In many science fiction movies recently we have seen drones appearing ubiquitously, often as tools of an oppressive state that uses them for surveillance everywhere. Just how long does it take before we have the technology to do this in real life? The answer is not long at all, the technology is here today. We read about it all the time in the form of spy planes and attack drones operated by the military, but the same technology is certainly applicable to widespread use for surveillance purposes in the US and other countries. And as always, elements of our security forces (police, FBI, intelligence agencies) find the prospect of being able to conduct surveillance anywhere easily attractive. Congress seems to agree, and in an action that has received surprisingly little attention has instructed the FAA, as part of the Reauthorization Act (See here), to clear the way for wider governmental and commercial use. Within 90 days, the FAA has to speed up the process by which government agencies and law enforcement can get permission to use drones, and by 2015, it has to start allowing commercial use of drones:
“The FAA is also required under the bill to provide military, commercial and privately-owned drones with expanded access to U.S. airspace currently reserved for manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015. That means permitting unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.”
No doubt there will be an extensive debate on legitimate uses of such drones, and for sure many questions of civil liberties and police powers will be raised. Just to ask one question, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the use of GPS devices without warrants was impermissible for the purposes of tracking a car (See here
). So how about following a car with a drone?
These are fascinating questions, but that’s not my concern here. I will let others argue about the societal consequences and what should be permitted without warrants, or what should be permitted at all. My concern is quite different, and is focused on the issue of whether these devices are safe from an avionics point of view.
Further narrowing the point of view, I want to focus on software issues. It’s not that hardware is not important, quite the contrary, but that’s not my concern here (and also not my field of expertise, I will just have to trust that people who do know about the mechanical issues will also be vigilant).
The software required to operate drones is complex. Basically, these are small aircraft, often flying in tricky environments (close to buildings for example, something that is not permitted for normal aircraft). Obviously there are multiple concerns. Can we trust these drones not to crash into people or buildings? Can we trust them not to crash into commercial aircraft? Can we trust them not to crash into one another once the air becomes full of devices flown by different government agencies and various commercial interests? And from a security perspective, given that drones are controlled remotely, can we trust that the software is immune from unintentional interference and from rogue efforts to commandeer and redirect the aircraft? (This last issue is especially relevant in light of the mystery surrounding the Iranian capture of a US drone in late 2011.)