Automatic eyes in sky may be next in cheaper option for armed forces.

The armed forces look set to increasingly rely on drones to defend New Zealand. A report from Parliament's Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Committee in late June said drones will be an option when the Air Force's P-3K2 Orions need replacing in about a decade.

Six Orions provide airborne surveillance, support for customs and police operations, search and rescue missions and disaster relief.

Defence analyst Dr Paul G. Buchanan believed the Navy would also be keen on drones.

"They want to start procuring drones so they can do maritime surveillance with the drones because we don't have the boats or the aircraft to do it. There will have to be some serious budgetary decisions in the years to come because the poaching in New Zealand waters is only going to increase now that fishing stocks are depleted in the rest of the Pacific."

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Defence Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman said his ministry would start investigating the drone project in 2018.

There had been no Cabinet discussion on drones or "remotely piloted vehicles" and Coleman confirmed there was no need to develop drones with a strike capability.

Labour defence spokesman Phil Goff said the drones could be a cost-effective surveillance tool in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone, where incursions would probably increase. There was "some potential in illegal migration" but drug smuggling and illegal fishing were more likely threats.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said unarmed drones would never be a substitute for firepower. "So you've discovered a boat that's illegally fishing, what do you do now? That's when you need the firepower to ensure your laws are, in a huge exclusive economic zone, observed." Peters said New Zealand had "grossly" under-invested in the navy for years, adding "for a maritime nation, that's very foolish".

Coleman responded that it was wrong to suggest the navy was under-invested and understaffed. "We've invested $242 million in new naval helicopters and $446 million in the frigate combat systems upgrade. Work continues on the frigate platform systems upgrade and Project Protector fleet enhancements."

Coleman said morale was rising, the Navy's regular force numbers increased by 7 per cent in the year to June, and staff turnover was now well below historical averages.