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Like manned aircraft, drones pose a potential security risk. A 26-year-old Massachusetts man was arrested last September and charged with plotting to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol with a remote-controlled model aircraft rigged with explosives.

At a security conference held in Las Vegas last August, researchers demonstrated a lightweight quad-rotor drone that was designed to automatically detect and compromise wireless Internet networks — in short, an autonomous airborne hacking platform — and it cost less than $600 to build. Another presenter demonstrated a drone that flew silently and identified and tracked human targets by locking in on their cellphone signals.

“With the man who wanted to fly a drone into the Capitol, his challenge wasn’t getting the robot,” Mr. Singer said. “It was getting the C-4 explosive. That’s the era we’re entering.

“Very early in the history of the automobile, it was turned into a car bomb. So with terrorism, the question goes to licensing. Who gets to utilize drones and how? Each one of these new applications creates huge, huge policy questions. As drones become smarter and more autonomous, we move into a legal world that we are not ready for.”

Drones ‘R’ Us?

Mr. Anderson never planned on becoming a drone hobbyist. On a weekend in 2007, however, he brought home a Lego toy robotics kit and a remote-controlled airplane, hoping to interest his children in science and technology.

“The robot just runs into a wall, backs up and runs into the wall again,” Mr. Anderson recalled. “My kids were unimpressed. Then we built the plane and immediately flew it into a tree. My geek dad weekend was a bust.”

Irritated, Mr. Anderson went for a run. A former physics major at George Washington University, he pondered the sensors in the Lego kit — gyroscopes, accelerometers, Bluetooth — and upon returning home created a crude autopilot.

While Mr. Anderson’s children quickly lost interest in favor of video games, Dad was hooked. He founded a website for amateur drone enthusiasts, DIYDrones.com, that counts defense and aerospace engineers among its 23,000 members and averages 1.4 million page views a month — numbers Mr. Anderson expects to double by the end of the year.

The Internet also is where Mr. Anderson saw a YouTube video of Mr. Munoz’s Wii-controlled drone helicopter. The two quickly struck up an online correspondence that became a friendship; the friendship led them to co-found 3D Robotics in Mr. Munoz’s apartment after Mr. Anderson asked Mr. Munoz to make some avionic circuit boards.

According to both men, Mr. Munoz made 40 boards — and sold them all in one day. Three years later, his company is selling components to employees of Boeing and NASA and hobbyists in Germany and China.

“In 1977, [Apple founders] Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak make a computer,” Mr. Anderson said. “Everyone said, ‘What is that for?’ They said, ‘Well, you can program it.’ That’s where we are with drones right now. Users do it because they can, because it’s cutting-edge robotics and awesome.

“How long did it take before the first killer computer app? We don’t know what that will be with drones. But if we make the technology cheap, easy and ubiquitous, regular people will figure it out.”

Mr. Anderson has a point: Personal drones can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars. Computer chips and batteries become smaller, more capable and less expensive every year. If the regulatory drone future brings to mind the introduction of the automobile — as Mr. Singer suggests — then the cultural outlook may be closer to the spread of computers, with hobbyists leading the way.

Mr. Munoz recently heard from a civil engineer in Mexico who is using a drone to help build an airport, saving thousands of dollars on hot air balloon rental costs. Mr. Anderson currently is working with an accomplished windsurfing friend to design and program a drone that doubles as a personal, one-robot film crew.

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