Less than a month ago, rumors that celebrity news and gossip website TMZ was interested in obtaining a paparazzi drone prompted privacy concerns and public debate about the appropriate personal and commercial uses of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Now, a new online video poses a more troubling question: What if civilian drones are equipped to shoot more than just pictures?
Titled “Citizen Drone Warfare” and posted to YouTube last week by an anonymous man calling himself “Milo Danger,” the video shows a hobbyist drone equipped with a custom-mounted paintball pistol flying over a grassy field and peppering human-shaped shooting-range targets with pellets.
Following an attack pass by the drone, one of the targets sports three large red blotches on its head and neck area.
“I wanted to show an inevitability of what I think will happen with these drones,” said “Milo,” who lives on the West Coast and spoke to The Washington Times on condition of anonymity. “I’m not advocating bad activities. But I wanted to raise some of the ethical issues we need to think about with this new technology.
“We didn’t post the footage of this, but some of the guys who worked with me on the project weren’t afraid of being shot by paintballs. They wanted to see if they could escape the drone. The answer was, no, they could not.”
Though Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not explicitly mention the use of firearms on drones, they do prohibit any type of recreational flying or dropping objects from aircraft that endanger life or property.
DIYDrones.com, a drone hobbyist website and online community that counts defense and aerospace engineers among its 32,000 members and averages more than 1.5 million page views a month, discourages using or modifying drones for any uses that are “potentially illegal or intended to do harm.”
“We’ve banned the weaponized use of drones,” said Chris Anderson, the site’s founder. “So in our community, the reaction to this video is dismay. We’re particularly interested in civilian uses of drones, things like search-and-rescue and filming sports teams. Obviously, putting a paintball gun on a drone doesn’t help.”
American Civil Liberties Union policy analyst Jay Stanley wrote on the organization’s website that the video was “pretty scary” and America “cannot allow our skies to fill with flying robots armed with all manner of dangerous weapons.”
Mr. Stanley also noted that defense experts have warned for years that small, commercially available drones could be used as weapons. In 2004, a New Zealand engineer managed to build a miniature cruise missile for less than $5,000, a project that subsequently was shut down by the nation’s government because of security concerns.
Last month, a 27-year-old Massachusetts man was sentenced to 17 years in prison for plotting to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol with a remote-controlled model aircraft rigged with explosives.
“We’ve called for a ban on armed drones, and I think there’s a broad consensus that we should not allow armed drones to be used domestically,” said Mr. Stanley, the author of a report on drones and privacy. “The International Association of Chiefs of Police has recommended against it. I think this video likely will further cement that consensus.”
In the video, Milo wears sunglasses, a black baseball cap, a large American-flag bandanna that covers his face and a T-shirt reading “Dangerous Information” — the latter the name of a fledgling Web video series that explores topics such as picking locks and growing marijuana.
Holding a small, six-rotor hobbyist drone in his hand, Milo states that the realistic-looking handgun attached to the machine’s undercarriage fires “non-lethal” 11 mm paintballs.
“Let me be clear, under no circumstances should you ever put a live firearm on a drone, a remote-controlled toy or any other vehicle,” he says. “It’s incredibly dangerous.
“Can a mail-order drone from a kit even handle the stress of rounds cycling through a gun? Is it accurate? Let’s find out.”
Flying about 15 feet above the ground and controlled by Milo with the help of an onboard video camera that transmits real-time images to a set of piloting goggles, the drone maneuvers around five human-shaped targets, the buzz of its electric engines mixing with the popping sound of the paintball gun discharging.
By the time the drone lands, Milo has hit all five targets repeatedly.
“If the question is, ‘How easy is it to fly this drone?’ the answer is, ‘terrifyingly easy,’” he said. “The first time we flew it, we were able to put all of the paintball ammunition into a target 50 yards away from the operator — and 15 yards from the [drone] — in an area the size of a dinner plate.”
According to Milo, building the drone was nearly as straightforward. He purchased the drone and the paintball gun online, downloaded open-source piloting software and found instructions on how to get the drone up and running by running simple Internet searches for the terms “drones” and “DIY.”
The entire project, he said, took no more than a dozen hours and cost less than $2,000.
“I’m not particularly handy,” he said. “But I was able pick up this pretty high-end hobby as a completely inexperienced person and master it with a small budget in a couple of weeks. It was up and flying within a couple of sessions of working on it, and that’s including trial and error and making mistakes.”
The hardest part, Milo said, was centering the weight of the paintball pistol, which weighs approximately 2 pounds — roughly the same weight as many actual handguns.
“There would be some practical physical considerations to mounting a real gun,” Milo said. “Many pistols have significantly greater recoil. However, some guns have very little. And the onboard computer for the drone tries to keep itself level even if you try to knock it out of the air.
“I don’t think it would have problems staying in the air with many smaller firearms, but I don’t encourage anyone doing that.”
Unlike the autonomous human-hunting drones of dystopian science fiction — think “The Terminator” film series — Milo’s drone flew by remote control, the same way miniature dune buggies and toy airplanes are piloted by RC enthusiasts.
“With very little extra work, however, we could program it on a computer to fly on a path, fire on a fixed target and then fly home with little human intervention,” he said. “This drone is capable of that.”
The future is soon?
Earlier this year, a different YouTube video appeared to show a homemade quad-rotor drone with a custom-mounted machine gun laying explosive waste to a group of mannequins.
Viewed more than 15 million times, the video turned out to be a hoax, part of a viral marketing campaign for the future-warfare video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.”
“Drones are a hot topic,” Milo said. “You can’t look at the Internet without coming across a drone-related story. Most of them are about military drones or government and police agencies considering drones and their uses. But very infrequently do you see stories that cover the DIY maker approach.
“The fun and valid uses of this technology are going to happen. But other possibilities are there. Surveillance drones over American skies. Armed drones. Not just your local police but also your neighbors. I wanted to create a video that put the questions out there.”
For the most part, drones currently are confined to the military — which reportedly has more than 7,500 vehicles in service — and hobbyists such as Milo, who are flying roughly double that number. Moreover, current FAA rules largely prohibit commercial drone use, while hobbyists are subject to strict guidelines: no flying above 400 feet, near populated areas or outside the operator’s line of sight.
A federal law passed in February, however, compels the FAA to allow drone use by police and emergency services later this year and allow “safe” commercial use by September 2015.
Drone advocates such as Mr. Anderson argue that the technology is akin to the personal computer, flexible enough to perform important and useful tasks ranging from crop-dusting to inspecting pipelines to extreme sports photography.
Milo said excited paintball players began contacting him within hours of his video being posted online.
“A ton of people are very excited, to the point of ‘Shut up and take my money’ and ‘This is now on my Christmas list,’” he said. “People are interested in playing with this kind of toy.”
Acknowledging the inevitability of increased drone use by the government and private citizens alike, Mr. Stanley said society needs to proceed with caution.
The Washington Times recently reported that because of privacy issues, the FAA appears likely to miss its self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline to choose six sites in states throughout the nation where drones will be put through a battery of safety and other tests before full commercialization is allowed.
“There is nothing like seeing actual video of something that might be an abstract concept to bring home the reality of the fast-paced technological era we are living in,” Mr. Stanley said. “And this video is a reminder of how we really need to step up and deal with these issues, and not just sit back and let things happen on their own. Whether that’s preventing guns from being placed on drones, or putting in rules to protect our privacy, we should decide if these are changes we want or don’t want and protect ourselves as necessary.”