How did an Australian-made transponder, a key part of drone technology, end up in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan where human rights abuses are prolific? Michelle Fahy investigates the murky trail of the drone bit and the cagey response of the Defence establishment from DFAT to DoD to Minister Marise Payne.
An Australian-made transponder has been found in a downed Azerbaijani military drone in the most recent eruption of Azerbaijan’s long-running war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The transponder was manufactured by Queensland company Microair Avionics. Microair has refused to disclose the identity of the buyer despite knowing this information via the unique serial code. Furthermore, after Michael West Media began making enquiries, Microair deleted from its website a list of its military industry “partners” for unmanned aerial systems (UASs).
Attacks by both sides of the conflict are likely to have violated the laws of war, with reports in international media and by Human Rights Watch describing civilians targeted by indiscriminate bombing. With its well-publicised use of armed drones, however, Azerbaijan dominated the air war.
The UN arms trade treaty requires Australia to ensure it does not authorise the export of weapons, or components of weapons, to countries where they are likely to be used to commit serious human right violations. The treaty also “encourages” the reassessment of an earlier authorisation if new information becomes available.
Transponders transmit the position and altitude of aircraft and assist in identifying them on air traffic control radar. In drones, transponders provide collision avoidance and situational awareness capabilities, helping the drone maintain a safe distance from other drones or aircraft.
On 1 October, a photo was posted on Twitter (below) indicating two drones present at a single attack – one drone taking footage as another one flew below it. In this situation, a transponder would help ensure the drones did not collide.