Why the US Government Doesn’t Want You to Own a Drone
As with every newfangled technology, drones possess the potential to both improve our lives, and to hinder them. However, the dangers posed by these machines mainly come in the form of privacy risks, both in the private sector, and from the government.
But for the US government, security and privacy is only one side of the coin. They can also be used to damage property and hurt personnel, or at least they will in the near future. I’m of course talking about hobbyist drones that the average person can buy right now.
Obviously, the government’s fleet of flying murder machines already have the ability to gather intelligence and kill people. But apparently what’s keeping government officials up at night these days is the potential for civilians of average income to purchase tricked-out murder machines of their own.
Over a week before the news caught wind of the drone that crashed on the White House lawn, there was a meeting in Arlington, Virginia with officials from the DHS, FAA, and the US military. There they discussed the numerous ways these hobby aircraft may be used for countering military formations, assassination, and terrorism.
The conference was open to civilians, but explicitly closed to the press. One attendee described it as an eye-opener. The 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. One quadcopter, strapped to 3 pounds of inert explosive, was a DJI Phantom 2, a newer version of the very drone that would land at the White House the next week.
Attendee Daniel Herbert snapped a photo and posted it to his website along with detailed notes from the conference. The day after the White House incident, he says, DHS phoned him and politely asked him to remove the entire post. He complied. “I’m not going to be the one to challenge Homeland Security and cause more contention,” says Herbert, who runs a small drone shop in Delaware called Skygear Solutions.
Of course, this is the Internet we’re talking about, so the image is still floating around. You can see it in the link I posted above. It shows how easy it would be to strap some explosives onto an ordinary hobby drone.
As for mounting a firearm, that’s still a little ways off. The potential is already there, but it’s going to take a few years before that sort of technology is in the hands of everyday drone enthusiasts. A cursory look through YouTube will net you a few videos of people who’ve mounted handguns and .22s onto their drones, but they’re all pretty rudimentary.
Nonetheless, we’re rapidly approaching the day when the average person with a few thousand dollars can buy a long-distance drone with a fully capable weapons system. To mitigate these risks, some drone manufacturers are voluntarily limiting the range of these machines.
The Phantom line of consumer drones made by China-based DJI figures prominently in the government’s attack scenarios. That’s not because there’s anything sinister about DJI or the Phantom—in fact, just the opposite. The Phantom is the iPod of drones, cheap, easy to use, and as popular with casual and first-time fliers as with experienced radio control enthusiasts.
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. If a Phantom 2 pilot flies within five miles of a major airport’s no fly zone, the drone’s maximum altitude begins to taper. At 1.5 miles away, it lands and refuses to take off again.
Municipal airports are protected by smaller zones, also programmed into the drones’ firmware.
Of course, firmware isn’t always so firm, as anyone who’s done a jailbreak on their smartphone can tell you. In reality there’s no stopping this. In the same way that criminals can still buy guns on the black market, anyone who is determined to turn their drone into a suicide bomb or a mobile gun turret, is not going to be deterred. The future has arrived, and it’s going to present some interesting challenges for every government on Earth.