John Whitehead's Commentary
Roaches, Mosquitoes, and Birds: The Coming Micro-Drone Revolution
“[Drones are a] game-changing technology, akin to gunpowder, the steam engine, the atomic bomb—opening up possibilities that were fiction a generation earlier but also opening up perils that were unknown a generation ago.”—Peter Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
America will never be a “no drone zone.”
That must be acknowledged from the outset. There is too much money to be made on drones, for one, and too many special interest groups—from the defense sector to law enforcement to the so-called “research” groups that are in it for purely “academic” reasons—who have a vested interest in ensuring that drones are here to stay.
At one time, there was a small glimmer of hope that these aerial threats to privacy would not come home to roost, but that all ended when Barack Obama took office and made drones the cornerstone of his war efforts. By the time President Obama signed the FAA Reauthorization Act into law in 2012, there was no turning back. The FAA opened the door for drones, once confined to the battlefields over Iraq and Afghanistan, to be used domestically for a wide range of functions, both public and private, governmental and corporate. It is expected that at least 30,000 drones will occupy U.S. airspace by 2020, ushering in a $30 billion per year industry.
Those looking to the skies in search of Predator drones will be in for a surprise, however, because when the drones finally descend en masse on America, they will not be the massive aerial assault vehicles favored by the Obama administration in their overseas war efforts. Rather, the drones coming to a neighborhood near you will be small, some nano in size, capable of flying through city streets and buildings almost undetected, while hovering over cityscapes and public events for long periods of time, providing a means of 24/7 surveillance.
One type of drone sensor, the Gorgon Stare, can keep track of an area 2.5 miles across from 12 different angles. Another sensor system, ARGUS, can find an object that is only 6 inches long, from 20,000 feet up in the air. A drone equipped with this kind of technology could spy on an entire city at once. For example, police in California are about to begin using Qube drones, which are capable of hovering for 40 minutes at heights of about 400 ft. to conduct surveillance on targets as far as 1 kilometer away. Michael Downing, the LAPD deputy chief for counter-terrorism and special operations, envisions drones being flown over large-scale media events such as the Oscars, using them to surveil political protests, and flying them through buildings to track criminal suspects.
These micro-drones will be the face of surveillance and crowd control in the coming drone age.
Modeled after birds, insects, and other small animals, these small airborne surveillance devices can remain hidden in plain view while navigating spaces off limits to conventional aircraft. Able to take off and land anywhere, able to maneuver through city streets and hallways, and able to stop and turn on a dime, these micro-drones will still pack a lethal punch, equipped with an array of weapons and sensors, including tasers, bean-bag guns, “high-resolution video cameras, infrared sensors, license plate readers, [and] listening devices.”
You can rest assured, given the pace of technology and the fervor of the drone industry (and its investors), that the sky is the limit when it comes to the many uses (and abuses) for drones in America. The following is just a small sampling of what will be descending from the skies in the near future.
Cyborg drones. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has begun to develop a Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) for the manipulation of insects into “cyborgs.” Through genetic engineering, they are aiming to control the movement of insects and utilize them for surveillance purposes.
Dragonfly drone. First reportedly spotted in 2007 hovering over protesters at an anti-war rally in Washington, DC, it turns out that the government’s dragonfly drones are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to small aerial surveillance devices designed to mimic nature. Just a year later, the US Air Force “unveiled insect-sized spies ‘as tiny as bumblebees’ that could not be detected and would be able to fly into buildings to ‘photograph, record, and even attack insurgents and terrorists.’”
Hummingbird drone. Shaped like a bird, the “Nano Hummingbird” drone is negligibly larger than an actual hummingbird and fits in the palm of one’s hand. It flits around effortlessly, blending in with its surroundings. DARPA, the advanced research division of the Department of Defense, gets the credit for this biotic wonder.
Nano Quadrators. Similar to the hummingbird drone, these small, four-propellered nano quadrator drones, developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, operate based upon the flight dynamics of insects, enabling them to operate as a swarm. Using twenty drones, researchers demonstrated how, moving compactly as a unit, the drones were able to navigate obstacles, form complex patterns, and even execute a fluid figure eight arrangement.
Black Hornet Nano drone. Weighing in at roughly half an ounce and four inches long, comparable to a finch, the Black Hornet Nano helicopter drone was designed to capture and relay video and still images to remote users, and can fly even in windy conditions.
DASH Roachbot drone. Developed at UC Berkeley's PolyPEDAL Lab, DASH, a 10-centimeter long, 16-gram Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod strives to mimic a cockroach’s speed and ability to remain covert and a gecko’s speed and agility. Trained to perform "rapid inversion" maneuvers that include dashing up to a ledge and then swinging itself around to end up underneath the ledge and upside-down, DASH is being trained to make rapid transitions between running and climbing.
Samarai drone. Lockheed Martin’s compact “Samarai” drone, inspired by the design of a maple seed, is capable of high speeds, low battery consumption, vertical movement, and swift ground deployment.
MicroBat drone. Additionally, CIT Group, Aerovironment, and UCLA have produced a “MicroBat” ornithopter; it was designed in part by zoologists who have attempted to make the MicroBat mimic the movement of birds and other flying animals.
Spy-butterfly drone. In 2012, Israel unveiled its new insect-inspired drone which they dubbed the “spy-butterfly” because of its two sizable wings. Weighing in at only 20g, this drone was developed for indoor surveillance, including public places such as “train stations and airport terminals—or office buildings.” The size and muted sound of the “virtually noiseless” machines makes them unnoticeable and therefore ideal for intelligence gathering. The spy-butterfly is so realistic that, when tested, “birds and flies tended to fall behind the device arranging into a flock.”
Switchblade drone. A more sinister example is the Switchblade, a small military drone intended to act as a kamikaze weapon. Weighing in at a mere six pounds and two feet in length, it flies effortlessly through urban environments before zeroing in on its target, a person, at which point it explodes, unceremoniously killing him or her.
Mosquito drone. More lethal than its real-life counterpart, the mosquito drone, while an engineering marvel, is also a privacy advocate’s nightmare with its potential to land on someone and use a needle-like-pincer to extract DNA from its victims or, alternatively, inject drugs or other foreign substances. As software engineer Alan Lovejoy notes:
Such a device could be controlled from a great distance and is equipped with a camera, microphone. It could land on you and then use its needle to take a DNA sample with the pain of a mosquito bite. Or it could inject a micro RFID tracking device under your skin. It could land on you and stay, so that you take it with you into your home. Or it could fly into a building through a window. There are well-funded research projects working on such devices with such capabilities.
Raven drone. Weighing in at 4 pounds, the RQ-11 Raven drone is not as small, nor is it as agile as its smaller counterparts, but with more than 19,000 out there already, it is the most common. Useful for seeing around corners and sending footage back to its handlers, the Raven resembles a rudimentary model airplane and crumbles like Legos upon landing.
With 63 active drone sites across the nation and 56 government agencies presently authorized to use drones, including 22 law enforcement agencies and 24 universities, drones are here to stay. Indeed, the cost of drones—underwritten by a $4 million Homeland Security program which encourages local law enforcement to adopt drone technology as quickly as possible—makes them an easy sell for most police departments. Moreover, while manned airplanes and helicopters can cost $600/hour to operate, a drone can be put in the sky for less than $25/hour. That doesn’t even begin to cover drone use by the private sector, which is already chomping at the bit at the prospect.
No matter what the future holds, however, we must ensure that Americans have a semblance of civil liberties protections against the drones. Given the courts’ leniency towards police, predicating drone use on a warrant requirement would provide little to no protection. Thus, the only hope rests with Congress and state legislatures that they would adopt legislation specifically prohibiting the federal government from using data recorded via police spy drones in criminal prosecutions, as well as preventing police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as tasers and tear gas.
Either way, we’d better get ready. As Peter W. Singer, author of “Wired for War,” a book about military robotics, warns: “The debate over drones is like debating the merits of computers in 1979: They are here to stay, and the boom has barely begun. We are at the Wright Brothers Flier stage of this. There’s no stopping this technology. Anybody who thinks they can put this genie back in the box—that’s silliness.”