Jan 292011
A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares...
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Way back in the 1970s, hardware-hacker hobbyists built kit computers like the Altair 8800— and in doing so paved the way for the computer revolution that would reshape every facet of modern life.

Today the same breed of people are building and selling kit flight controllers for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Just sayin’.

Drones are far from new: the US military has been using them heavily for over a decade. (What else did the US military pioneer, back in the 1970s? Oh, right. The Internet.) UAV tech has long since metastasized around the world. India’s private sector builds UAVs for both military and scientific purposes; Lebanon’s de facto government Hezbollah has used Iranian-built drones for years; earlier this month, QinetiQ’s solar-powered Zephyr set a world record by flying for 2 weeks nonstop; and, of course, the French-built, iPhone-controlledAR.Parrot has brought UAVs to the masses. All awesome, and all innovating fast. At this rate this may well become the Decade of Drones.

Which makes me more than a little uneasy.

Because when I put on my criminal hat—which I’ve been known to do for a living—I immediately start thinking of kit-built UAVs packed with Semtex and targeted via GPS. Voila, poor man’s cruise missiles, available to any hardware hacker with a grudge; all s/he  needs is their target’s address. Fortunately, the powers that be have not fostered entire generations of experienced explosives experts with angry political grievances, right? OhOops. Well, at least it’s not like engineers seem disproportionately likely to become terrorists… ohwait.

Then there’s the smuggling problem. Colombian and Mexican drug cartels already usehomemade submarines and build air-conditioned railway tunnels. You can bet they’ll be jumping on the drone train sooner rather than later. UAVs and USVs (unmanned submersible vehicles) are the ultimate mules; they’ll go anywhere, they’re reusable, and if and when they’re caught, you know they won’t cut a deal. How can you track a drone built from off-the-shelf parts, flown in from parts unknown, back to its sender? Easy: you can’t.

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