Are These The Drones We're Looking For? (Part II)

(Part 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and DistributionPart II, Pirate Hunting in the CloudsPart III, Photos, Bullets, and SmugglingPart IV, The Coming War Overhead)

Pirate Hunting in the Clouds

Piracy is a perennial weed. For example, coordinated efforts to shut down electronic file sharing have had little effect; you can still find anything you want online.  The reason, of course, is that pirate hunters are always playing catchup to technological innovation that facilitates the anonymous movement of bits.  That should be no surprise to anyone involved, because the same sort of technological struggle has been present in print piracy since the days of Johannes Gutenberg.  Music, game, and movie piracy is just the same game on a new field.

The latest innovation in file sharing looks to be drones.  Two groups, The Pirate Bay (TPB) and Electronic Countermeasures, are building swarms of file-sharing drones meant to decentralize information storage and communications. TPB, in particular, propounds an ideology of sharing everything they can get their hands on by any means available. Says one contributor, "Everyone knows WHAT TPB is. Now they're going to have to think about WHERE TPB is."  File sharing may soon be located both metaphorically and physically in the clouds.

How will pirate-hunters respond to airborne, file-sharing drones?  Attempts will certainly be made to regulate airborne networks.  But that approach will probably fail, because regulation rarely makes headway against ideology.  Along with regulation will come electronic efforts to disrupt drone networks by jamming broadcasts and disrupting intraswarm communications.  That is likely to fail as well, because the drone networks will employ frequency bands used for many other devices, which will make drone-specific jamming technologically implausible, especially in signal-rich, urban environments.  Finally, both government and industry will embark on physically attacking the drones (to which I return to in a moment).  But that isn't going to work either, because drones will soon be cheap enough to fire and forget.

At the moment, the hardware for each of the file-sharing drones is a bit pricy, north of $1000.  Inevitably, the cost will come down.  Quite capable toy quadcopters are available for only a few hundred dollars, whereas just a few years ago the same bird cost thousands.  You can be sure that other form factors will be used, too.  Fixed-wing and lighter-than-air drones are experiencing the same pressure for innovation as four-, six-, and eight-bladed 'copters.  Regardless of what sort of drones are employed in the network, any concerted effort to physically disrupt drones will simply result in more innovation and cost reduction by those who want to keep them in the air.  The economic motivation to fly drones in the face of regulations is compelling, whether for smuggling atoms or bits, and as a result there is every reason to think there will be clouds of drones in the air relatively soon.

As we start down this road, what's missing from the conversation is a concerted effort to ask, "What's next?"  Authorities might imagine they can constrain access to the physical hardware, but the manufacturing of drones is already well beyond anyone's control.  Any attempt at restricting access or use will merely create perverse incentives for greater innovation.

Hackers regularly modify commercially available drones to their own ends.  Beyond what comes in a kit, structural components for drones can be 3D-printed, with open source CAD files and parts lists available at Thingverse and other repositories.  Whatever mechanical parts (such as propellers) that are not now easily printable will undoubtedly soon be, and in any case can be easily molded in a variety of plastics.  MIT just announced a project to develop printable robots.  While the MIT paper 'bots are described as being terrestrial, you have to imagine that boffins are already cooking up aerial versions.  Contributing to the air of innovation, DARPA even runs a crowd-sourced UAV design competition, UAVForge.

So much for the hardware; what about control software? The University of Pennsylvania's Vijay Kumar and his collaborators at the GRASP Lab literally have drones jumping through hoops on command, and cooperating both to fly in formation and to build large structures. This academic project will certainly result in the publication of papers describing the relevant control algorithms, and quite probably the publication of the control code itself.  Imagining GRASP Lab projects out in the wild gives you something to think about.  When you put all this together, the combination of distributed designs and distributed manufacturing employing readily available motors and drive electronics mean that, in the words of open source advocate Bruce Perens, "innovation has gone public".  (For more on that meme, see Perens' The Emerging Economic Paradigm of Open Source.)  As a result, there is no physical means available to law enforcement, or to anyone else, to either control access to drones or to control their use.  Combining wide access to hardware with inevitably open-source control code will produce a profusion of drone swarms. And yet some authorities will inevitably try to restrict access and use of drones, both in the name of public safety and to maintain a technological edge over putative scofflaws.  Up next: what if attempts at regulation just make things worse?

(Part 1, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and DistributionPart II, Pirate Hunting in the CloudsPart III, Photos, Bullets, and SmugglingPart IV, The Coming War Overhead)