Lawfare Drone Smackdown

The Serious Side of Lawfare’s Drone Smackdown

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, July 2, 2012, 10:53 AM

I’m not too surprised by the negative reaction provoked by my post over the weekend about my coming drone duel with Alice Beauheim. It was a cheeky, flip post on a very serious subject—as several people have pointed out in Tweets, Facebook comments, and personal emails. Drones kill people, after all, and they inspire great anger among the populations of the countries where our forces use them. Most readers, I hope, understood that I wasn’t making light of any of that.

Rather, there’s actually a very serious side to the Smackdown, one I perhaps imprudently left unstated in my original post but which I want to lay out now. People tend to think of drones, especially armed drones, as purely the stuff of government weapons and surveillance systems. That’s surely wrong. And the Smackdown is a light-hearted and ironical means of drawing attention to a facet of the issue we talk about much less: You personally can have a drones program too, and it won’t cost you all that much. Prices are plummeting. Power is increasing. Automation is increasing. Payloads are increasing. We live in a world of distributed threats—one in which you can buy a drone from gadget catalog and control it with your iPhone.

The way Alice and I have structured the rules of the Smackdown, no entry can cost more than $500 total. If you look at the DIYDrones site, you’ll see a remarkable number of cheap projects of awesome power. It is only a matter of time before we have security issues associated with the individual use and development of this sort of technology. That is the subject of the paper by Gabriella Blum that I linked to this morning, a paper that is part of a larger project she and I are doing on the subject of technology proliferation that makes us all, at once, menacing and vulnerable. It should be a matter of some thought and concern and gravity (as well, I hope, as mirth) that Alice and I—and anyone else who chooses to participate—can each spend $500 to build drones that can fight one another and film the combat as they do so.

As to the light-hearted tone of the post and recreational nature of this demonstration project, one of the essential features of dual-use technologies is that people will use them for wildly-divergent purposes, including recreation. Guns kill people. They are also used, along with skis, in the biathlon—and serious scholars and COIN experts play paintball with Hezbollah operatives. As the prices of robotic technologies continue to fall, people will play in the park with drones from Brookstone while others tinker in their basements to create fascinating and valuable new applications for UAVs, while startups help the military augment its lethality while avoiding civilian targets—and while one very scary person does one very scary thing. That’s the nature of the technology.

So yes, I’m going to try to take down Alice’s drone—and I’m going to do it with a smile on my face on a day in the park. And she’s going, as she poetically put it in an email this weekend, to “reduce your drone to a smoking pile of the components of its components.” And maybe others will join us. But there’s a reason I posted about it on Lawfare, and that reason is that the mere fact that we can convene this game tells you something. It’s something we should all be thinking about.