As noted on the Deep End last month, drone technology is getting cheaper all the time. For a few hundred pounds anyone can have their own remotely controlled flying camera – creating endless opportunities for peeping-toms and nosy-parkers.
That, however, may not be the worst of it. According to Kevin Poulsen in Wired magazine, the US Department of Homeland Security is deeply worried about the “potential use of hobbyist drones as weapons of terror or assassination”.
Poulsen reports on a recent DHS conference on the issue:
“…officials played videos of low-cost drones firing semi-automatic weapons, revealed that Syrian rebels are importing consumer-grade drones to launch attacks, and flashed photos from an exercise that pitted $5,000 worth of drones against a convoy of armored vehicles. (The drones won.) But the most striking visual aid was on an exhibit table outside the auditorium, where a buffet of low-cost drones had been converted into simulated flying bombs.”
Just ten days later, a recreational drone crashed into the grounds of the White House. Though this was an accident – the implications are disturbing.
In recent years, we’ve seen enormous sums expended on protecting high profile locations from terrorist attacks. In central London, reinforced walls have been incorporated into the streetscape to stop bomb-laden vehicles from being driven into government buildings. Obviously, a low wall isn’t much use against a flying bomb – and though the weight of explosive that a drone can carry is limited compared to a ground vehicle, the potential for targeting is much greater. Furthermore, the technology is constantly moving forward – with components becoming smaller, lighter and cheaper. If a drone weighing a few pounds is difficult to track and intercept, then imagine a swarm of wasp-sized drones equipped with, say, incendiary devices.
How do we defend ourselves against this growing menace? One solution is offered by the company that manufactured the drone that crashed at the White House:
“With all the attention surrounding the White House landing, DJI felt it had to take action. So last Thursday it pushed a ‘mandatory firmware update’ for its Phantom 2 that would prevent the drone from flying in a 15.5 mile radius of the White House. So far it’s the only drone-maker installing what’s known as GPS geofencing
“The technique is not new to DJI. The company first added no-fly zones to its firmware in April of last year to deter newbie pilots from zipping into the restricted airspace over airports, where they might interfere with departing and arriving aircraft.”
(As ConHome readers will know, ‘firmware’ is the deeply-embedded, elementary programming of an electronic device.)
One can’t, of course, rule out the possibility that a terrorist group might be able to re-program a drone and override any security features. Nor can one discount a scenario in which the drones themselves are custom-built. However, the more complex a terrorist operation the harder it is to mount and the easier it is to detect – which is why we need to deny our enemies the use of simple off-the-self equipment like recreational drones that can fly anywhere their users want them to.
Inevitably, there are those who object to any such limitations as an infringement of their liberties. Perhaps they have a point. If the electronic goods that we buy are subject to remote control by corporations and governments then might not that be the greater threat to freedom? Poulsen cites current examples from printers that reject third party ink-cartridges to cars that won’t start if the purchaser doesn’t keep up with payments.
There’s no denying the sinister aspect to the increasingly ‘intelligent’ objects that surround us. The only question is who do we fear most: those who want to kill us or those who merely want to control us?