My contact was a gruff, swarthy man, wearing a couple days' stubble, an immaculate black shirt, and a scowl. He looked me up and down sourly, then exhaled as if weary. He'd done this before. Too many times, perhaps.
His name was Mario. And yes, he could sell me a surveillance drone—if I could meet his price. Could he interest me in a remote-control spy tank with a night-vision camera while I was at it?
Mario led me across the room and nodded wordlessly at a compact machine with four propellers. The quadrocopter's body was about the size of half a Costco papaya. Four thin rotor arms jutted out at diagonal angles, each attached to a pair of sculpted black blades. With one forward-facing camera and one that looked down, I could collect video footage and stills from up to 80 feet in the sky and 160 feet straight on.
Mario pressed a button on the controller in his hand. The blades whirred, and the drone lifted off. He held up a screen. The images were crystal clear.
As a journalist, I'd worked in Cambodia and trailed the U.S. military through Iraq's Anbar Province. But to purchase my surveillance drone, all I had to do was trundle down to a Brookstone in the Palisades Center mall in New York. It was located between a sunglasses shop and Victoria's Secret.
I handed Mario a credit card. For $299, he handed me a Parrot AR.Drone, a piece of military-style hardware that would stream footage to my iPhone. I told him I planned to videotape my neighbors.
"The only law I know of," Mario advised, "is trespassing. My first day working here, I got a call from a police department in New Jersey. Some guy was flying a plane over a neighbor's house."
Surveillance drones aren't commonplace in the U.S., but they will be. Last year, Congress passed legislation directing the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into domestic airspace by 2015. The new regulation could allow recreational users far greater freedom to roam the skies, and it will almost certainly spur demand. The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that drone sales in the U.S. could reach 110,000 units annually by 2017.
"The law will do for drones what the Internet did for desktop computers," says Peter Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on drones. "It will open up entire new markets."
That change won't be met without resistance—or regulation. In Rancho Mirage, California, the city council will vote on what is likely the first municipal ordinance regulating the use of drones over residential neighborhoods—after someone complained that a UAV was hovering above his home. In Oregon, lawmakers are pushing a bill that would apply trespassing, stalking, and privacy laws to aircraft. In Texas, legislators are considering a ban on the use of drones to photograph private property without permission.
Happily, legislators in New York, my home state, had not yet introduced such restrictions. Back safely in my man cave, I tore open my drone box like a kid on Christmas. In the Apple store, I downloaded the app that would allow me to control my plane and its cameras with my phone. I watched training videos. I called friends and bragged about future exploits.
Outside, I connected the battery to my plane and stepped away. The propellers shuddered to life and the drone lifted off. I maneuvered the craft across the street. Flying was harder than I'd expected. First I almost clipped a power line, then I sent the quadrocopter sailing toward a tree. Horrified, I watched as the propellers brushed a branch and the kill switch kicked in. My prized drone dropped like a stone, hitting the pavement with a sickening smack. One of the propeller arms broke off, and the back camera mount snapped in half.
Back at the mall, Mario informed me my warranty didn't cover collisions. But I was already too deep into the project to turn back. I paid $299 for another AR.Drone and vowed to train in a less windy environment. The mall's large indoor atrium would do fine.
"They'll stop you immediately," Mario warned. "Mall security doesn't even like it when we fly past our property line." I thanked him for the advice and five minutes later, a lacy baby-blue bra appeared on my screen, tightly hugging a Victoria's Secret mannequin. Then, a dour face appeared.
"Is there a way for you to not do that?" demanded a short saleslady with a tape measure draped around her shoulders. "Somebody could get hurt."
Customer injuries, I discovered, were a concern shared by many humorless salesclerks—at Foot Locker, Zales, and Staples, among others. So I decamped to the food court—equidistant from so many different stalls, I figured no single cashier would feel responsible for stopping me.
My drone lifted off, and I buzzed two senior citizens eating salads (they ducked). As I waited for mall security to arrive, I made flyovers of five salads, an order of chicken nuggets, and three slices of pizza. Eventually, I grew bored and decided to head outside.
In my quiet town, I soared above the meter man as he wrote parking tickets. I hovered in front of the Village Hall, hoping to gather footage of handcuffed prisoners heading into court.
That night, I floated outside the home of a magazine editor who lived nearby. Sadly, he wasn't home. The juiciest footage I gathered was of a teenager sitting motionless in front of a television. Frustrated, I drove to a park frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers. When I piloted my drone toward a crowd of young men on a notorious set of park steps, the laughter died out. Then they left, unnerved.
As I drove home, I thought about Luis Sepúlveda, the state assemblyman from the Bronx who announced plans in April to write legislation that would ban individuals from arming their drones. I was suddenly struck with a feeling of deep unease. Beyond my run-in with the irritated clerk at Victoria's Secret and a few other wage slaves, I had roamed my town, the mall—even the drug-dealer steps—with impunity. I had even charged my battery in the Village Hall. If someone wanted to turn a drone into a mini cruise missile, he or she wouldn't face a lot of resistance.
And that got me wondering: Could I turn my cheap Brookstone drone into a weapon?
The next day, I shelled out $50 at a local hobby shop for a detonator and three tubes packed with gunpowder normally used to launch model rockets. In an isolated park not far from my house, I sat on a rock and duct-taped a tube to my drone. When the craft lifted off, I checked twice to make sure no one was around, then pressed the detonator.
Flames and smoke shot out of the back of my drone, whipsawing it violently, like a small animal caught in the jaws of an alligator. It slammed into the ground, convulsed, then went still.
It was at once mildly disappointing and somewhat disturbing. In this Wild West age of unregulated personal flight, even a rank amateur like myself can transform a toy into a hazard, an action that should be—and probably soon will be—illegal. Yet for all my moral objections, I couldn't help but stare at the remaining two rocket engines lying before me and think, Next time, I will use more gunpowder.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.
Your reference to wage slaves is offensive. Be thankful that you have attained (or been given) more privilege than those who serve you.
And treat them with the same respect that they are obligated to give even those who see them as less worthy.
As a modern publication you can't use language like that, and a printed apology would be in order.
As a concerned citizen it is shockingly alarming that anyone in any sort of proper consciousness would ever go to the extent of attaching an explosive device to an unmanned device of any kind. Not only does it put yourself but the risk of civilian casualties is incredibly high. Not to mention it is ILLEGAL.
The fact that you blatantly expressed you had no idea what you were doing scares me to think what type of seed was planted in the minds of anyone who reads this article. Whats worse someone like you who is stupid enough to attach anything with gunpowder and take off, or someone of much higher intelligence who actually knows the damage that can be caused.
yes yes.. pipebomb + 300$ drone andyou can remote attack any location.
It's just a matter of time until someone properly weaponizes one - attached lightweight handgun or a crossbow.
In any case, laws wont stop it - it can be done illegally.
Military and goverment is the worst.. you can expect "patrolling security drones" everywhere in 10 years unless somethign is doen about it... ofc its for "your" safety.
You dont even need to weaponize - paparazzis get best shots everywhere, pedofiles can get videos and pics of anyone at places they thought they are safe.
I'm happy to see these topics going more mainstream - every new story helps to demystify drones and their potential uses. But I think you went about it wrong. In fact I just launched a website and video series dedicated to this exact topic called "Game of Drones" all about amateur UAV's, and drone combat sports. We fight drones, arm them with paintball and rockets (and more). All in the hopes of 1) Having fun with robots and 2) sharing and educating people about their responsibilities when playing with dangerous toys. Take a look:
Paintball Drone video: youtube.com/watch?v=vICfKPoCubw
"The next day, I shelled out $50 at a local hobby shop for a detonator and three tubes packed with gunpowder normally used to launch model rockets"
What a load! First, model rockets are filled with hard packed black powder in a very thick paper casing. The "dentonator" this oaf of a reporter is piece of wire designed to glow hot enough to light the rocket engine.
What infuriates me is that some fool of a activist or politician might read this and consider banning model rocketry because of this joke of a journalist.
The worst this that could have resulted from this "weaponized" RC aircraft is it spinning widly out of control the momment the motors ignited (which it did). A bit dramatic and scary to whom ever is near but not even remotely close to being a "weapon"
Cameras mounted on model planes and other aircraft have been around for more than a decade and nobody's bothered weaponizing them. Why? Because someone is going to notice this loud buzzing, hovering thing attempting to dive at you. There are exponentially more ways to cause harm than strapping a few dozen firecrackers on a RC plane.
What thin skin some folks have. Since I too am forced to work if I want to eat, I consider myself to be a wage slave. I think some people just like to have that sense of indignation and then vent about it. And the First Amendment to our Constitution says that a modern publication CAN use language like that.
As for the concern about giving people bad or dangerous ideas, it is the upstanding citizens who would not think of such things but should be thinking about them. I think the author is doing a great service by bringing this to our attention. Ignorance is the most dangerous state to be in.
"Even a rank amateur like myself can transform a toy into a hazard, an action that should be—and probably soon will be—illegal."
--Yeah, I'm pretty sure going to a park and letting off gunpowder bombs is <i>already</i> illegal. Or is it? Are you allowed to just wander into your local park and blow things up as long as no one gets hurt?
To clarify, a drone is NOT a remotely controlled craft. It is a programmable craft that flies itself. The technology is off the shelf, affordable, but far more sophisticated, useful and dangerous than your article suggests. A bright twelve year old can assemble and program a craft to fly itself to a set of gps coordinates, drop a payload, and return itself to it's owner, transmitting live video of the entire flight. There are thousands of hobbyists flying these just in the US. They're dangerous precisely because they are simple and cheap.
As for radio controlled craft, photographers and filmmakers use them, sometimes to create real estate ads for expensive estates. I did see one film clip of an RC quadcopter armed with a small submachine gun. They flew it through a window and shot up a room with no trouble at all... another recent clip from a university showed a swarm of a dozen or more flying a maze in perfect formation. Amazing technology.
Embarrassing for the complete lack of technical understanding, embarrassing for popsci that the bar is this low and damaging for rocketry and RC.
This blithering idiocy is published in Popular -Science-? Jeez.
First, your toy quadcopter is about as "military-style" as a roll of green duct tape. Second, those eeeeevil rocket motors are toys that contain a tiny amount of black powder, and are intended for use by children. And third, those "detonators" are model rocket motor igniters, and are about as dangerous as a match.
The only thing "disturbing" about duct taping a model rocket motor to a cheap foam quadcopter and crashing it into a tree is that it is published in a once-respected technical periodical.
I stood on the overpass, watching the cars pass as I saw the brick formerly in my hands smash into the pavement. Even a rank amateur like myself can transform a construction material into a hazard, an action that should be—and probably soon will be—illegal.
Sensationalize much? Take your drama queen agenda and pack it. Actions that potentially endanger another are already illegal. Trying to ban anything that could be used in such an action only leads to arbitrary and capricious government intrusion.
I bought a bottle of Merlot and drank it. Then I filled it up with gasoline and stuffed in arag. Even a rank amateur like myself can transform a wine bottle into a hazard.
Really, some Estes rocket engines are your idea of a hazard?
For the education of Adam Piore and all concerned, whenever there is a human in the control loop, you can not call it a drone. That term has been way overused by the media and those who do not understand the difference between drones, unmanned aircraft, and R/C aircraft. A drone will execute a preprogrammed set of instructions from start to end with no human interaction during its mission. An unmanned aircraft has an autopilot that flies the aircraft but accepts commands from the human pilot on the ground as to where it flies and the operation of the payload, such as a camera. An RC aircraft (such as your Parrot AR "drone"), is constantly being controlled by the operator and may have such technology grafted on as cameras or self-stabilization, but this does not make it a drone or UAV.
Adam Piore's article "Flight at the Fringe" should not have been approved for publication. It is the most uneducated and damaging article I've seen with regards to UAV's and it also puts RC aircraft and model rockets in a bad light. Anyone can take any random and seemingly harmless object and do bad things with it, that fact is undisputed. The attempt to weaponize the Parrot was laughable in that he simply strapped model rocket motors to it and watched it self-destruct. He never had a detonator, those are strictly controlled and available only to those working with explosives as part of their job.
Adam, you have no idea of how your article is perpetuating the paranoia and misunderstandings of unmanned aircraft. We who are in the business of unmanned aircraft very much dislike the misuse of the word "drone" and whenever misinformation about them is spread by uneducated people or those with a grudge. Perhaps you should attend an AUVSI conference or do a bit more digging for information before writing about things you don't understand.
What an outstanding article on how a complete idiot can, by acting irresponsibly and illegally, create a sensationalized article about a harmless toy. Where were the popSci editors when this garbage crossed the desk? I had heard that PopSci had become a leftwing PC rag, but this article really proves it.
First, some readers are mistaken here about the definition of a drone. A quick look in Websters or the OED will show that a drone is a remote controlled aircraft. No autonomy/autopilot is necessary. It's been that way since about 1932, when the first target drones were created. Yes, they were all radio controlled. They continue to be radio controlled to this day.
But more to the point, this is a lazy, sensationalistic, click-baiting article that is unfit for a respectable publication. In the course of writing this garbage, this "journalist" harassed the elderly, risked the safety of others in a mall, and detonated an explosive in a public park without any kind of safety procedure.
Congratulations, Popular Science, you've won my click. But you've also lost the my respect, and the respect of anyone else who realizes what you're up to. You've also painted an important and potentially life-saving technology as a runaway killing machine to many people who don't have the technical acumen or media literacy skills to know better.
Why didn't PopSci strap some gunpowder to an RC airplane, when that hobby came around in the 50s? Why didn't PopSci attempt to aim a rocket at a building, when the rocketry hobby came about in the 60s? Perhaps the standards of this publication have dropped since then.
Here's my advice. Instead of trashing $600 in radio controlled toys, perhaps you should spend that money on real technology journalism that brings your reader a full spectrum of information on upcoming innovations. In the meantime, enjoy your visit from the BATF.
Wow, a stunning article illustrating the danger...of sensationalistic media exploiting a gullible audience. This is an excellent example as to why circulation is at all time lows, and one of the reasons I no longer seed my classroom with this magazine. Detonators? A toy is a drone? Social-political commentary "wage slaves"? Code pink nuttery for a cover shot? This is nothing more than giz modo-esque click bait amateure tabloid/highschool journo-fodder. The bar continues to fall.
Re post of an old article. I suppose the admin of PoPSCi could not find any good recent articles. Second, it is the mind of a person that makes a weapon. The device itself is harmless. So is PoPSCi indirectly encouraging the making of weapons? Is PoPSCi encouraging violence? I careless for this article. By re posting this article, PoPSCi is really promoting violence and poorly social impact articles of the use of electronic devices being made for violence.