Chapter 5 - Resisting Drones | Resistance Drones
Resisting Technology and Technology of Resistance
"Blue skies smilin’ at me, Nothin' but blue skies do I see," wrote Irving Berlin, and for good reason too.1 The sky is our lung-filling metaphor for the eternal and the infinite. The sky represents our earliest and deepest evolutionary and spiritual horizons, from the very moment when we first crawled from the primordial cave to feel the warmth of the sunlight on our bodies, we fell on our knees in awe. From sun worship to space launch, the sky has been each of our own, intimate connection to the infinite.
Our language about the sky reinforces this idea.2 We engage in blue sky thinking and suggest that the sky is the limit and ask for a room with a view and note there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and tell the next generation to reach for the skies. The sky suggests freedom from constraints. The sky is prominent in popular mythologies about the American frontier: Give me a home, where the buffaloes roam, and the skies are not cloudy all day and The sky at night is big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.3 This is as true in Montana and Tibet as it is in New York and Shanghai. Around the world we all expect to look up and see sky.
We rarely think about any of this, of course. But we will once this space is converted into an artery of commerce, another vein in the global flow of things, another node in the circuit of power, control, and domination. We will wax nostalgic for the old days, when it was just us down here, and everything forever above.
We know this because of the fierce resistance communities mount against the flight paths carved by airports. We know this because of debates over the placement of power lines and windmills.4 There is a reason wealthy progressive towns have buried their utility lines and placed restrictions on how far above the ground advertising can protrude. It seems we are much more sensitive to visual pollution than anything else. View-blocking windmills off a coastline may be perceived to be more directly invasive than deforestation or the pollution of groundwater. We tend to get less upset over coal-producing plants we cannot see than clean-energy windmills that block our view of the ocean. In Denmark no building can peak higher than the highest cathedral steeple. Europe is symbolic in its desire for capital to kneel before crown and culture.5 How is this accomplished? By giving the sky its due place in the order of things.
Our relationship with the environment has been lately threatened by pollution, both visual and audible. We have, over time, learned how to control visible air pollution (whether we actually do so is another matter altogether). We cordon airplanes off above certain altitudes and within particular flight paths. Home owners complain about the sound of landing planes in the same way they complain about interstate noise pollution, and in the same way they complain about the sight of old electric pylons or massive wind turbines on land and at sea. But such NIMBYists need only glance up—past the hanging eaves and fences and power lines and consumer clutter—to see their way through to the eternal and the infinite.
It is here, in this air, that drones fly.6
If I have thus far relied on examples of how geospatial affordances can be used for the greater good, this chapter is about something else altogether: how people resist drones and how drones are used for resistance. I’ll be the first to admit that this chapter is a sort of fool’s errand. Technology changes and policymakers struggle to keep up. Once new regulations wind their way through the court, the technology in question will have morphed, yet again. When I started this book the data firm Uber was disrupting the taxi industry. When I was writing this chapter Uber had launched autonomous vehicles, by the time I got around to editing it the program caused its first fatality. As I finished the book Uber had announced its expansion into flying vehicles. This chapter may be outdated as soon as it is printed.7
Drones’ mobility creates opportunities to access new spaces. New spaces are then used for both sight and for action. This can be seen in the preceding chapter, as activists contest the government’s claim on land through an aerial image of ad hoc land art. Immobile art was translated into portable agitprop when we captured it by air—making something new out of the inscription on terra firma. Drones transform old spaces into new canvases. This is true for fields. It is also true for the sort of hard-to-reach surfaces that graffiti artists covet.
Amidst all this action policymakers struggle to keep up. Whose property do drones travel through? How high does your backyard go up in the air? Can I shoot down a drone flying over my family’s farm? If you shoot my drone as it flies over your farm, and it hits me on the head, what might a jury say? Can the Super Bowl deny airspace to drones? Can airports? Can I wear clothes that help me hide from drone surveillance? What if I am hiding from a police drone? Answering these questions is not easy, but the broader terrain they operate in is testimony to human creativity and agency. Whether the issue is individuals reclaiming public space from the prying eyes of the drone through airspace denial, or activists using drones to reclaim public space through public art and graffiti in hard-to-reach places, the human spirit is at work. New technology creates new realities that may inflame resistance, or inspire new action.8
Skeptical readers might view this chapter’s arguments more favorably by adopting what James Scott has coined an anarchist squint.9 Scott’s pop-anarchism is a friendlier sort than that developed by anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin or Pyotr Kropotkin, but it is equally focused on reclaiming space from larger systems of authority and control. If the preceding chapters have emphasized the ways this technology might balance state surveillance systems and to hold the powerful to account, then I hope in this chapter to celebrate everyday pushback to drones of any sort and the use of drones to resist power of any sort. Here we run the gamut from legislation and clothes to anti-drone weapons and norms. Scott’s anarchism, then, is less about abolishing the state than it is unlocking emancipatory human agency through the small acts of resistance and disruption that make social and political evolution possible.10 In this way Scott echoes the call from philosopher and politician Roberto Unger that humans recognize our truest horizons are the social, rather than the state or the market.11
This is true from the air and on the ground.
Along the way we may find new tools for nonviolent digital disruption that radically increase the state’s cost of monitoring and repression, retaining the moral high ground ensured by nonviolent tactics. This is as relevant to people on the ground reacting to the state’s use of drones for targeted killings as it is to the use of drones by disenfranchised communities monitoring states and corporate actors. Drones put increased power into the hands of the powerful. But they also level the playing field for those traditionally excluded from power—thereby opening new horizons for political struggle.
What form shall this struggle take? Taylor Owen echoes Thoreau in his convincing argument for civil disobedience: “governments exist because people have assigned them representation and they should not take obedience to the state for granted.”12 The state’s job is to “earn the loyalty of their citizens by pursuing justice,” and when it fails to do so, “civil disobedience is not only natural but should be encouraged.” This approach echoes that advanced by John Rawls in its consideration of civil disobedience as “a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.”
Technologies are part of the broader terrain of political, economic, and social struggle. This has always been true of digital technologies. Owen’s intrepid research has turned up evidence that the earliest instances of digital disruption involved a computer virus that targeted nuclear systems (WANK—Worms against Nuclear Killers) and that the first effort to crash a server with simultaneous digital pings (DDoS—distributed denial-of-service) was an act of civil disobedience.13 This raises complicated questions, he argues, about what it means to be violent or destructive online; “Is a DDoS attack an act of speech or more akin to smashing a window?” How might this logic extend to drones, as they invade private spaces with cameras, drop payloads in prohibited places, and spray paint illegally?14 Who should adjudicate between uses in a time of normative and regulatory uncertainty? This chapter leans into those puzzles.
There is no doubt that new technologies face a skeptical public. Drones are no different. An early poll from Monmouth University found in 2012 that sixty-seven percent of respondents supported the use of drones to apprehend criminals, but that nearly as many were at least "somewhat concerned" about their privacy if law enforcement were to use the devices. Studies conducted after a boom in drone sales suggest curiosity outstrips concern, but that there is significant skepticism about both military and civilian use. The American public is uneasy about the domestic use of drones and the UAV industry knows it. The Boston Globe dryly noted that companies making drones for the military are "struggling for acceptance" and are occasionally met with protests.15 While resistance to new military technology follows one public opinion vector, resistance to civilian and commercial uses traces another. Public resistance to drones appears to be rooted in several distinct concerns related to recency, safety, and privacy.
Recency - A certain amount of resistance to drones doubtless comes from their very newness, independent of their potential invasiveness. There are many legitimate concerns and complex challenges to drone use, but some sturm and drang seems less related to thoughtful assessments of their actual impact then to a fear of the new. Assessments of actual impact merit additional concerns about safety and privacy.
Safety - Legitimate concerns persist in relation to safety on at least two fronts. The first is related to the airworthiness of individual UAVs. Some early models from major manufacturers demonstrated a tendency to forget their location and fly away from the operator. Motor failure can also lead to a loss of control and a rapid descent to the ground, i.e., a crash. Over time, parachutes may be aded to UAVs, while navigation and collision avoidance systems are being improved. The airworthiness of single devices is but one of several issues. Safety concerns also emerge from a general awareness that drones are flexible platforms for the transport of payloads of all sorts. They can easily be mounted with automatic weapons, poison gasses, and explosives, and these can be delivered with ease to areas previously inaccessible to earlier generations of fighters skilled in improvised explosive devices. While these concerns are related to platform and control systems as operated by humans, algorithm-controlled devices flying solo or in grids are susceptible to viruses and the unknown.
Only time will tell whether these fears are justified.
Those concerned by drones out of trepidation about how they could be used might be surprised to learn that very few of these dystopic uses appear to have been deployed in real-world conditions. An American teen who weaponized a quadcopter was tracked down by authorities.16 The terrorist operation ISIL has strapped bombs to several devices constructed out of corrugated plastic and duct tape.17 Likewise, drones have been used to deliver drugs to inmates in prison, and could easily deliver weapons in this same way. Despite these malevolent uses, the dataset introduced in the second chapter suggests criminal activities comprise a negligible percentage of total use.
The final safety concern is easily the most significant: a few thousand hobbyists trying their devices out in backyards and parks across the country may be a hassle, but they are nothing in comparison to a world in which commercial drone use has grown to scale. The market for delivery drones in urban, suburban, and periurban areas is likely to grow, thereby increasing the demand for rock-solid collision avoidance systems that manage new air routes. It is unlikely that concerns over the technology's recency will dissolve into indifference. More likely is a scenario in which the benefits of drone networks are widely embraced, but intense policy debate centers on the perennial question of natural resources and the commons. Specifically: whose open airspace should drones occupy? Debates over where to place airports are contentious, as few existing communities welcome the noise andhassle that new airports bring. There is good reason to expect drone grids either map onto existing roadways, or operate at an altitude at which they will be seen as pointillist flows. The latter is unlikely, though, as this space is already occupied by larger craft.
Privacy and Surveillance – A third public opinion challenge relates to privacy and broader concerns about surveillance.18 There is great reluctance to allowing the state, corporations, or the neighbors to invade one's privacy. Piloted devices are the vector by which sensors go mobile. The previous chapter focuses in on a single critical payload: the camera. For one hundred years journalistic photography has had a symbiotic connection with the street. The most memorable photographs of violent conflict, social protest, and natural disaster have almost all been made by a person standing on the ground. The horizontal plane has been the most important space for both the perambulating human and the observant photojournalist—our eyes, after all, face straight ahead. Much the same can be said of most state surveillance and the increasingly common use of surveillance cameras in commercial centers.
Technology has always erased and redrawn the lines between private and public space. A lot of what happens in seemingly-private spaces is not actually private, especially online and inside our homes and vehicles. This increasingly applies to our browsing habits and the data passively generated from devices: for instance, my iPhone's accelerometer telling my mobile carrier, or insurance provider, that I’ve not jogged in days. The emergence of drones and the proliferation of sensors challenge and expand our understanding of which spaces are even private. Ubiquitous CCTVs are one of the earliest examples of this proliferation since they open sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces to sustained and archived monitoring by commercial interests and law enforcement. When the video feed from CCTVs went to magnetic tape, the puzzle essentially involved privacy violations from these two parties. When the feed went to digital archives, subject to hacking and scanning, the privacy issue metastasized as quickly as the footage could be shared. Digital archives of street surveillance footage, combined with facial recognition and behavioral software, are poised to push these privacy issues even further. Concerns over racist algorithms should be taken seriously.
If CCTVs invite constant monitoring of public space, UAVs push the boundary between public and private space, since camera equipped UAVs move the line of sight from the street to the air. This simple shift effectively pushes public space and public sphere from the sidewalk in front of a money machine to every stairwell, courtyard, rooftop, and garden in your neighborhood. These previously private spaces are newly subject to surveillance. Or have they now become public spaces, part of the public sphere? Should technologists, ethicists, and public policy professionals simply increase the number and type of locations that are now public, or has something more profound occurred?
While these observations may sound pedestrian, their implications are profound. Security and privacy policies address the prying eyes of the terrestrial observer, not the roving airborne eye of a small UAV guided by GPS waypoints while streaming video over a secure link to an operator sitting behind a laptop in a nearby cafe, library, or office complex. “Open air” and “free space” are no longer as “open” or “free” as they might have been. They are instead vulnerable to occupation by both atoms and bits. Cyberspace scholars suggest new technologies are pivotal in “radically restructuring the materiality and spatiality of space.”19 Whether this space is used for the public good, or as a means of state and commercial surveillance is just the sort of dilemma regulators must face. Cyberskeptics fear the panopticon, believing “[a] society biased toward hierarchy and capitalism generates the entirely rational impetus for … surveillance.”20 Others argue for a contrast between liberation and authoritarian technologies.21 Where liberation technology is egalitarian, authoritarian technologies are “fundamentally hegemonic.”22 If Predator drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen represent challenges to notions of sovereignty, non-military geospatial affordances represent fundamental challenges to the notion of public space and sphere—no small difference, anarchists like Murray Bookchin might hasten to add.
New technology creates politics and counter-politics. Period.
Drones are poised to disrupt the actually-occurring material and physical space we inhabit every day. This applies to physical security as well as privacy. The walls and barricades protecting terrorist training camps, Occupy gatherings, and Davos meetings belong to a world of line-of-sight threats from paparazzi and pipe bombs. The United States has hardened many an embassy over the past decade. Reinforcements include motes, ramparts, walls and bulletproof glass. Industry standard protection against an explosive-laden truck is generally useless against a commercially available drone carrying toxic chemical with an aerosol dispersant flying too close to an air intake. Innovation of this sort is a hallmark of asymmetrical warfare, and operates in spaces architects and urban planners are increasingly forced to reckon with.23
As with most other aspects of this project, the scenery will change before the paint is dry on the canvas. A spike in drone flights starting in 2012 prompted policymakers around the globe to respond simultaneously to the opportunity that drones represented to their tech industries as well as the potential threat they posed to citizens. In the absence of early and decisive action from the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, sub-state actors passed stop-gap regulations intended to curb use. The city of Poway—near my campus here in San Diego and home to the assembly line that makes General Atomics’ Reaper and Predator drones—responded to early flights of small UAVs near firefighters with a blanket ban. “We aren’t opposed to this technology,” Poway Mayor Steve Vaus told a member of my research team; “We’re not trying to hamper it or hold it back. Just don’t get in the way of emergency operations and it’s all good.” Vaus is not alone in his response.
We estimated that of the laws on the books in 2015, a third dealt with drone use by law enforcement (requiring police to obtain a warrant before using a drone), almost a quarter restricted or criminalized the act of unconsented surveillance, fifteen percent restricted or banned using a drone to hunt animals, twelve percent expanded the power of state legislative taskforces to focus on drones and their use, and ten percent criminalized the use of drones to harm others or to fly over critical infrastructure facilitates. It seems obvious that the wave of legislation proposed in 2013-2015 directly followed an uptick in drone flights over the same time period. Yet the majority of these proposals were rejected by state legislatures. This lack of progress in the passage of state-level regulations speaks to the ambiguity of what constitutes legal and acceptable use in the United States, as well as a general lack of coordination in the window between drone’s increase in popularity and a more comprehensive ruling by the Federal Aviation Authority. Within a year some of these mandates had been thrown out in court and clashes between early local laws and federal policies continue.24
My team’s early analysis suggests most sub-state policies tended to focus on either civilian use generally, or specifically on the potential misuse of the technology by local officials. Several adopted legislation in early 2013 that focused exclusively on the government’s domestic use of drones. These included restricting the use in court of information obtained from drones, as well as law enforcement’s use of drones with any capability to harm, incapacitate, or otherwise negatively affect a human being. More pointedly, the city of Syracuse, New York, banned law enforcement and other official use of drones as early as 2013, citing the absence of a legal framework that adequately protects the privacy of the population: “unlawful use or sharing of the data collected by drones would represent an unreasonable and unacceptable violation of individual privacy, freedom of association and assembly, equal protection and due process in the City of Syracuse and guaranteed by the First and Fourth amendments to the Constitution.”25
Some cities, such as Northampton, Massachusetts have called on the federal government to end drone surveillance and “extrajudicial killing by armed drone aircraft,” and have drawn attention to drones marketed to domestic law enforcement that are “designed to carry weapons” as indicative of “a chilling message to the American people.”26 Our data suggests legislation of this type has waned dramatically, as discourse at the sub-state legislative level is now dominated by concerns about the proliferation of civilian drones. Some municipalities have restricted such civilian flights. A few cities instituted “peeping-tom” ordinances that banned civilian drone use, citing privacy concerns. More recently, some have passed site- or day-specific bans relating to sporting events, the visit of a dignitary, or other large gatherings. For instance, in November 2015, in what has been pitched as a particularly comprehensive regulatory framework, the city of Chicago instituted civilian no-fly zones around airports, police departments, schools, churches, hospitals, and private property without the owner’s permission.27
Across these efforts it is possible to identify three broad regulatory responses: free flying, total grounding, and regulated use. The term “free flying” describes jurisdictions that have either not passed pertinent laws, or whose laws place virtually no restrictions on civilian drone flight. “Total grounding” describes jurisdictions in which all civilian flight is prohibited. “Regulated use” describes jurisdictions where these first two types have been replaced by some combination rules of about the weight of the device, the height and location at which it can fly, the distance it can be from the operator, and the registration of the operators themselves. At the broadest level, regulations have set out to eitehr protect citizens from the state or to protect powerful interests from citizens. By the time this book is published these laws will likely have changed, but the general politics of space opened up by drones are likely to remain socially and politically relevant for some time into the future.
It is entirely possible that drone policies at the local and national level are caught in something Langdon Winner has called technological drift.28 Winner uses this term to describe the interregnum between a technology’s invention and the moment in which a response is mobilized. It is in that span of time that changes take place too fast for responses that protect potential losers. Humans have always had a hard time seeing around corners. But it is not just foresight we lack. Once there is action, Hannah Arendt argues, consequences are boundless: “Action … always establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries.”29 How the policy dust settles when it comes to UAVs is anyone’s guess—the same can be said for the ramifications of and legal challenges to these policy decisions.
As I was finishing this chapter repeated reports of drones flying near Gatwick Airport, one of England's busiest, grounded all flights over a number of days. More than one hundred people reported a drone near the airport and nearly one hundred of those witnesses were deemed to be credible. A "Drone Dome" was on order from an Israeli weapons manufacturer, but had not been delivered. The Royal Air Force set up shop and deployed their own equipment in an effort to detect and deflect the rogue UAVs. When it was all said and done, 140,000 passengers on 1,000 flights had been impacted during the holiday season. Two drone hobbyists living near the airport were arrested, though they were released without charges. As this book goes to press, many months after the incident, it is unclear who was flying these devices. In fact, it isn't even clear whether a flight even took place.
Newton’s third law posits that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Drones generate responses that are both social and technological. This is not new. The airplane led to the anti-aircraft gun. Spam generated spam blockers. Peer-to-peer file sharing led to digital rights management by rentiers that monopolized creatives’ revenue stream.30 Technologies are the site of struggle, especially in those areas where tools are deployed in support of contentious political activity. Legislative and technological resistance is to be expected.
Resistance also takes more invasive forms as efforts to thwart drones are multiplying. Efforts to curb drone flights generally fit into five broad categories: sensing drones, denying airspace to drones, taking control of drones, destroying drones, and hiding from drones. In a 2018 report on counter-drone systems, the Center for the Study of the Drone, a US-based think tank, found that more than 230 different counter-drone products are in some stage of development by 155 manufacturers in 33 countries.31
Sensing Drones – An important initial issue in denying airspace to drones is knowing whether a drone is present in the first place. The tech startup Drone Shield offers a number of drone detection platforms that sense UAV’s unique sound profile and alerts the shield’s owner. The firm claims that their “acoustic detection technology” is able to identify devices that cannot be picked up by radar, or that are flying by GPS rather than direct radio control.32 The Gatwick example suggests stable industrial standard solutions are a long way off.
Taking Control of Drones Digitally – Device detection raises new questions about how to respond. Passive systems are able to actively and consistently deny airspace to UAVs. One such solution is SkySafe, a San Diego-based startup that offers a weatherproof box the size of a deck of cards. SkySafe claims their unit is able to sense drones, and to then take control of the device and force its landing. The group’s website includes a demonstration of a simple app-controlled unit that instantly disables a popular drone from the manufacturer DJI. Presumably the non-beta version of the technology allows the offending drone to be landed safely rather than unceremoniously and unsafely dropped from the sky.33
Where SkySafe targets drones’ unique transmission signatures, lightweight and portable global positioning system (GPS) transmitters can disorient the legitimate GPS signals that originate from the satellites that most UAV pilots rely on to assist them in flight. The successful disruption of a drone’s navigation system can transfer control to another person or can simply untether the device from its geo-coordinates, thereby causing the drone to fly away or to crash. While GPS spoofing causes the disruption of a drone’s operation, affordable software from a Ukrainian company allows unencrypted communication from military drones to be harvested with a common satellite dish and the program SkyGrabber. This approach does not disrupt the drone’s operation, but does compromise the security of the data transmitted by the device.34 Some technologists have suggested that this approach may be modified to essentially disconnect the drone from its operator—an important discovery if true, since the process describes intercepting communications with large, fixed-wing UAVs like the Predator and Reaper.35
Smaller platforms can be similarly hijacked by other drones that essentially wardial the target drone for a vulnerability. Wardialing is the process of repeatedly pinging a device for an open port or vulnerable point of access and then connecting remotely to the host device. The software package then hijacks the targeted system and “redeploys them as autonomous infectious agents against other nearby drones.” This software was first announced in 2012 and its author, James “substack” Halliday later won a 2013 competition with his Virus-Copter project. As I write this some years later, Halliday’s hack is still available as a free download on the software sharing platform GitHub.36
The research and development team at defense contractor Battelle offers a less-involved alternative: their DroneDefender is an AR-15 rifle modified to hold a radio antennae instead of a barrel. The non-kinetic device is billed as a “directed-energy unmanned aircraft system countermeasure” that jams a drone’s radio and GPS signals at ranges up to 1,300 feet. It is unlikely this claim can be verified by the public since the device:
This device is not, and may not be, offered for sale or lease, or sold or leased in the United States, other than to the United States government and its agencies, until authorization is obtained. Under current law, the DroneDefender may be used in the United States only by authorized employees of the Federal government and its agencies, and use by others may be illegal. Due to Federal regulations, this video is a simulation of the Battelle DroneDefender™ system. It has, though, been successfully tested in Federal government-conducted field trials. (italics added)37
While this technology may be proprietary, restricted, and of interest to state security forces, efforts to bypass it will be open-source. Encrypted drones that are hardened against such vulnerabilities are already in the works. Advances in machine learning and vision will eventually remove humans from the loop, instantly rendering many of these solutions irrelevant.
Taking Control of Drones Physically – Other countermeasures focus on physical contact rather than digital disruption. With the release of a video showing trained eagles snatching drones out of the air the Dutch National Police reached geek stardom faster than any police force in memory. Michigan Technical University’s (MTU) Human-Interactive Robotics Lab has developed a “DroneCatcher,” which they bill as a robotic falcon. MTU faculty Mo Rastgaar told the Washington Post “You can’t shoot a drone that has explosives. And also, force landing, that is also not a good idea. So, probably a drone catching another drone” is best. The UAV is mounted with a cannon that shoots a net at other drones operating within forty feet, ensnaring them for delivery to their police handlers—Rastgaar insists he will only sell the technology to law enforcement agencies. This same approach has been adopted by OpenWorks, who claims their SkyWall 100 can effectively net drones at distances of more than 300 feet. The French company Malou Tech has proposed a drone-based system that mimics the process of dragging a net through water: a large drone flies a net through the air, ensnaring smaller drones.38 If such technology increases in popularity, drone operators are likely to develop more sophisticated flight-based responses, likley including random and erratic flight plans combined with evasive artificial intelligence-based responses. In late 2016 a system piloted by a modest onboard Raspberry Pi processor beat a human pilot in a dogfight.39
Destroying Drones – The crudest way to bring a drone down is to simply shoot it, a so-called kinetic interdiction. Popular Mechanics has conducted a bit of testing to determine the best firearm for downing a drone. After some trial and error they determined a 10-gauge shotgun with number 10 or 12 birdshot is best for the job. Like all of the approaches surveyed here, the legality of shooting drones down is vague. A Kentucky man was charged with criminal mischief and wanton endangerment after shooting a UAV down. While the case was thrown out, it is but one of a growing number of challenges.40 In New Jersey a man who had shot down a drone was indicted on two charges of criminal mischief and the possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose. Terrestrial shotguns are only of of several permutations. Students at the Moscow Aviation Institute have built and deployed a shotgun-equipped drone capable of firing ten rounds at another drone (or anything, really).
Future developments in kinetic interdiction will likely target both airborne approaches (flamethrowers, missiles, and suicide drones) as well as land-based approaches (spears, bolos, and boomerangs). While these uses are in beta, the final nature of airspace denial is likely to lay further along one or more of the paths sketched above: taking control of drones digitally or physically, or by destroying them altogether. For the time being, and in the future to come, another question bears asking: how to best hide from a drone?
Hiding from Drones – The process of giving drones the slip is also in beta. Even the most basic quadcopter can carry sensors that capture visible light, near InfraRed (IR) and Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR). Visible light sensors capture the same data as one’s naked eye on a normal day, or what my smartphone’s camera picks up under normal lighting conditions. Near infrared is the view seen through commercially available night vision goggles. These come in two flavors: passive IR, which amplifies small amounts of light in order to brighten an image. Active IR, in contrast, can capture images in total darkness once a scene has been lit by an IR emitting device.
Hiding from drones involves a number of straightforward hacks, depending on which sensors the platform is carrying. One can wait for bad weather to ground drones, since smaller devices have a hard time in high winds, dense fogs, and heavy rain. One could also avoid using wireless communication like a mobile phone or GPS, as their digital signatures may reveal one’s position. This is especially true during armed conflict. One can break up and distort the image a drone sees on the ground by strewing broken glass or mirrors on the ground. Finally, mannequins can be used to confuse sensors.41 Hiding one’s self from drones involves obscuring at least one of four factors: the body, the face, one’s gait, and one’s heat signature.
Body – The Amsterdam-based designer Ruben Pater received widespread attention for his Drone Survival Guide. Seen in Figure 5.1, the Guide is a simple two-sided sheet.42 On one side is a guide to common military UAVs. On the other is a series of tips for hiding. Trees are important as they represent some of the “best cover against the planes.” Space blankets keep one warm while also providing a shield against heat-seeking infrared cameras.
Survivalist and prepper websites pick up where Pater leaves off, with ideas for day camouflage (trees, shadows, forests, netting) and night camouflage (hide in buildings and under trees, avoid using lights, which drones can spot from great distances). At the most sophisticated end of the spectrum is multi-spectral camouflage netting, which provides protection against FLIR imaging devices.43 At the least sophisticated end is the simple advice to hide someplace warm. When ambient temperatures hover between 95°F and 105°F, the body’s heat blends into the surroundings, making it difficult for infrared technology to clearly discern the human form.
Face – Clothing represents the most basic means of hiding one’s face, though an artist has recently released an anti-drone hoodie that’s intended to shield against heat signatures and facial recognition.44 A number of efforts are focused on the development of glasses that will foil facial recognition systems.45 More basic technology, like hats, umbrellas, and hijabs represent the kind of simple hacks that are likely to confound new technologies, at least in their early stages of development.
Gait – Gait recognition technology relies on the fact that individuals have completely unique styles of walking. The lower body in motion provides a handful of discreet anchoring points of motion, which can be scanned for the unique combination produced by a particular individual.46 Foiling gait recognition systems may be possible by affecting a limp, adding body padding, or shrouding key pivot points under larger clothing, like a loose robe, or within more constrictive clothing, like too-tight jeans or minor leg braces.
Identity and tracking technology is likely to grow in new and unexpected ways. The dystopian British series Black Mirror sketches one such scenario in the episode Hated in the Nation, in which bee-replicating pollinator drones do double duty as the deep state’s eyes and ears, enabling them to seek out people based on facial recognition software that is handily linked to the government’s national identification system.47 Humans are likely to develop technology to push back on such developments, as evidenced by the experimental techniques highlighted in this chapter. In another scenario imagined by Black Mirror’s writers, individuals are able to deny others’ the ability to see them. This on-demand capability centers on the right to be seen by, or blocked to, a particular person.48 This capacity to toggle one’s visibility is facilitated by corneal and auditory implants. Viewers watch a frustrated woman signaling the end of their relationship to her boyfriend by muting him visually and audibly. With a click of the button he becomes a perpetually muffled blur, and she need not look him in the eye again. Future cloaking technology is likely to advance in this direction, perhaps alongside digitally enhanced contact lenses. More broadly, this sector appears to be in its infancy, as drone technology changes. Many of the systems described here are based on the radio frequency signatures that connect drones and pilots. But as machine vision systems evolve, on-board collision avoidance and mesh flight paths may remove this link in the system, sending anti-drone innovators back to the drawing board.
For the present, however, a recent wave of legislation has set out to slow the spread of drones, new and old technologies and tactics allow some to hide from drones, and these together represent the leading edge of resistance to drone technology. Drones can also be used as tools of resistance and in support of counter hegemonic actions intended to target the powerful.49 It is to these uses that we now turn.
Resistance: Estimate crowd size
Drones, satellites, balloons, and kites provide open and auditable data about events on the ground.50 Though this functionality is not emergent, it can be disruptive, as it provides a transparent account about the size of an event. As seen earlier, social movements telegraph public opinion to leaders. In so doing they bypass traditional political mechanisms, like voting or public opinion polls. Protest events provide new data directly to the media, political aspirants and incumbents, as well as the general public. Protests may put new items on the agenda or highlight the fact that seemingly settled issues are still of sociopolitical significance. While public gatherings of people are not the only way to garner attention, they have enduring efficacy in this regard.
Social media updates and opinion pieces may reach a particular subset of the public, but large events gain the attention of key opinion leaders in the economic, political, and entertainment establishment. It is not just event size that matters. The perceived worthiness of the cause—is it a call to protect the vulnerable or a claim to greater resources by the wealthy—matters. So too does the amount of unity demonstrated by those gathered at an event. Solidarity and camaraderie resonate in the public imagination. In the event a protest or mass gathering faces trials and tribulations of any sort—from incremental weather to abusive security forces—stalwart commitment to the cause matters as well. In the end, Charles Tilly argues, it is worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment that help legitimize or undermine efforts in the publics’ eye.
This was on full display in Donald Trump’s claim that his inauguration turnout was much larger than unofficial estimates and the naked eye suggested. The small turnout was amplified by the fact that the candidate had been decisively beaten in the popular vote. In this case a widely shared comparison was made between the size of the crowd at Obama’s 2013 inauguration and Trump’s inauguration four years later. The contrast was clear and the implications were stark, especially since Trump was clearly ignoring a reality visible to others. The image that made this possible was taken at an altitude and angle that only airborne cameras can capture in most public events. This is especially true in urban areas where streets and sidewalks compress participants into auditable units.
Aerial imagery taken by balloon-, kite-, or drone-borne cameras are perfect for analysis by a number of industry standard approaches. Of course this data cuts both ways. I have had movement supporters suggest to me that a focus on crowd size directs attention away from the normative arguments made by the movement. The focus, they argue, should be on democratic claims rather than on a crass assessment of how many people showed up for an event. This critique may work in the ivory tower (which is indeed where it was made) but the political reality is clear: large events resonate with political incumbents. Determining whether an event was “large” should not be left to the police or the protestors alone. Open-source crowd estimation will hold everyone to account.
Resistance: Monitor police behavior
While many human rights advocates have focused their attention on the weaponized drones used by governments and flown outside of the legal status quo and established international law, groups like the ACLU are instead primarily concerned with the police deployment of drones in American cities. This is an important issue. There is very little reason to believe that police forces in the United States should be trusted with the weapons they have, let alone new and more powerful devices.
Police departments can certainly find ways to put small UAVs to use, as evidenced by their exponential spread in the time I worked on this chapter. Drones can be used to monitor prisoners on probation, to identify crimes in progress, to identify and track criminals, to conduct high-speed chases, and perhaps most distressingly, to simply loiter over areas where crimes traditionally take place and to wait for something to happen. This is the aerial extension of the big data crime problem—simply put: training data reflects racist social norms and policing patterns.51 Individually, these technologies appear to be a step-wise extension of existing technologies: drones’ hovering capacity is similar in type to that provided by CCTV; the deployment of UAVs to chase a suspect bears a strong resemblance to a helicopter dispatched to track a suspect; and the process of getting “eyes on” an individual recently released on parole is an everyday occurrence. Taken together, however, these uses can generate novel responses, lack accountability, and can accelerate existing abuses. It is likely that police departments across the nation, and around the world, will continue to work hard to secure this sort of command, control, and surveillance capacity, and in so doing will secure access to technology before underlying issues are resolved in favor of social justice.
Fortunately, police do not always get what they want. The American public, deeply distrustful of both the state and its agents, has consistently pushed back on such uses. Liberals, conservatives, and the public more generally have reacted with some hostility to state surveillance. When the Seattle Police Department received a drone as part of the grant program, it was forced to get rid of it, shipping it instead to the Los Angeles Police Department, where it sat in storage, grounded by the same public pressure it faced in Seattle. Yet, this grounding has not lasted long. Data on law enforcement’s adoption of drones suggests sheriff’s offices and police departments are adopting small UAVs at a rate and pace that matches the exponential growth found in civil society. In a 2018 report, the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College estimated that 910 public service agencies were using drones, an 82% increase over previous year.52 The most popular platforms appear to be off-the-shelf technology from DJI.53
Civil society groups have responded in kind. The American Civil Liberties Union has taken the lead to address the privacy concerns of middle class citizens as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement’s spotlight on systemic efforts by police systems to isolate, marginalize, criminalize, and tax communities of color. In other words, it is good news that so many are worried about the police having drones, and I hope their good efforts keep this technology at bay for the foreseeable future. This is not to say that there is no role for drones in police-civilian relations. Quite the contrary, there may be some merit in better exposing America’s officers of the peace to more democratic systems of transparency and accountability. Two steps may facilitate this process.
Systems like Five-O and Excuse Me Officer allow residence to rank law enforcement officers in a “Yelp for cops”, if you will. The idea being that communities can rate on a transparent and online platform their interactions with individuals from their local police force. Of course the system may lead to some distrust and hurt feelings, but these will be growing pains on a path toward local and enforceable accountability for law enforcement officials. It is clear that democracies like the United States and France have systematically ignored their responsibilities in this regard, thus creating an opportunity for communities to begin a process of technologically enabled accountability at the local level.
The second step of this process involves enforcement, and suggest a possible role for UAV technology. Individual law-enforcement officials found to be in violation of community and legal norms could be placed on a type of probation that involves constant surveillance by individually tasked UAVs of all on-duty behavior. It would be the device’s sole task to monitor and report on the behavior of the offending officer for a particular probationary period. Subsequent footage would be archived for periodic review by a panel comprised in equal parts of citizens and law enforcement officials until that point when the probation is lifted. Drones challenge the state’s use of force; they also challenge dominant visual discourses relating to public space. This speculative use is both emergent and disruptive. A pause may be necessary to ask why the use of technology to hold the powerful to account is revolutionary in one of the world’s oldest democracies. Here we are, nevertheless.
Resist: Drone graffiti and the decolonization of space
Graffiti is a critical artistic tool in the counter hegemonic kit of the everyday anarchist imagined by James Scott. Unconventional public art challenges seemingly settled arrangements about the use of and control over space and, I would argue, are key to the expansion of the public sphere. The lines between public and private spaces are the thing of politics, and are therefore dynamic and open to critique. This is true of the zone between corporate and civic spaces. There is nothing new to this observation.54
Experimentation with drone graffiti, however, suggests an opportunity to take this critique to new levels. In many urban contexts, easy-to-see but hard-to-reach spaces have been occupied by those with sufficient capital to control their use. A prime example lies in the world of advertising firms and billboards. These spaces are harder to control if artistic media—spray-paint, for example—is newly mobile. The artist KATSU made waves when he augmented a large Calvin Klein billboard in Manhattan by crisscrossing the model with red paint. The artist told Wired magazine that the effort “turned out surprisingly well,” despite the lack of precise control over the spray-paint-can-wielding DJI Phantom (Images 5.1-5.3).55
The central objective in graffiti art is to get seen. As an early adopter of graffiti drone technology, Cameron MacLeod, explained to me: “the aesthetic of graffiti production is second to the thin red line that runs through all these subgenres: it’s access and distribution. That’s the bible.”56 It’s not surprising then, that graffiti artists have long sought to find new places for their graffiti. Danish writer Jesper Vestergaard argues drones have given graffiti artists new ideas about the things one can do with the technology. While the broader graffiti community seems indifferent, a handful of artists are experimenting with drone-based tagging. These efforts appear to be distributed across two broad genres, the first related to artists using drones as a new form of expression, perhaps for artistic reasons, political communication, or both. The second is a cluster of hackers and DIY makers experimenting with the technology, including a dot-drawing project centered around McGill University in Montreal as well as the Flying Pantograph project at MIT. In explaining this broader context Vestergaard suggested that where the former group is more political and the latter is more technical.57
For a smaller group of artists the challenges posed by DOIP—drones over IP—is most compelling: “Being in two places at the same time is related to the oldest philosophical issues,” Vestergaard told me.58 More broadly, MacLeod points out, drones could “change the way graffiti is made, because it will give access to places there wasn’t access to before.” Indeed, the technical components of a particular graffiti tag are important representational practices. A team of highway taggers in Montreal put together an exhibition in which they stacked dummies atop one another to illustrate how they were able to tag particular areas of a busy underpass. Their installation emphasized the materiality of their artistic intervention.59
These efforts point us back to disruptive and contentious politics. MacLeod explained that “from a larger perspective it’s about public control over public environments, and how that comes into conflict with [private] control.” That political debate is more important, he suggests, than any particular attempt to define the graffiti drone as “good or bad.” This observation is in keeping with graffiti’s own legacy, as the art form emerged alongside emancipatory efforts within hip-hop culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Graffiti complemented broader efforts by disenfranchised youth to counter those media conglomerates “dictating the visual discourse.” Graffiti drones extend this logic further, MacLeod argues, to a point in which “the underclass would have complete control over their aesthetic environment.” For some, automated and remotely controlled tools are important technologies for realizing this goal.
As in other areas of use highlighted here, a graffiti drone community has not coalesced. Original trial and error efforts have morphed into loosely connected collective efforts to solve the complex technical problems involved in controlling a flying spray paint can. In fact, collaboration efforts have fallen afoul of competition, and no individual group possesses the resources necessary to solve such complex problems. What’s needed, MacLeod tells me, is “somebody who really has a huge amount of funding behind them to do this … but there’s not a lot of incentive from industry to create this either!” The regular use of drones to decolonize space, to expand the civil sphere, and to practice pro-social civil disobedience, may never take off, but scholars should keep an eye on this emergent and disruptive use of new technology.
Resist: Land art
Nobody knows why the Nazca Lines in southern Peru were created. Several theories hold that the images of animals—including fish, monkeys, jaguars and humans—were religious symbols, possibly a signal to the gods that look down on the earth. One creative thinker suggested they were instead the result of a civilization that had mastered flight. Whether the observer was a god looking down from some magical altitude, or a human overflying the desert in a mysterious hot air balloon, there is little doubt the art was meant to be seen from great heights.
Built in a period falling sometime between 500BCE and 500 CE, these are easily the longest-lasting earth-based objects visible from space. Stephen Graham has suggested that when it can be viewed from above, “The earth becomes a canvas for the work of artists and activists … to be consumed, via the Google Earth system, on the laptops and smartphones of a global audience.”60 Lisa Parks argues something very similar, suggesting in Cultures in Orbit that her book “is an attempt to wrestle the satellite out of the orbit of its ‘real agencies” so that it can be opened to a wider range of social, cultural, artistic, and activist practices.”61 While we should rightly worry about the totalitarian state, Parks doesn’t stop there, observing “since the 1970s … media artists have been challenging the military, scientific, and corporate authority over these space-bound machines.”62
Land art is a particular kind of challenge, as it turns land into canvas and pressures the viewer to stand at a great distance.63 For Graham, this canvas belongs to artists like Raúl Zurita, the Chilean poet citizen who survived torture under the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet. His poem—ni pena ni miedo—is a three kilometer long installation in the Atacama desert, defiantly telling the world, or the universe, rather: no shame nor fear (Image 5.4).
The land art, or earthwork, movement emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, hard on the heals of Sputnik’s 1957 launch, and in the midst of a space race pitting the United States and the Soviet Union against one another. This movement is known for its rejection of New York City’s gallery-centric art scene, but it is also an embrace of an art form that takes seriously a view of the earth—an approach to the earth—that can only be afforded by satellites and other geospatial affordances.64
The pioneering earthwork sculptor Robert Smithson died at thirty-five while overflying his seminal work, Spiral Jetty (Image 5.5). While much is made of the installation as a counter-site to the gallery, and importance was ascribed to actually going to and experiencing the piece, they are also critically aware of the land as canvas.65 Smithson tried to square this circle by siting an installation near Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport, so that it would be seen by passengers in planes as they landed and took off—to the best of my knowledge, nobody ever asked whether this converted the pressurized cabin into a gallery from which the patrons (rather than the art) could not escape.66
The sculptor Walter De Maria—perhaps most famous for his installation The Lightning Field—proposed, but appears to have never actually executed, a Three Continent Piece that would have been “generated by satellite: three superimposed images of massive earthworks in India, Australia and North America.”67 Earthworks artist Robert Morris visited the Nazca Lines, and on his return wrote: “Everyone I spoke to in Peru advised me to … see the lines from the air … Aerial photography returns us to our expected viewpoint. Looking down, the earth becomes a wall at 90 degrees in our vision.”68 Seeing from above creates new canvases. Whether land art is emergent or disruptive is a question I will leave others. Whatever the case, new technologies create new politics in new places.