The People’s Drones

In May ’06 I visited New York’s annual Fleet Week and personally met a few drones who were sleeping below the flight deck of a U.S. warship. In the 5 years since, “unmanned aerial vehicles” have reproduced explosively, and are rapidly changing the parameters of war and American foreign policy.

Glenn Greenwald describes the “Drone Mentality” that renders victims invisible and enables risk-free aggression and violence. Public anti-drone outcries are spreading, though media coverage of the effects of U.S. drone attacks is glaringly absent. My friend Madiha Tahir has been reporting and researching these attacks in Pakistan and the accounts she has gathered are quite horrifying.

But the U.S military isn’t the only outfit with access to these technologies. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (!) is using a drone to capture footage (and who knows what else), and Polish protesters in Warsaw used a drone to capture footage of riot police attacking them. Last year some hobbyists buzzed the Statue of Liberty with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and didn’t even get fined.

Drone technology is advancing very rapidly, though to the average observer the technology might not look that much different from 70’s-era remote control planes. Most of the advancements are happening in software, which is invisible to the casual observer, and also more difficult to prevent from proliferating.

If you haven’t seen any of the amazing footage of quadcopters in action, take a peek. These machines are much simpler to pilot and steer than a helicopter, and are quite inexpensive. There are quad-rotor open-source hardware/software projects, like the aeroquad (complete kits $1.5k), and the high-end is quite affordable (< $10k) for news companies and local police departments.

At the moment, the regulations around flying these drones is ambiguous. But the FAA is currently reviewing regulations, and a government agency predicts there will be over 15,000 civilian drones operating in U.S. airspace by 2018.

Drones are already in use patrolling the US/Mexican border, and the Department of Homeland Security is helping local law enforcement agencies obtain them. When I saw the video of the Polish protesters (via @MutualArising), I began wondering why local news companies were still flying manned traffic and news copters, and then I ran across the story (via @jonathanstray) about Murdoch’s drones.

From my limited research, I believe that non-commercial hobbyists are allowed to fly these vehicles below 400ft. I propose that Occupy Wall Street should fly drones at every protest, to counter Mayor Bloomberg’s egregious attempts to suppress journalistic coverage of the protests.

It seems clear that a robotic arms-race is underway, and my friend Peter Asaro, a robo-ethicist who serves on the international committee for robot arms control (icrac), worries about an arms race where everyone from drug cartels to the paparazzi all begin abusing drones. I remember Eben Moglen predicting that it won’t be long before every self-respecting dictator has full regiment of killer robots. Unlike human police, robots aren’t likely to hesitate when ordered to fire upon civilians.

The right to bear robots?

I am not convinced that drone-control is the best response to the asymmetrical power drones deliver (at least when it comes to surveillance drones, not armed drones).  I think they best way to counterbalance this power is with  open-source drones.  The people’s drones.

Update: As per @MutualArising‘s comment below,  OccupyDrones has taken off!

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