The American Interest
Democracy, Development & the Rule of Law
Published on September 20, 2012
Surveillance Drones, Take Two

A lot has happened since I last reported on my surveillance drone. My fleet has grown to three drones: in addition to the DJI quadcopter, I have a Bixler Sky Surfer equipped with a GoPro camera that can send a live video feed back to a base station. This is what’s called FPV, or “first person view” that allows you to see the world as if you were in the drone. The video feed can be viewed either on a laptop or through a pair of video goggles, which are necessary if you really want to pilot the plane via FPV. In addition, there is an Eagle Tree telemetry system in the loop that sends real-time telemetry data back that includes GPS data on the drone’s location, bearing,  battery power, and the like.

The following is a video taken by the Sky Surfer flying over the oval at Stanford:

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This video was taken at Bayfront Park at the edge of San Francisco Bay:

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The next video is a flight over Lagunita at Stanford; at around second 43 of the video the telemetry kicks in and you can see the data being transmitted back to the ground station. So I’ve now fulfilled my goal of having a drone like the Army’s Raven that you can throw in the air and use to see the back side of a building in front of you.

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The second addition to the fleet is a 3D Robotics six-rotor Arducopter, pictured below. There’s a GoPro camera mounted underneath it which is on a gyroscopically-stabilized two-axis gimbal. This one does not send back a live video feed (though that would be very easy to rig up); it does however transmit telemetry data back to a laptop that will display the drone’s location on Google Earth via the Mission Planner software.

After my first drone post I was introduced to Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and founder of DIY Drones, the organization that developed the Arducopter, Arduplane, Ardurover, and other Arduino-based autonomous drones and cars. Arduino is an open-source board that’s very popular in the robotics community that serves as a digital interface between various real-world processes. The Arducopters have a controller that includes a full autopilot that allows you to plan missions for your drone by simply clicking on a series of waypoints on Google Earth. If you’ve got it set up correctly, you can send the drone off to any set of GPS coordinates you specify and then have it fly back to you, without any pilot input.

In building the hexacopter, I initially couldn’t get the controller board to work properly. I emailed Chris, who told me to bring the board to the 3D Robotics booth at the Maker Faire in San Mateo. The latter is a huge event (more than 100,000 attendees) dedicated to hi-tech do-it-yourselfers who want to build their own drones, robots, computers, make objects with 3D printers, etc. One of Chris’ engineers discovered that I had forgotten to solder a couple of spots on the board, and got the thing working. While we were talking different programmers would drop by and start chatting about their own modifications to the Arducopter software, what features it might have in the future, and the like. A perfect illustration of how social capital operates in Silicon Valley, and why it is such an innovative place.

I’ve now gotten diverted from the drones into Arduino itself. You can hook up a wide variety of “shields” to the basic Arduino board that can be a platform for sensors of various sorts (barometric pressure, accelerometers and gyros, temperature, distance, light, gas, smoke, radiation, etc.), keyboards, joysticks, RC receivers, etc., which can then be used to manipulate any number of real-world processes (motors, servos, displays, and so forth). The programming language is pretty straightforward if you already know C or Java, and it is a lot of fun to actually get these boards to control things like rovers or report on conditions around the house. There are a number of (mostly free) development tools like Fritzing that allow you to prototype a circuit, turn it into a digital printed circuit board design, and have the board custom manufactured to your specifications.  I’ve installed an Arduino in an RC car chassis and programmed it to avoid walls and send back telemetry.

It’s pretty clear to me that we have not begun to think through the political consequences of living in a world where sophisticated drones can be operated by lots of other countries besides the United States, and by private individuals within the US. After two large and unpopular land wars, we are shifting to a military posture that is heavily reliant on drones and special forces to carry out what amount to targeted killings of our political opponents. This is a very seductive path to follow because it is relatively cheap, lacking the huge logistics trains that accompany conventional force deployments, and seems for the time being to be a monopoly of the United States. The residual forces we are going to leave in Afghanistan will largely be of this nature.

We’ve already eroded to some extent the prohibitions coming out of the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s on assassinations of our political opponents with the targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen.  The lawyers will explain why these are not legally assassinations, but I suspect that the American public is getting used to the idea that we can simply eliminate individuals we deem to be threats with drones.  The problem will come home to roost when other countries develop the same capabilities and start using them against us.

Of the technologies available to hobbyists now, the most troubling are the autopilots.  You can defend yourself against remotely-controlled drone by detecting and disrupting the radio signal from whoever’s controlling it on the ground.  But the autopilots emit no RF signature and depend only on their ability to pick up a GPS signal to get to their destinations.  I leave it to your imagination to think of some of the bad uses to which this can be put.

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  • Anthony

    “The problem will come home to roost when other countries develop the same capabilities and start using them against us.” Essay brings to mind two of Niall Ferguson’s killer apps (competition and science) as he describes the West and the rest – imagination, innovation, and culture via available technological blueprints.

  • Michael Heller

    There you go again *droning* on about the big picture. But I know where you are heading with this. Let me quote Niklas Luhmann at you:

    “Our flight must take place above the clouds, and we must reckon with a rather thick cloud cover. We must rely on our instruments. Occasionally, we may catch glimpses below of a land with roads, towns, rivers, and coastlines that remind us of something familiar, or glimpses of a larger stretch of landscape with the extinct volcanoes of Marxism. But no one should fall victim to the illusion that these few points of reference are sufficient to guide our flight.”

    I.e. the empirical data, interesting and useful though it is, matters less than the abstract logic of a universal theory.

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  • Ulrike Franke

    This is a great way to figure out UAVs. It is absolutely vital that academics get hands-on experience of this technology. UAVs are about to change, potentially revolutionise, warfare and the way we think about war and will soon do the same for everyday life. If we want to say anything valuable about drone use, the danger of terrorism via drones and the like, we need to know what these vehicles can do and what they cannot (yet). Please keep writing about your experience.

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