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The DIY Armed Drone

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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December 12, 2012

I was on a radio show earlier today (the “Your Call” show on KALW, a local public radio station in San Francisco) when a man called in to tell how he had successfully built his own armed drone, using commercially available equipment. He did not use a real gun, but a paintball gun (many paintball guns are comparable to real guns in weight).

The man referred us to this video, which he has posted to show his experiments with his armed drone. The man, who calls himself “Milo Danger,” appears in the video wearing a bandanna to hide his face and with his voice apparently electronically altered.

Although not shown on the video, on the radio call-in “Milo” said that he had used it to shoot not only at stationary targets but also at live human beings. In response to a somewhat incredulous question from the host, he assured us that they were fully consenting volunteers. In general, he appears to be making an effort to spark awareness and discussion of the technology’s potential in a responsible manner.

The video is pretty scary. As Milo concludes in his video:

If this is what a novice with a small budget can accomplish, then clearly this technology has a lot of potential. Considering the growing popularity of these DIY devices, it seems inevitable that they are going to be used in ways that the inventors and manufacturers could have never imagined. It may not be exactly Skynet, but clearly we are entering into an age where drones are going to dominate the skies over the U.S. and the world.

Milo has performed a valuable service by dramatizing some of the dangers of this technology. I would take issue with the final sentence above, because I don’t think a “drone age” is by any means inevitable. We have called for strict restrictions on how the police can deploy drones, for example—basically only in emergencies or when investigating a particular crime.

As far as civilian use, clearly, we cannot allow our skies to fill with flying robots armed with all manner of dangerous weapons. Experts have been fretting about the use of drones in terrorist plots for years. In September a Massachusetts man was arrested by the FBI on charges of plotting to attack the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol with a drone carrying explosives, and is currently serving a 17-year sentence.

Privacy laws also restrict how private individuals can use drones. Peeping in someone’s bedroom window is already a crime, and doing that with a drone isn’t any different. Perhaps such laws will have to be updated.

At the same time, we’re going to have to be careful how we regulate civilian drone use; as we said in our report, we don’t want to see security concerns used to justify broad-than-necessary restrictions aimed at limiting citizen power, as they so often are. Protesters in Europe have already used drones to monitor the actions of riot police during demonstrations, and Occupy protesters also experimented with the technology. While rules will need to be put in place to prevent all parties from flying armed drones, we don’t want to see such rules used as an excuse to prevent the use of drones by civilians and/or the press to monitor the police, even as the police use them to routinely watch civilians.

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