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

(Pt I, Drones for Destruction, Construction, and Distribution; Pt II, Pirate Hunting in the Clouds)

Photos, Bullets, and Smuggling

Unmanned aerial photography drones look to be the next big thing. They also look to be highly annoying and invasive. Earlier this year, the New York Times described a Los Angeles drone operator who had already been approached by paparazzi to take photos of celebrities.  Until regulatory issues got in the way, his previous job was in aerial real-estate photography, where there is also big demand. The Times article describes how the FAA must decide on rules for commercial drone use in aerial photography, among many other applications, by 2015. But it is the paparazzi gig that should get you thinking.

The reason the paparazzi take photos of famous people is money.  Famous people have money, and notoriety, and other people for some reason pay to peek in their windows and, frankly, up their skirts.  What is going to happen when paparazzi start to use drones?  Let's call these robots dronarazzi. (According to Wikipedia, the word paparazzi comes from Fellini's La Dolce Vita and is meant to suggest an annoying, buzzing, insect.  My neologism may be superfluous given the racket current drones make, but it seems important to distinguish between humans and drones, don't you think?)  Very quickly after dronarazzi appear, famous people will attempt to use their money to get laws passed against them. Those laws will turn out to be unenforceable due to the profusion of hardware so cheap that it is disposable.  Famous, wealthy people will then spend some of their money to physically remove the annoyance of the dronarazzi.  And there it begins: drone countermeasures.

Drones have already been the subject of armed confrontation within U.S. borders.  Recently, hunters in Texas unhappy about a surveillance drone flown by animal rights activists proceeded to pretend it was a game bird.  The shoot-down was likely illegal; undoubtedly lawsuits are afoot.  As more drones take to the sky, there will certainly be more such confrontations.  Surveillance drones flown by law enforcement agencies, the DEA, and U.S. Customs will certainly be targets.  Even before law enforcement agencies find themselves involved in daily skirmishes we will see countermeasures innovations crop up in -- no surprise here -- California.  Hollywood, to be specific. I would expect the first dronarazzi shoot-downs to happen fairly soon, even before the FAA sorts out the relevant regulations. And given how frequently paparazzi crash their cars into each other, their subjects, and bystanders, we can expect dronarazzi to cause analogous physical damage.

But look ahead just a bit, beyond photography, to a time when drones are providing real-time traffic or crowd monitoring, perhaps combined with face recognition, which you, the surveilled, may not want to allow.  What will the market look like for gizmos that prevent airborne cameras from imaging your face?  Or what about when small, VTOL drones are actually moving stuff around in the real world.  That stuff could conceivably be your latest, packet-switched delivery from Amazon, or it could be the latest methamphetamine delivery from your drug dealer; it will be hard to tell the difference without physical inspection.  Law enforcement will want to track -- and almost certainly to inspect -- those cargoes, and many a sender and recipient will want to thwart both tracking and inspection.

The rules for drone flight set by the FAA will probably attempt to spell out specific allowed uses.  This decision will be informed both by 9/11 and by recent U.S. combat experience. We might see the definition of specific drone flight corridors, or specific drone flight characteristics, and federal, state, and local authorities may demand the ability to override the controls on drones through back doors in software.  But those back doors will be vulnerable to misuse, and are likely to be nailed shut even by above-board drone operators.  Who wants to loose control of a drone to the hacker kid next door? And, obviously, the economic incentive to cheat in the face of any drone flight or construction regulations will be absolutely enormous.  Many people will make the calculation (probably correctly) that, in the unlikely event that a suspect drone itself is caught or disabled, the operator will walk away scot-free because it simply may not be possible to identify her.  Yet I suspect that whatever the rules forwarded by the FAA, and whatever powers of intervention in drone activity are given to law enforcement, that it will all come down to whether people can be physically prevented from doing what they want with drones.  That is, can drone flight rules actually be enforced without the hands-on ability to capture or shut down scofflaw drones and operators?  The answer, very likely, is no, especially given the existing community of drone hackers who are proficient at producing both hardware and software. This brings us back to the proliferation of physical and electronic countermeasures.  And I question whether we are adequately planning for the future.

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