Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Drones Coming Home to Roost

Civilian cousins of the unmanned military aircraft that have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand by police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organizations and others wanting a bird's-eye view that's too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to get.

Customs and Border Patrol has nine Predator drones mostly in use on the U.S.-Mexico border, and plans to expand to 24 by 2016. Officials say the unmanned aircraft have helped in the seizure of more than 20 tons of illegal drugs and the arrest of 7,500 people since border patrols began six years ago.
The Federal Aviation Administration is gearing up to advance the widespread use of remotely piloted aircraft. By the fall of 2015, Congress wants the agency to integrate remotely piloted aircraft, also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles and commonly called drones, throughout U.S. airspace.

Approximately 50 companies have some 150 different systems under development. They range in size from hummingbirds to airliners, depending on their expected mission. Dozens of nonmilitary uses for drones have already been approved by the FAA, including law enforcement, firefighting, wildlife monitoring, news coverage, mapping and agricultural applications. Experts predict as many as 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles may be operating in U.S. skies within a few years.
Drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment – including video cameras, infrared cameras and heat sensors, and radar – that can allow for sophisticated and almost constant surveillance. They can also carry weapons. Traditionally, drones have been used almost exclusively by military and security organizations. However, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses drones inside the United States to patrol the U.S. borders, and state and local law enforcement are increasingly using unmanned aircraft for investigations into things like cattle rustling, drug dealing, and the search for missing persons.
Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the FAA has released a list of institutions that have asked for Certificates of Authorizations (COA) to fly drones in the United States.

Federal agencies include not only the obvious security institutions, such as the Army, Air Force, and Navy, DARPA, Department of Homeland Security Border Protection and the FBI, but also NASA, NOAA, the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior, all presumably for data collection purposes.

A number of universities have also requested COAs related to research on new drone technologies that will eventually be shared with manufacturers.

More troubling is the inclusion on the list of more than a dozen domestic law enforcement agencies, including those in Arlington, VA, Herington, KS, Houston, TX, North Little Rock AR, and Gadsden, AL, among others.

- List of All Certificates of Authorizations (COAs) Issued to Public Entities

- List of All Special Airworthiness Certificates issued to Private Entities

Map of Domestic Drone Authorizations
View Map of Domestic Drone Authorizations in a larger map

At least two federal lawmakers are concerned about the privacy implications of increased drone use.
On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas asked the acting administrator of the FAA to answer questions about the privacy implications of increased drone use.

"Many drones are designed to carry surveillance equipment, including video cameras, infrared thermal imagers, radar and wireless network 'sniffers,' " the representatives wrote in their letter to Michael Huerta. Now that the FAA, under pressure from lawmakers and businesses, is pushing to increase the use of drones, it has "the responsibility to ensure that the privacy of individuals is protected and that the public is fully informed about who is using drones in public airspace and why," they wrote.
The FAA declined to comment.

Questions about civilian safety are certain to arise. In March, a drone crashed into a SWAT team tank during a police test near Houston. There were no injuries. The Government Accountability Office studied the growing use of drones in 2008.
In the 2008 GAO study, Gerald Dillingham, Director of Civil Aviation for GAO said,
"The concern is that you could lose control of that aircraft and it could crash into something on the ground or, in fact, it could crash into another air vehicle."
The GAO study found that 65% of drone crashes were caused by mechanical failures. The study analyzed Pentagon and NASA data on 199 crashes of drones on battlefields.
The Houston incident was an example of a "lost link" scenario. When the operator loses contact with a drone, it normally stabilizes its flight and reduces power to glide to a landing. Where that landing occurs can be a problem; in the Houston case the drone "landed" into the side of the SWAT team tank. Had the drone landed in a crowd of spectators, the situation could have been considerably more dangerous.

The 2008 study pointed out turblence as another potential problem.
"If you're onboard the aircraft, you can tell that you're in turbulence and you can maneuver to get the plane or the aircraft out of the turbulence. But if you're using a UAV and there are no sensors aboard, you don't really know that and, again, if you lose that communication link as a result of that turbulence or for any other reason, then you have an aircraft that is not in control and can, in fact, crash into something on the ground or another aircraft."
Operating close to the ground in an urban environment greatly increases turbulence issues. Winds making their way around and over tightly-packed buildings in the typical urban environment mean that low-flying urban drones will normally operate in a cauldron of rapidly-shifting bubbles of varying wind speed and direction.

Additional questions about civilian safety arise when noting that drones can be equipped with weapons. The ShadowHawk, currently being tested by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, north of Houston, Texas, can be equipped with a 40 mm grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun, placing tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as more lethal projectiles, in the hands of the operator. Research into taser-like devices deliverable with either of those weapon systems are underway. Of course, anyone familiar with the news concerning overseas operation of drones knows that less-discriminatory devices such as missles and bombs are easily deployed on drones. It's not far-fetched to reconsider events such as Waco and Ruby Ridge in light of these new technologies.
The possibility of armed police drones someday patrolling the sky disturbs Terri Burke, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The Constitution is taking a back seat so that boys can play with their toys," Burke said. "It's kind of scary that they can use a laptop computer to zap people from the air."

A recent ACLU report said allowing drones greater access takes the country "a large step closer to a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities."
The Brookings Institute hosted a policy discussion "on how drones and forthcoming Federal Aviation Agency regulations into unmanned aerial vehicles will affect Americans’ privacy, safety and the country’s overall security" on April 4. Video, audio and transcripts are available at the link for those interested in further study of the topic.

In light of the focus of this blog, it's only natural to consider the possibility of an Agorist Air Force operating its own fleet of drones. Do-it-yourself is a big part of the underground economy, after all. There's good news on that front. Radio-controlled model aircraft are legal, as long as they are under 55 pounds in weight and operate under 400 feet of altitude. Much more general and legal information about the sport is available at the Academy of Model Aeronautics website.

Although drones are a considerable step up in sophistication, the technology necessary is easily available. Small, light-weight cameras and transmitters are available to provide a cockpit view from the drone, and a head-mounted display can place the pilot virtually inside the craft. Light-weight sensors originally developed for model rocketry can send back telemetry on operating conditions. Autopilots similar to those used by commercial drones have been developed as part of the ArduPilot project, which uses open-source electronics based on the Arduino architecture to create control systems for both planes and helicopters. One great source for information about the state of the art in private drone development is Do-It-Yourself Drones, an open community for hobbyists pursuing their interest in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

...and that's all I have to say about that.


  1. Good fences make good neighbors. I get the feeling we'll have to revisit that whole idea now. No fences up there!!

  2. Heh, imagine the police trying to take away my camera when it's 400 feet overhead and remote controlled.

  3. Nowadays, it's good tarps, tents and faraday cages that make for good neighbors...

    I'm part of a group in the local (actually it's an hour's drive away) hackerspace/makerspace (these places don't know what to call themselves, and sometimes a word has a negative connotation) that's building a multirotor from diydrones. People there are interested in many aspects of the latest technology, including computer security - someone expressed an interest in building one of these:

    Here's the latest gee-whiz quadcopter with deadly attachments in a video uploaded just yesterday, though it's been suggested this is fake. Regardless, the guy narrating and piloting is having entirely too much fun:

  4. I guess it's time to get out the camo netting and sight in the 30.06! It'll be like a turkey shoot....LOL

  5. My point was that these drones may well be useful to peaceful people, but we may need to work out a few kinks in the process.

    For example, if your drone flies low enough over my horse herd to frighten them... be prepared to have it shot down. We have no problem shooting dogs that harass livestock here, so I wouldn't hesitate to treat low flying craft the same. :)