Doug Hornig muses on whether the development of the 'burrito bomber' may portend something more sinister in the not too distant future.
Many civil libertarians have been raising the roof about domestic surveillance drones (and, really, it's only a matter of time before they become armed), so there's no need to go into any further detail here. If you want to join the fight against them, a modest Internet search will yield plenty of opportunities to do so. But what I would like to do is expose another, sinister side to this technology that has received virtually no media attention as yet. And it dawned on me because of… a burrito.
A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a whimsical video about some guys who decided to build a drone to serve as a Méxican food delivery system. Though these folks clearly have too much free time on their hands, it's cute enough. I enjoyed it.
But it wasn't long before I was hit over the head by the deeper meaning: the age of personal drones is dawning. Think about that.
For example, right now you can go online and buy a Zephyr – proclaimed to have a "stealthy" electric propulsion system, 60-minute flight time, and 30-mile control range – for $9,500, a surprisingly small sum. Or if you'd rather acquire your UAV more anonymously, you can go DIY. Along with their video, the burrito bomber's creators helpfully supply links that will guide you through the construction of one of your very own, from readily available parts.
Flight restrictions? None to speak of at low altitudes. And even if they existed, they would be quite difficult to enforce if we reach a point where there are thousands upon thousands of these things in the skies.
You can see where I'm going with this. Not to mince words: what if someone of more malicious intent than the burrito brothers decided to deliver not a tasty food, but a bomb? To some place he happened not to like, such as City Hall, the police station, or the IRS office. Or to a romantic rival across town. Or to a target chosen completely at random.
Suddenly the video wasn't so humorous anymore. Maybe I am among the more paranoid, but to me it seems that kind of sick usage of DIY drones is inevitable, given the number of people out there with an ax to grind.
As a weapon, UAVs are inching ever closer to perfect: easy and increasingly cheap to build; hard to detect; difficult to intercept; tough to trace, thanks to off-the-shelf parts; and the malefactor can be far from the scene of the crime. No line of sight needed with a small camera. No need to look victims in the eye or figure out escape routes. Someone could wreak an awful lot of havoc before getting caught, just with today's technology.
But consider also the implications as drones get smaller, quieter, and harder to spot, even as their electronics get ever more sophisticated. Go to the Toys & Games department on Amazon.com, and you may be surprised to find that you can buy a $300 quadricopter drone that'll give you 15-20 minutes of flight time, can be controlled by your iPhone, and offers "extreme precision control and automatic stabilization." Its range is severely limited at the moment, but you can rest assured that's a limitation that will soon be overcome.
In the military, it likely already has been. Sparrow-sized and even bumblebee-sized drones – tiny, deadly killing machines – are on the drawing board, if not yet realized.
. . .
The implications? Try this scenario on for size: You're a disgruntled citizen, hating the "powers that be" for ruining your life. You have no coherent political agenda, just a desire to – in one brief moment of glory – strike back at your perceived tormentors. Maybe like 52-year-old Marvin Heemeyer, who converted his bulldozer into a homebrew tank with some metal and a blowtorch. You focus on the newly elected president. Doesn't matter what party he represents. He's the enemy. So you set your sights on something like inauguration day, where you know his exact coordinates in time and space, and that he'll be standing absolutely still as he delivers his big speech. You beg, borrow, or steal enough money to construct a DIY drone the size of a small bird, and set up a wireless video guidance system for those crucial final yards. You extract a lethal dose of ricin from some castor beans, the recipe for which you got off the 'Net after a little inspiration from Breaking Bad reruns, load a trigger-on-contact syringe from the local CVS diabetes-supply aisle, and duct tape it to your drone with the needle leading the way. At the appointed hour, you launch the bird from a backyard in Maryland or Virginia. You toast it on its way with a can of beer, then sit back in your chair, facing the computer screen, joystick in hand and a big smile on your face…
There's more at the link. Interesting - and worrying - reading.