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

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

The Coming War Overhead

Are you ready for drone dogfights?  How about combat flocks and swarms?  They are coming.  And they will be over your head before you know it.

From my office window I am fortunate to often see eagles and hawks in flight over Seattle's Lake Union. These raptors are regularly harassed by smaller birds attempting to run off potential predators or competitors.  Each species - whether predator and prey - clearly employs different tactics based on size, speed, armaments, number of combatants, etc.  Within a few years this aerial combat will become a frequent sight in the U.S., but rather than raptors, crows, and gulls, the combatants will be drones of all shapes and sizes.  I am not at all sure that we are adequately prepared, or whether we are adequately planning, for the strange world ahead.

This battle will be engaged on many different fronts. Left, right, black hat, white hat, criminal, law enforcement: all will have the same tools at their disposal. Even if federal, state, and local agencies have early access to hand-me down technologies developed for military applications, they will be up against a large number of innovators, many of whom come from open-source, hacker communities where innovation runs faster than anywhere else.

I have outlined the playing field (Quidditch pitch?) in prior installments. The capability to produce and hack drones is already widely distributed. Drones can now cooperate in swarms to build structures, play music, and play catch. Economic incentives - as well as the cool factor - strongly favor the development of ever less expensive and ever more capable drones to be used for photography, shipping, data storage, and communications, just to name a few applications. As drones and the services they provide become more valuable, and as they inevitably become useful for supplying illicit products such as drugs and pirated music and movies, attempts at regulating drone use are likely to increase demand. This is the very definition of 'perverse incentives'. Yet with the capability to produce drones already so democratized, the only way to limit their use is likely to be direct force. And thus the combat capabilities of even simple drones will, like printing, file-sharing, and every market for every illicit drug, become an arena of continual technological oneupmanship. Drone enthusiasts who work on national security issues have already started a "Drone Smackdown" tourney to explore tactics in their spare time.

So it isn't at all hard to imagine that somewhere down this road we will see a mashup of cheap drones and the sort of Shanzai warfare recently seen in Libya, and now in Syria, in which irregular forces hack together their own knock-off versions of much more expensive (and much more capable) weapons systems they have probably only seen on the Internet. But those DIY weapons systems seem to have done the job. So, too, will Shanzai combat drones.

Here is what we can look forward to: projectiles, nets, lasers or LEDs to blind cameras, strings dropped or shot onto rotors, aerosol cans turned into flying flamethrowers, salt water spray, chaff to disrupt near-field or optical communications, and simple electronic jamming. And each offensive mode will breed countermeasures. The fruits of idle and motivated minds will germinate. Almost any cheap drone will probably have a spare servo circuit or two to control on-board munitions. Adding capacity will be trivial. Remember: many drones are already flying smart phones, so whatever the mission, there's an app for that (see Pt I).

There will be casualties in these confrontations.  The drones, certainly, will suffer.  But sometimes the countermeasures will miss, causing damage to whatever and whomever is downrange.  And when drones are successfully destroyed, they will fall down.  Onto things.  And onto people.  Such as when a Sheriff's Department in Texas dropped a big drone onto it's own SWAT team. Fortunately, the team was sheltered inside their armored car; we should all be so lucky.

In short, the drivers for an arms race are multifold: potential invasion of privacy by government or commercial drones (see Pt. III), attack and defense of file sharing swarms, attacks on (or hijacking of) and defense of cargo drones.  As costs fall, and capabilities improve, novel applications will emerge that will in turn drive ever more innovation in drone weapons systems, especially in countermeasures.

Regardless of what the rules are, of what the FAA and other authorities decide to allow, the economic incentives to employ drones as I have described above will drive behavior. There are just no two ways about it. We will be seeing some version of the world I have described in this series of posts. Consequently, any regulatory should facilitate the safe use of drones rather than attempt to constrain their use. What troubles me, and what motivated me to explore this topic, is that ongoing discussions of drone regulations will completely miss both the economic drivers and the technological ferment making it all possible. I'd like to be wrong about that, but history is likely to be an excellent guide. In the case of drones, as in every other attempt to regulate a democratized technology that serves a large and growing market, black markets will emerge. Nefarious applications of drones are inevitable, and poorly conceived regulation will be an accelerant that makes the problem worse. This is not an argument that all regulation is bad, merely an argument that regulation will be as poorly considered and poorly applied to drones as it was in all the other technological cases I have studied.

Finally, we must remember, first and foremost, that humans will continue to be the targets of armed drones wherever they fly. And, like the raptors that inspired me to think about drone combat, U.S. innovations in arming drones will come home to roost. That is the world we should be preparing for; have no illusions otherwise.

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