at guamaffairs.substack.com. For more information, contact Perez at rickp7839@gmail.com.

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