On the coming age of domestic drones.
This article originally appeared in The Magazine and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
Last August, before domestic drones had become a concern worthy of a 13-hour Senate filibuster, I found myself inside a stretch limousine with a bunch of engineering students. We were on a rural highway in eastern North Dakota, rolling past bales of hay and soybean fields, the limo’s mirrored bar set with a row of empty champagne glasses. No one paid attention to them. Instead, the student engineers were deep in a marathon conversation about flying robots.
We had just come from Grand Forks, where they had competed in the granddaddy of all drone-building competitions. Now we were en route to the afterparty, which sadly was not a bacchanal. The first stop was a hop across the state border to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, for a tour of the headquarters of Digi-Key, an online purveyor of drone parts and other electronic innards. Then it was back to Grand Forks for some ribs.
Sitting next to me on the leather limo bench was Ryan Skeele, a willowy, thick-eyebrowed young man who goes by the nickname “Skeeler.” He’s a mechanical engineering major at Oregon State University, and at the time of our limo ride he was 21 years old—exactly the number of years that had passed since the first appearance of the drone-building contest, which is officially known as the International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC). The contest encourages the current boom in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a term organizers much prefer to “drones.”
In its early years, the IARC was little more than a showcase for glorified radio-controlled helicopters. Now, thanks to technological advances spurred in part by the booming smartphone market, the event draws students toting small quadcopters with remarkable capabilities. These drones are powered by the same kind of lithium-ion batteries used in an iPhone, and are aided in flight by miniaturized, inexpensive accelerometers and gyroscopes made possible by mass production of a billion mobile devices.
Anyone can buy a mass-manufactured version of these flying machines; an off-the-shelf model called the Parrot AR.Drone sells online for around $300 and is controlled using a mobile app on an iOS or Android device. And with the right amount of engineering know-how, as the students at the competition had just demonstrated, a device like the Parrot can be transformed into a flying robot capable of buzzing autonomously through the interior of, say, an intelligence agency compound like the one mocked up for this contest. The compound housed a coveted flash drive that, if found and extracted, would earn a $30,000 prize from the leading drone industry advocacy and lobbying group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
As the limo headed across the Red River of the North toward Digi-Key, Skeeler told me that Americans worry way too much about drones. He’d said something similar during the competition, telling me that people have become more afraid of invasions of their privacy because of the scary depiction of drones in TV shows and movies.
His own team’s experience at the competition did offer support for the notion that off-the-shelf drone technology remains far from the run-and-hide stage. The Oregon State quadrotor drone, assembled in a basement laboratory at the school’s Corvallis campus, had proved unable to fly effectively due to glitches in its communication system, and Skeeler and his two teammates were forced to withdraw.
The contest winner, however, offered a much different sense of our proximity to a sky crowded with citizen-owned drones able to conduct all sorts of missions, legal and otherwise. Built by students at the University of Michigan, this quadrotor arrived in Grand Forks inside four large, black suitcases, the lids of which glowed blue with the logo of the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles club. Nestled in the padded interiors of these cases were four copies of a candelabra-shaped drone made out of hollow carbon tubing milled in that school’s labs.
At first, the Michigan design bobbed and weaved down the hallway of the mock spy compound, looking like some tiny drunk careening home at 3 a.m. But this was just a sign that its radar and artificial intelligence systems were overreacting to obstacles the machine spotted. Once recalibrated, the Michigan drone successfully flew on its own through a window at the mock compound, set in the fictional country of “Nari” (Iran spelled backwards). It then easily navigated and mapped the base’s interior, flew back out through the same window it had entered, and set down not far from the spot where it had taken off.
The Michigan drone wasn’t able to steal the flash drive, which meant the $30,000 kitty was unclaimed and will grow to $40,000 for the next round later in 2013. But the vehicle's prolonged casing of the joint followed by a successful escape was a better performance than any other student drone had ever achieved in the contest. The audience, which included representatives from defense contractor Northrop Grumman, cheered wildly. (The company, a founding sponsor of AUVSI, has a presence in North Dakota to support drones at the nearby airbase.)
While watching this unfold on a covered portion of the University of North Dakota basketball court, I asked Aaron Kahn, an engineer who designs drones at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, about just how far this Michigan drone was from the capabilities of current small military unmanned aircraft. Kahn, who used to compete in the event and now helps organize it, emphasized he was speaking as a private individual and not on behalf of the lab. He said he didn’t have specific knowledge of what’s actually in the field—he wouldn’t have been able to say anything at all if he had. But, he would go so far as to say that the competition drones were probably “not far” from the what small military drones could accomplish, as well as being “state of the art” for civilian equipment.
This seems cause for some concern. While military drones have become quite controversial, especially when used to target American citizens overseas, that use is by definition tightly controlled and limited to an extremely small segment of the world's population. The sense of limited danger changes significantly when one considers that the Michigan team, acting as private individuals, built their drone close to military caliber using materials available to any U.S. citizen—many of those parts purchased online via Digi-Key, a team sponsor.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that a few years down the road a device like the Michigan team’s drone will be sold as a shrinkwrapped item. That in turn makes this worth considering right now: What happens to our privacy and our safety when all Americans can, with a few clicks, purchase their own flying proxies to act out their wishes?
Hovering in regulatory limbo
Government agencies are not quite ready for this future. President Obama and Congress have ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come up with rules about how private citizens, companies, and government agencies can fly drones in the national airspace—but the agency has until 2015 to release those rules. Meanwhile, the reality is that all of these groups already fly drones in the national airspace.
To begin to address this, early last year the FAA announced plans to offer preliminary rules for users of small drones by December 2012. The agency also said it would choose test sites in six states to experiment with integrating drones into the nation’s skies. Then, without an explanation other than that it remains busy considering citizen feedback, the FAA delayed both the rule-making and picking the test sites.
For now, civilians have been told to use their off-the-shelf drones below 400 feet and within the operator’s line of sight. Drones may not be used for commercial purposes, which shelves projects like the Burrito Bomber. Also, police departments, universities, and media companies that want to play around with drones need special authorization from the FAA (which the agency has granted plenty of times).
And the government? It’s already using drones in the nation’s airspace for limited missions, like the unarmed Predators that take off from Grand Forks Air Force Base to monitor the northern border, a separate flock of Predators controlled from Texas that do the same for the southern border, and the Global Hawk surveillance drone that has helped NASA gather information on impending hurricanes. A United States Global Hawk was also used to help monitor the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The government’s limited domestic use of drones has already led to dark fears of mission expansion—fears that someday drones may be turned against Americans in uncomfortable ways. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been one of the loudest in voicing these concerns. He used his 13-hour filibuster on March 6–7, which temporarily blocked a vote on the nomination of John Brennan as head of the CIA, to declare that the Obama administration had left the door open to tactical drone missions on American soil. In response, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a letter to Paul stating his opinion that the president lacks authority “to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on U.S. soil”—which is not a complete answer, but Paul accepted it.
More quietly, Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has been pushing for legislation to make sure the average citizen’s privacy—and not just the average citizen’s safety—becomes a primary concern for the FAA as the agency seeks to balance drones and the public interest. At present, the FAA’s expertise is mainly in addressing safety concerns. But the Parrot AR.Drone comes mounted with two video cameras (one of them high-definition) that could easily be used to spy on one’s neighbor. Markey has called the FAA’s lack of attention to privacy concerns “a blind spot in its oversight of domestic drones.” (In February, when the FAA announced a public comment period on drones and privacy, Markey applauded.)
Even the ACLU finds itself in a pickle over how to proceed. The group says it wants to protect First Amendment rights related to newsgathering and protest marches that could be aided by civilian-owned drones, and Catherine Crump, an ACLU attorney working on drone issues, pointed out that some Occupy protesters in New York used a drone to stay a step ahead of the cops. But at the same time, Crump said that drones “raise substantial privacy concerns, particularly when they are used to observe activities in private spaces not normally in public view.”
Adding further ambiguity to the airspace, legal scholars warn that the statutory sphere isn’t ready to handle drones, either. Take, for example, a frequently raised question: If a drone is hovering over my private property, do I have a right to shoot it out of the sky?
In this property-rights-obsessed nation, it turns out you actually don’t have a clear right to shoot down a drone hovering low over your backyard unless it’s putting you in imminent physical danger.
“You have to acknowledge in this day and age that stuff flies over your house,” Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in robotics and the law, told me. That puts him at odds with conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, who voiced a more typical reaction on Fox News last year: “The first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that’s been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in this country.”
Calo notes that airplanes can already fly over anyone’s house without permission. No one balks at that, and if the autopilot is engaged on a commercial or private aircraft, it is essentially a drone. Police helicopters may fly over the average citizen’s house, too. “There are lots of doctrines that say you can look into someone’s backyard from the air,” Calo said. Even if you avoided Krauthammer’s recommendation of using a gun and merely lobbed a tennis racquet at the neighbor kid’s prying Parrot, you could be in trouble for unjustly taking it out; Calo said that the kid’s parents might be able to sue you for damages to his flying property.
Clearly the law will have to adapt to the rise of the domestic drone. It may also need to anticipate it, which could be even trickier. Calo points out that the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided two cases related to what police officers should be allowed to do with a now-standard law enforcement tool: the contraband-sniffing dog. He’s been watching them closely because of a technology that’s coming: police drones that can “sniff” the air for traces of chemicals associated with illegal drugs, and even search for hidden weapons under a person’s clothing using non-ionizing radiation.
While the high court’s rulings in the police dog cases made it less likely that authorities will fly a contraband-sniffing drone up to a person’s front door without a warrant, Calo said the justices left unanswered the question of whether police can fly a sniffer drone warrant-free over someone’s property.
Others have warned that we should soon expect drones equipped with facial recognition technology and biometric data gathering capabilities. In a radio interview on March 22, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg called this a “scary” prospect that’s coming whether we like it or not. “We’re going into a different world, uncharted," Bloomberg said. “We’re going to have more visibility and less privacy. I don’t see how you stop that.”
Calo thinks it should be possible to develop sensible drone laws and regulations, but he also worries about what happens if a determined, regulation-ignoring citizen, in some futuristic variation on Adam Lanza’s December killing spree in Newtown, mounts a weapon on a drone, flies it into a crowd, and opens fire.
He wonders, too, whether humans would feel the need to punish the drone as well in that instance, perhaps by destroying it publicly. He’s seen research that suggests the more anthropomorphized a robot is in its design, the more blame people tend to place on the machine rather than its operator or creator.
“The technology is going to allow drones to become cheap and easy and ubiquitous,” said Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired magazine, and now the chief executive of 3D Robotics, a manufacturer of drone kits and fully assembled units. The company grew out of a Web community, DIYDrones.com, that Anderson started as a part-time hobby. It now has annual sales in the millions. “You know, tens of dollars, the size of your hand, and you just push a button and you do something.”
For the overwhelming majority of Americans, that something will probably involve mundane domestic tasks like seeing the kids off to the school bus. But what about when a person’s airborne avatar gets enlisted to help out with a common impulse like revenge?
“That’s a goddamn expensive revenge,” Skeeler said in the limo, after I worried about a scenario in which some guy uses his iPhone to fly a personal drone to an out-of-sight location and hurt someone who’s upset him. I replied that it’s really not that expensive: A low-end drone today is probably cheaper than a hit man. That price will plummet in the not-too-distant future.
Skeeler still shrugged off the risk, suggesting instead that there’s a far worse scenario. For him, it’s a rerun of 9/11, which occurred when he was 10. Replace the first plane to hit the World Trade Center with a terrorist bomb strapped to a Parrot AR.Drone, he said. Then imagine a squadron of New York City Police Department drones designed to stop the bomb-laden Parrot. “Who do you think’s gonna win?” he asked.
Skeeler was not unique at the competition in having a sanguine attitude toward potential bad outcomes of domestic drone technology. Another young drone-builder, David Cape, a 21-year-old mechanical engineer from the University of Southern California, told me to disregard the many student drones that were crashing—and, in one case, burning—around us as they tried to finish the contest mission. Cape said few airplanes have such mishaps today, “but in the early days they were crashing and burning all the time.”
Fair enough. But what about some stable, neither crashed nor burned drone that ends up hovering above me, recording everything I do with its high-powered camera?
“What would it be taking a video of?” Cape asked me. “Your life?”
I was thinking, Yeah.
His point was, Who cares?
“Sure, it might be invading your privacy,” Cape continued. “But if someone really wants to see me walking to class, that’s cool.”
It appeared it was all just flying Facebook to him, so I tried a slightly more specific scenario. I asked: What if the drone is watching me in my own backyard?
Cape’s teammate, Reese Mozer, 20, shot back, “What are you doing in your backyard that someone would want to spy on you about?”
“Our reasonable expectations of privacy are shifting,” Anderson of DIY Drones explained when I related this exchange to him. “We can’t even, as a country—much less as a community—we can’t agree on what we collectively want. But we can evolve the law.”
However, Anderson’s own community of Berkeley, California, found out last year that the current law does not allow local jurisdictions an easy way to ban drones. The city’s Peace and Justice Commission, an official advisory board to the Berkeley City Council, attempted it. The commission recommended a flat-out prohibition on drones in that city’s airspace, which the city council rejected in favor of more study. But Anderson points out that Berkeley doesn’t legally control its own airspace, an issue also raised by a sensible city council member.
The fact that the proposal was bounced was fine with Anderson, who sells plenty of personal drones to people in cities like Berkeley. Still, it hasn’t stopped many other city councils and some 30 state legislatures from wading into their own attempts to put drones on leashes.
Batman, yes; speeding, no
Even as the domestic drone boom and backlash have been building, few pollsters have asked Americans to think about the implications of robots flying above their heads. (Though Senator Paul’s speech may change that.) Plenty of polls have asked about overseas drone strikes; a February 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that 64% of Americans support using drones to target members of Al Qaeda and other terrorists abroad. Also in February, CBS News found that even if the overseas target is a suspected terrorist with American citizenship, 49% of Americans still approve of killing that person using a drone strike—as the Obama administration has done in three controversial instances.
But Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey, believes he is the only pollster to have asked Americans specifically about the impact of drones in their own skies, and my research bears him out. His June 2012 poll of 1,700 adults found strong majorities in favor of using domestic drones to help government agencies with search-and-rescue emergencies and to aid authorities trying to stop illegal immigration.
The poll also found, somewhat confusingly, that while 67% of Americans support using drones to chase runaway criminals, 64% of Americans would be concerned about their own privacy if police departments started using drones equipped with high-tech cameras. That same sense of wanting drones to chase bad guys but not bother good guys (i.e., poll respondents) showed up in another of Murray’s poll questions: “Do you support or oppose the use of drones to issue speeding tickets?” Drone-issued speeding tickets were opposed by 67% of Americans—the same percentage that want drones to track down lawbreakers.
“In many ways we were catching our respondents cold,” Murray said of his domestic drone polling. “It was something they hadn’t thought about before.”
Also interesting was the response from the 18-to-29 cohort. Although every age group in Murray’s poll showed strong majorities opposed to using drones to issue speeding tickets, that youngest demographic had the most people in favor of this idea—and nearly the fewest opposing it (ignoring a small margin of error). When I heard this, I thought of Mozer, the USC student who’d asked me at the competition, “What are you doing in your backyard that someone would want to spy on you about?”
It’s a view that transforms worry about drones into something close to an admission of guilt. If this becomes a common view among young Americans, who are already more used to sharing the intimate details of their lives online, then our domestic drone debate is going to resolve in ways far different than either the ACLU or Charles Krauthammer would prefer.
Everyone’s a pilot now
There may be an additional element making some younger Americans less hostile toward drones. In a Harvard Crimson roundtable discussion published in February, freshman David Freed noted, “Although the drone campaign is a burdensome evil abroad, it is a preferable domestic political strategy because it keeps young Americans in school instead of on the battlefield.”
Even with an all-volunteer army, students may be particularly attuned to missions that seemingly require fewer soldiers. And, as students likely know, some of the soldiers participating in drone missions trade time in a dangerous war zone for a seat in front of a joystick inside an air-conditioned, satellite-connected trailer somewhere in New Mexico.
Whether fighting like this is courageous is another and hugely controversial question. Operating a drone from air-conditioned confines may come with its own unique forms of PTSD, but there is currently intense debate over whether drone operators should be eligible for a special warfighting medal that, at present, outranks the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Another tradeoff that doesn’t seem to be inciting outcry among the next generation: the morphing of the term “pilot.” The University of North Dakota, where the drone-building competition took place, used to be hyped by boosters as the Harvard of pilot training. While I was on campus for the competition, I learned that the university is now trying to become something else: the Harvard of unmanned aerial vehicle “pilot” training.
One day, after walking over a university skybridge paid for by a potato farming magnate, I stepped into a school store and ran into 22-year-old Alec Lindsey, who was buying some University of North Dakota gear to celebrate his pilot training graduation. He told the classic tale of growing up believing he was born to fly, of wanting to be an astronaut and then settling on the more achievable aim of becoming a pilot. When he considers the idea that one day soon he’ll be replaced by a flying robot, he’s already prepared. “That’s actually what my major is,” he said.
A quadrotor world
The drone-building competition in itself was rather boring. Its implications were enormous, but its theatrics involved a lot of standing around waiting for coders to tweak programs and for batteries to finish recharging.
One of the most exciting moments occurred after lunch, when a drone developed by a team from Bangalore went out of control and drifted sideways toward the timekeeper’s table. The woman keeping time had to shield herself with the lid of a plastic bin to keep the drone at bay. Papers went flying from the wind the drone’s rotors were kicking up, a contest organizer belatedly hit the drone’s kill switch—required for the competition—and the Bangalore team, like the OSU team before it, was forced to withdraw.
Later on, as the competition drew to a close, someone finally asked that music be played over the loudspeakers. It had otherwise been an entire day of brief announcements and the buzzing of student quadrotors. In a stroke of unintentional genius, a former DARPA employee who was manning the mic put on David Bowie’s Space Oddity, the first chords of which brought on the feeling of mystery and foreboding that had been missing from this gathering: “Ground control to Major Tom…”
Here was a very different story about airborne technology than was being told at this competition, which had as its logo the world on a quadrotor. It was a story in touch with hubris—a story of a man sitting in a tin can far above the moon, calling, “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…” Angry guitar strokes, and then, from the engineers below:
Ground control to Major Tom, your circuit's dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom?
To clear my head after the contest ended, I went for a drive. There are no suburbs of Grand Forks, so it was just boom: corn fields, sky, not a hill in sight. Dust rising behind a thresher in a field of tow-headed wheat. Grain silos. Then an actual military base: the Grand Forks Air Force Base, with its grass-roofed hangars and its outdoor museum of old planes and intercontinental ballistic missile equipment, a display that doubled as an accidental monument to the Cold War theory of mutually assured destruction.
I eased my compact rental car up to the enormous nose of a B-52 and got out. I recalled how at the competition Kahn, the conference organizer who works at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, had said, admiring the compactness and sophistication of the student drones, “What’s crammed into these little vehicles was not even conceivable cramming into a B-52.” I listened to the crickets, watched some dandelion thistles blow by. A large dragonfly buzzed past, and I recalled reading that military contractors can make drones that small now.
Back in my car, I drove toward the end of the runway where the border patrol’s Predators take off and land. As it happened, one was circling low. I pulled over, threw open my car door to jump out, and as I was doing so was halted by beeping that told me I was about to lock my keys inside. I thanked my robot assistant, grabbed the keys, and stepped out onto the shoulder.
The Predator was above me in a bright North Dakota sky, marked by a windowless frontal bulge where the cockpit should be and a set of distinctive tailfins pointing both upward and downward. It made a turn with a crispness that was unmistakably mechanical, sharper and quicker than any human could achieve given the vagaries of flesh and muscle and tendon attached to bone attached to brain. It was a turn not so much elegant as brutally efficient. I listened to the Predator’s dull and distant whir. Then it banked over a plowed-under field, lined up on the runway, and landed silently in the distance.
Back to the future
The next day, at the end of the limo ride to Digi-Key, the students jumped out and began snatching up everything free and marked with the company’s name—Digi-Key catalogues, Digi-Key candies at the receptionist’s desk. Skeeler bought an orange Digi-Key t-shirt at the company store. His classmate Daniel Miller, a 20-year-old engineering major, bought two, one in red and another in tie-dye. Soo-Hyun Yoo, an OSU computer-science major, grabbed a free Digi-Key flash drive and a foam drink cooler.
Then we walked to the company’s highly automated warehouse, which felt a bit like arriving at the contest: a vertigo-inducing sensation of looking over the edge into a future that’s already here. (“It’s just not evenly distributed yet,” as the phrase credited to William Gibson goes.)
Human pickers ran around the warehouse grabbing parts that had been ordered online and that would soon be shipped to an unseen engineer in a distant land. The pickers wore static straps on their shoes to prevent the friction from their movements from creating an electrical charge that would ruin the merchandise. They stuck barcode labels on products and placed them on a snaking conveyor belt, and then a computer pushed the products off the belt at the station belonging to the right packer.
“Her computer was checking everything she did,” one student told me later. “She couldn’t mess up if she wanted to.” The student said this approvingly, the same way Miller had told me during the competition that drones and other types of intelligent robots will soon create a future in which “people are going to work a bit less.”
Back in the limo and headed to Grand Forks for ribs, Kahn told me about his newest creation for the military: a small, cheap, ultra-light, highly accurate glider drone called the CICADA, some versions of which have a circuit board that doubles as a wing. Kahn assembled the prototype using parts ordered from Digi-Key. He knows his drone has military applications, but he also thinks it could be used to guide vaccine doses down to a small jungle landing strip where they might be needed.
I was listening, but I was also looking out the window at the way the wind changed the color of the soybean fields, tipping up the dark green leaves of the close-packed plants so that all at once a bunch of their lighter green undersides appeared. When the breeze died, the field returned to a darker monochrome. Everywhere, the double sidedness.
When I returned home to Seattle, I went online and ordered a Parrot. It arrived within days via FedEx. It was cute, colored in an orange and blue geometric pattern meant to evoke parrot-ness, and with bumpers that I could put around its blades for extra protection. (Which was comforting, because numerous students at the competition had shown me scars from their run-ins with drone blades.)
I unpacked my Parrot and flew the little anthropomorphized machine in front of some friends. Everyone wanted one. I took it out to a friend’s farmhouse so I could fly it around without too much fear of hurting people or the drone itself—because, actually, I was starting to like the challenge of mastering it. I made it do flips. I switched from its higher-res nose camera to its bottom-mounted camera and looked at myself from the view of this small flying robot I’d commanded with my thumbs and iPhone to hover 40 feet above me.
It was a deeply satisfying view, a vantage point that humans have dreamed of having at least since Icarus. From that perspective, $300 sometimes seemed a bargain. In other moments, though, it seemed an epic giveaway, paying $300 for the privilege of surrendering the ancient dream of human flight to a machine.
Anderson, of DIY Drones, had described drones slightly larger than the Parrot as “flying lawnmowers.” It seemed this phrase could apply to my Parrot as well, though when it took off or set down in low grass its propeller blades caused the grass blades to quiver in front of its nose camera in a way that was quite beautiful to watch later on video.
I had no idea what I might use this thing for aside from watching grass dance, and looking at myself, and mock-spying on my friend through his farmhouse window, and checking out how his roof is holding up. The killer app might be to make it cuss like a real parrot. Or, better, if it could allow me to set a drink on its back and then send that drink into the other room for delivery to my boyfriend.
That the Parrot can’t do this, and that it has some very apparent fragilities actually ended up being another aspect that endeared it to me. While it’s sturdy enough to survive certain falls and run-ins with tree branches, its battery lasts only about 10 minutes, and it can’t deal with strong wind and rain. As Yoo from the Oregon State team told me, all you really need right now to counter an off-the-shelf civilian drone is a baseball bat.
Freedom to barbecue naked
This realization was with me as I sat in a Seattle community meeting and watched the police department try to introduce the public to its new Draganflyer X6 drones, paid for (at $40,000 each) with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. The meeting went sideways immediately. A young man in a Guy Fawkes mask yelled out, “Surveillance is not freedom!” A young woman yelled that Seattle was on the verge of becoming like the tribal areas of Afghanistan.
Clearly, not everyone in the 18-to-29 demographic is sanguine about domestic drones. One irate neighborhood resident demanded to know what would happen if the new Seattle Police Department drone flew through his backyard chasing someone “while I’m naked, barbecuing!” It didn’t seem the right time to suggest he keep a baseball bat handy.
A lot of the protesters, it appeared, were imagining an armed Predator hovering over Seattle, and not the object in front of them—a much cheaper unarmed vehicle that wouldn’t even be able to fly in one of the city’s dominant weather conditions, strong wind and rain. Police tried to assure the citizens at the meeting that the new drones wouldn’t be used for hot pursuits—just hostage situations, maybe, or search and rescue, or perhaps someone barricaded behind a wall that the drone could peer over.
It didn’t mollify the attendees or the public at large, and last month, the mayor of Seattle, facing a tough re-election fight and at least one opponent willing to make an issue out of the new police drones, reversed course. The Draganflyers, he declared, would be sent back to their manufacturer. Although his decree turned out to be harder to implement than expected, the mayor's reversal didn’t surprise Calo, the expert on robots and the law. “People are not okay with machines that they associate with the theater of war flying around watching us.”
But this potential for the public to turn on drones—the potential harnessed by Rand Paul in his filibuster—has Calo and others worried about an overreaction that stops the U.S. drone boom in its tracks, forcing it to go elsewhere. “This could be the first transformative technology since steam that’s not American in some essential way,” Calo warned.
For now, Calo recommends that drone manufacturers receive immunity from lawsuits over the destructive uses to which their products might be put, in order to avoid stifling innovation. Called to testify before a Senate hearing on drones and privacy on March 20, Calo said that he does think some new drone regulations are needed, but at the moment he’s unsure as to whether they would be best achieved through a sweeping federal law, or through state-by-state action that allows for experimenting with different approaches. The senators, for their part, seemed convinced that Calo was right when he said that Fourth Amendment case law is not prepared to handle domestic drones, and that one way or another we need to “finally drag our inadequate privacy doctrines into the 21st century.”
Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), referring to a mosquito-sized drone, said, “God help us if an adolescent boy gets ahold of one of those.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I know what drones can do…I’ve seen drones do all kinds of things, and I think those all kinds of things bring on great caution.”
While it may never become legal for U.S. civilians to weaponize their drones, Feinstein noted that people do all kinds of illegal things, and asked, “How can the government prevent that from happening?” Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) declared, “Our laws need to be as sophisticated as the people who are potentially breaking them.” And Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) cautioned, “The thought of government drones buzzing overhead monitoring the activities of law-abiding citizens runs contrary to the notion of what it means to live in a free society.”
Calo had heard all of these concerns before, and more. “We can be excited about the upside and still try to mitigate the downside,” he told me some weeks before the hearing. “That’s a very human thing—to want and to fear.”
When we talked about his fears, Anderson of DIY Drones told me he had been suddenly confronted with them not too long ago. “I was on a plane,” he said. “I had my laptop open, and I was programming. I was working on some of our code, and I was looking at some of our swarming algorithms.” Algorithms of this sort allow for multiple drones to act in concert—flying together in formation, for example.
“And then they came to serve the meal,” Anderson continued, “and I had to close the laptop to make room for my tray. And so I opened up the Kindle app on my iPad, and I opened up Daniel Suarez’s Kill Decision.” The book offers a dystopian view on swarming drone technology that ends up with a lot of people dying. “And then I finished my meal, and I close the iPad, and I open up my laptop again, and I start programming the swarming algorithm. And I say, ‘Wait. Is this how it happened?’”
Anderson doesn’t believe that we have the power to create drones that would have truly independent ability to act—there’s no Terminator in his vision of the future. “But even if we could,” he continued, “what should I do differently?”
I replied: Perhaps throw in a foolproof kill switch, like all the students at the competition were required to do for their machines?
“We’re an open-sourced project,” Anderson said. “How do we build in safeguards that someone else couldn’t take out? You can’t do it.”
In any case, there's a more utopian project that better captures Anderson's vision. It's a foam plane his company’s currently designing that weighs “about two pounds, max,” intended for farmers in places like North Dakota. “They wake up in the morning, they unplug it, they throw it out the window, and then they go down to their office and they open up the crop report and they get this shot of what’s going on with the crops,” Anderson explained. “It goes up and down your crop, like a lawnmower. It goes click click click click click, and then all the imagery is uploaded onto a web service, which then stitches it together to make a composite, and then you get a Google Maps–quality image of your crop 10 minutes ago, at super high resolution.”
The Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission might actually like this drone, because it doesn’t take away human jobs. “This job isn’t being done at all,” Anderson said. “You know what it replaces?” he joked. “It replaces putting down twice as much herbicide as you need.” (Anderson said later he was using hyperbole, but regulatory agencies and environmentalists estimate even higher multiples of herbicide miss the intended plants.)
Both Anderson and I had recently seen Looper, and both of us had noticed the beat-up drone that Emily Blunt’s character uses in the year 2044 to tend her farm’s crops. Anderson particularly loved the way Blunt’s character casually started her drone up and sent it off to work in a quick moment so pedestrian it was entirely missable for the average viewer. “It was just so, sort of, matter of fact,” he said.
That, he hopes, is the future.
The human hand
The visit I’d made to the Grand Forks Air Force Base after the competition had sent my mind back to an era of outdated thinking—to the Cold War, when every action required a more aggressive counter-action, which led to ever more escalation that only a tremendous amount of luck, and very little sanity, kept from causing human annihilation.
And I should say: I’m 35 years old, which is not old enough to have gone through the true frozen terror of the Cold War, but not as young as most of the competitors, for whom the threat of mass destruction via nuclear bombs mounted on ICBMs is even more remote.
Still, I wondered why the students who are building our flying-robot future didn’t look at their creations and have thoughts similar to the one J. Robert Oppenheimer said he had as he recoiled from the dark potential of his breakthrough creation, the atomic bomb—a creation that quickly ushered in the Cold War. Oppenheimer said he recalled a line from the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Already, an international drones race is on, with some 11 countries developing drone arsenals, including Iran, Israel, and China. And the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, said in January that having the drone-strike option “can lower the threshold for decision-making to take action”—because both the remote operator and the remote decision-maker have fewer factors inhibiting a destructive impulse.
The same will be true for civilians who buy drones and end up using them to act on destructive impulses. Their violence will be of a new kind in America, airborne and potentially untethered from the human hand, making it not just remote-controlled, but also physically and psychologically remote.
However, as Skeeler’s teammate Daniel Miller pointed out on the ride to Digi-Key, the comparison to a time when we first opened the Pandora’s box of nuclear weaponry only goes so far. A nuclear bomb has only destructive uses, Miller noted. The drones the students are making aren’t optimized for military purposes, and anyway drones can be used both destructively and constructively—with the constructive uses having the most potential in the students’ minds.
Even if vandalism, peeping, and violence are possible outcomes, Miller had already warned me, “You can’t regulate them. Almost everything on there is easily accessible. They’re everywhere already.” If the government did someday decide to regulate his drone parts, Miller explained, he could build a drone simply by cannibalizing parts from an iPhone, a washing machine, a microwave, and a model airplane kit. All he’d need is some wire and the right tools.
The lone dissenter on the Oregon State team was Soo-Hyun Yoo, then 19. “Not everybody should have these things,” he said. “Because people are stupid, to put it frankly, and putting dangerous things in stupid people’s hands is a dangerous thing to do. That said, we can’t control what everyone does, nor should we.”
Brave new world
In a quiet moment on the sidelines at the competition in Grand Forks, one of the contest organizers said to me, “My biggest fear is that the engineers will take over the world, not these autonomous systems.”
In another quiet moment, Cape, the mechanical engineer from the University of Southern California, mentioned that his school made him study engineering ethics. “I brought it up,” he said when I called him later, “because I think that’s something most engineers should think about when they start building drones. I think it’s something most engineers avoid thinking about.”
After I’d returned home, and after I’d tired of the Parrot and stashed it in a closet, I found myself thinking about my limo conversation with Skeeler. So I called him up at school to chew through all the issues one more time. Skeeler tried to explain to me, again, what it is an engineer does. “What we do is make stuff that’s cool,” he told me. “What other people do, that have degrees in it, is question the ethics. Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?”
I told him I’d just re-watched The Terminator, in which Reese, one of the robot-fighting human heroes, actually travels back in time to warn people about what’s going to happen —that they’re about to be destroyed by, hunted by, or enslaved by the fancy technologies they’ve created.
“Well, we already are enslaved to technology,” Skeeler said. “Just talk to any of your friends who have children who are five years old and have cell phones. But I understand what you’re saying. There is that risk, and it will always be there.”
Finally. The Skeeler acknowledgment of risk.
I was feeling so good about this I told Skeeler I’d do him a favor: If this whole domestic drone thing doesn’t work out so well, and if we do all end up being hunted down and enslaved by the flying robots he’s building, then I promised to come back from the future and warn him about how bad it’s gotten.
“OK,” Skeeler replied. “I’ll look for you in the next few days. And if I don’t see you I’ll assume I was totally right.”