What is the political equilibrium when insect-sized drone assassins are available?

by on June 28, 2013 at 7:20 am in Political Science, Science | Permalink

Not bee drones, rather drone drones, with military and terrorist capabilities.  There is already a (foiled) terror plot using model airplanes.  How easy would it be to stop a mechanical “bee” which injects a human target with rapidly-acting poison?  You can see the problem.

I have considered a few possibilities:

1. Insect-sized drones won’t make a big difference, because there are few wannabe assassins in any case.  Similarly, not many people organize random attacks in shopping malls today, or try to drop poison in supermarket jars, even though such attacks are not technologically difficult.

2. Not getting caught makes all the difference, and the insect-sized drones will be hard to trace.  All high-status figures who appear in public will be assassinated, so they stop appearing in public.  (Where does this line get drawn?  Can lieutenant governors appear in public?  Or does the highest status individual who appears in public get assassinated in any case?)

3. We set up drone zappers around the rings of all major cities and high status figures stay within the confines of these safety zones.  The travel industry takes a hit, as does the population of starlings.  Still, some hostile drones get through the zappers and conduct some assassinations.

4. As with nuclear weapons, only the United States and other wealthy, respectable countries will have access to insect-sized drones.

5. Terror groups will be negligible in size, insider trading motives will be weak (CEOs are potential victims too), and a rationale of mutually assured insect destruction will prevail.

None of these sound especially assuring.  Here is a brief survey on insect-sized drones.  Here are additional readings.

As I once wrote, someday we may be longing for the era of the great stagnation.

Bark June 28, 2013 at 7:26 am

Massive jamming. Say goodbye to mobile phones.

Mark Thorson June 28, 2013 at 9:41 am

And over-the-air broadcast television. But that was doomed anyway.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 11:33 am

That probably won’t work in the long run.

A) You can just set up a relay system of direct line of sight communication (probably laser) to pass your signal through. Or,

B) The insect drone swarm has facial recognition technology and stalking algorithms and they require no direct control.

I fear this will all come down to Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s prediction in their “Known Universe” that as soon as your basic undergraduate biology student can create a bio-weapon in his or her own kitchen, that we’ll have to resign ourselves to a world wide agency that completely controls access to all weaponizable technology and ruthless represses any independent technological R&D that could potentially be weaponizable.

Peter Schaeffer June 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm

All,

Read the article. Quote

“One comfort for those who may start distrusting mosquitoes and birds on the wires: ensuring that the MAVs can stay aloft for more than a few minutes will require advances in battery technology and may take years (if not more than a decade) to realize.”

A mosquito weighing 2.5 milligrams can convert chemical energy into mechanical work (to fly) with 20-30% efficiency. Until some technology achieves comparable energy density (food vs. batteries) and can be scaled down to the sub-gram level, the threat will remain low.

Drones work because they are large enough to use petroleum based fuels (with staggering energy densities) and incorporate engines that efficiently convert hydrocarbon fuels to mechanical work.

The bottom line is that you need high energy density (per unit volume and per unit weight) and high conversion efficiency to make a useful drone (on any scale). Until both can be down-scaled, there isn’t much to worry about.

Here is some useful perspective. The battery in my cellphone can store roughly 24,660 joules or 791 joules per gram. Gasoline contains 45,720 joules per gram. We don’t need to worry until sub-gram drones that run on gasoline (or sugar) appear.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Are you familiar with the UK military’s Black Hornet drone?

It’s actively deployed in Afghanistan. It fits in the palm of your hand, weighs 16 grams and has a flight time of 25 minutes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hornet_Nano

Peter Schaeffer June 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Jwatts,

“Are you familiar with the UK military’s Black Hornet drone?”

Literally, no, figuratively, yes. Kits for building somewhat similar devices are sold on the Internet.

Getting down to a few grams isn’t that hard Getting down to a few milligrams is challenging.

Alistair June 28, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I only need 60 seconds of flight time for a kill mission with excellent escape chances, if the drones can maintain insect-speeds.

Finch June 28, 2013 at 5:07 pm

The drone can carry its energy in other forms besides chemical. Kinetic or gravitational potential energy, for example.

How long will it be before you can fire a bullet up and have it come down and hit a specific target? Like a guided mortar round. Indirect fire with a rifle.

Alistair June 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm

“Massive jamming,,,,”

….Won’t help you. Half a generation later the drones will be autonomous and cued by their own sensors on your body shape, or your car, or something like that.

Silas Barta June 28, 2013 at 11:36 pm

Well, let’s hope they’re really, REALLY well-tested by the shoestring operations that launch them, so they don’t just start killing things willy-nilly.

x June 28, 2013 at 7:40 am

Wow, this is more interesting than it seems at first sight, if it’s actually technologically feasible.

High-profile people will always stay either at home (with bulletproof glass window), in public inside a bulletproof car or enclosure, or in exclusive clubs with double door entrances.

But hopefully someone will wipe out all current politicians before that, spurring an unprecedented leap forward for mankind.

Mark Thorson June 28, 2013 at 10:06 am

Insect drones have very limited range. The assassin must get within a short distance of the target. He would be traceable through video recorded by our existing surveillance state. After the first few assassinations, face recognition software with real-time correlation to big data will be deployed to identify potential assassins, so they can be stopped and searched before they get close enough to the target to strike. The politicians will be all in favor of this enhanced fine-grained surveillance state.

Alexei Sadeski June 28, 2013 at 11:18 am

Let’s break this down.

Firstly, historical precedent. Firearms made it easier and honestly stealthier to murder. Firearms replaced the option of simply running up to someone and hacking them to death. Thus, after the advent of firearms, it became easier to murder and harder to trace. Triply so for firearms after the introduction of highly accurate rifles, which can kill from a hundred yards quite easily, ad are sufficiently hard to trace that not even Lee Harvey Oswald was stopped on his way from the infamous book depository.

And yet the murder rate virtually everywhere I am aware of fell, precipitously, after firearms and accurate rifles were introduced.

Secondly, it isn’t clear that poison mini drones will have dramatic advantages over the old fashioned hunting rifle. Both require skill to deploy – presumably, of course – and it isn’t obvious that the drone is much harder to trace nor detect. A bee is actually quite loud and large once it gets near, whilst it is quite challenging to judge the source of a single rifle blast.

The forensic evidence, also is not clearly favorable to the drone. Both murder weapons – rifle and drone controller – need to be disposed of after the murder or attempted murder, right? Is one easier or harder than the other to get rid of? Probably the drone controller would be easier, as rifles draw a lot of attention, but again I don’t see the difference as being game changing.

#1 seems to be most likely, in my estimation.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 11:46 am

It won’t be long before assassin drones don’t require direct control. They’ll be fire and forget robots with facial/pattern recognition and tracking algorithms. And you won’t send one, you’ll send a swarm.

So, I don’t think there is a parallel to how rifles have been used in the past.

Alexei Sadeski June 28, 2013 at 12:37 pm

That doesn’t obviously change the equation; as stated above, assassins firing individual rifle shots are already quite difficult to track.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Assassins have a hard time getting within range of their target, because rifles are line-of-sight weapons. Drones are not line-of-sight weapons. That’s the critical factor.

Alistair June 28, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Snipers have real difficulties getting into a good shooting position, especially if the targets movements are broadly unknown or the security detail knows that it is doing. It also takes a long time to train as an effective (accurate) sniper for one-shot kills at range. Plus the (good) rifles themselves are rare, traceable, and arouse questions in procurement.

Non-LOS drone weapons, which are also fire-and-forget make things a lot easier. You can launch the drones from a park on Embankment and kill the PM as he steps out of Downing street, 400 or so yards away.

MM June 28, 2013 at 5:16 pm

@Alistair

“Plus the (good) rifles themselves are rare, traceable, and arouse questions in procurement”

Let me guess: You are not American or (and therefore) know nothing about firearms. Super accurate CIA sniper rifles with killer assassin bullets are called hunting rifles in the real world. Oh yeah, and anyone who hunts deer is probably just as good at whacking a human.

Barry June 30, 2013 at 3:34 pm

“Varmint hunting” is a popular pastime, also, where participants shoot “prairie dogs” — actually marmots I think — and other overpopulated pest rodents in ranch and farm areas. The goal is to shoot them at 600+ yards with single rifle shots. This requires extremely accurate rifles, skilled shooters who can read the effects of wind on small, light bullets at long range, and excellent, accurate cartridges.

1000 yard shooting ranges are not uncommon in the Western US, where there’s room for them.

These skills are not so rare.

And yet, we don’t see any assassinations committed by the many people who have the skills and equipment (which is often home-built or modified since it’s very, very hard to buy a factory-made rifle with the required accuracy).

When someone does commit or attempt an assassination or an act of terror, it tends to be with much lower level weapons — like pressure-cooker bombs in Boston, simple weapons at close range by Major Hassan, a small-caliber revolver by John Hinckley Jr., etc.

The common thread? Soft targets.

What to make of this? I’m not sure. But #1, while it might not make us feel “safe”, is a likely scenario. People COULD do all sorts of nasty things, but generally, we don’t.

DocMerlin June 30, 2013 at 8:11 pm

The number of americans who can kill another american with a rifle at at thousand yards, is a very high number. The reason we don’t see more assassinations is not because there isn’t the ability, but rather that people chose not to.

Historian June 28, 2013 at 8:52 pm

“Firstly, historical precedent. Firearms made it easier and honestly stealthier to murder. Firearms replaced the option of simply running up to someone and hacking them to death. Thus, after the advent of firearms, it became easier to murder and harder to trace.”

What are you smoking? The 14th century handgonne was stealthy? The 16th century wheellock pistol?

“And yet the murder rate virtually everywhere I am aware of fell, precipitously, after firearms and accurate rifles were introduced.”

Again, where in the world is this coming from?

Alexei Sadeski June 29, 2013 at 12:12 am

There are loud sounds in every big bustling city. Not every individual gunshot sounds as such. Also note that my point is more about modern weapons, ca 1880, which allow one to reliably stand further than one hundred feet from one’s target whilst getting an easy kill.

And yes, murder rates have declined precipitously since firearms have become more accurate and effective. It’s a well known fact, though of course the cause of the declining murder rate is almost certainly not the firearms themselves:

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/06/long-term-trend-in-homicide-rates.html

The fall has been absolutely stunning, actually. An approx 15 fold fall in homicide rate from 15th century through 19th.

bob July 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm

And what were, and are, the chances of a murderer getting caught and prosecuted in the 15th century, vs the chances of getting caught today?

Let’s go for an ultimate extreme in stealth, courtesy of Japanese comics. Imagine a notebook that could kill. Write someone’s name on it, and he dies of an apparent heart attack. If that “technology” was widely available, what do you think would happen to the murder rate? It might not go up, but if it does not, is because society changes dramatically. Not only would we have to be very careful about making sure we are liked, but we’d have to hide the fact we dislike someone, because that’s enough to be a suspect. Just imagine what would happen in a high school after someone gets murdered this way.

While tiny drones would not be quite as radical a change, because it’s not as if we expect those to be sold anonymously at Walmart by the dozen. Still, if the chances of getting caught dropped to, say, one in a thousand, I’d be very surprised if politicians and CEOs were seen in public places often.

So anonymity in murder would do to public conscience the same thing as semi-anonymity did to rude discourse on the internet.

MDBritt June 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Historian – first, the data with respect to murder rates is widely available and not in dispute. Read Steven Pinker’s book if you would like more information. Second, “easier” is a relative term. Relative to the difficulty of hacking someone to death who is surrounded by guards, firearms are indeed far easier. Not exactly “stealthy” but for someone who is committed to the act regardless of outcome, they make it far easier.

Historian July 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Pinker’s historiography is horrific, and I’m unaware of a single historian who considers his cherry-picked popular book an authority. And there’s still not a single source cited that indicates that using a handgonne would be easier and stealthier than, say, a crossbow. I’ll wait with bated breath for one to appear.

Nicholas Marsh June 28, 2013 at 7:48 am

I agree with 1. Its already easy to obtain the materials necessary to kill someone or cause a massacre (especially in the USA). Massacres don’t happen very often because mostly people don’t want to commit mass murder. Suburban US shopping malls won’t need drone zappers for the same reason that they don’t need explosive detectors. Murders do happen, but people in the USA have access to lots of lethal means anyway.

As for 2, its already easy to assassinate someone from afar by using a rifle. And if easy precautions are taken (such as using the gun once and then destroying it) the bullet is untraceable. That hasn’t stopped almost all leaders from appearing in public (albeit with some security precautions). We go back to 1 – politicians aren’t dropping like flies at the moment to rifle bullets because in general people don’t actually want to kill them. (Or not enough to risk being caught and punished).

These take care of 3. There won’t need to be any more protection than US cities have already from explosives (in general none, except around very sensitive buildings).

Tarrou June 28, 2013 at 9:04 am

This. Many times this. Technology cannot increase (or eliminate) the natural rate of psychopathy and violence. To steal and modify an old proverb, “it is not the tiny poison-laden insect drone, but a hard heart that kills”.

Nick June 28, 2013 at 7:49 am

People cease to be and seek high status! Government re-orientates so that it doesn’t rely on the survival of particular individuals. Perhaps a bit like prison gangs?

Zach June 28, 2013 at 7:50 am

#3 recalls Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age…

Brock June 28, 2013 at 8:22 am

Came here to say this. “The Diamond Age” already covered this ground. In that near-future, the good neighborhoods were protected by a “fog” of nano-bots that destroyed without prejudice all nanobots that didn’t provide proper credentials. A light dusting of dead bots would cover things that stayed near the edge of the neighborhoods for long.

I expect that as drones get smaller, and nanotech becomes a real thing, we will have to integrate nanotech into our immune system. Possibly replacing our actual immune system.

brad June 28, 2013 at 9:28 am

Was thinking the same thing. Maybe TC should read Stephenson’s oeuvre. I’d be interested to see what he thinks of the Baroque Cycle.

Ah, spoke too soon looks like he’s a fan:
http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/09/anathem.html

Thelonious_Nick June 28, 2013 at 11:47 am

Fail! The correct science fiction reference is to the hunter-seekers in Dune, tipped with with the lethal gom jabbar.

The way to stop them was with the personal shields that stopped everything moving quickly.

de Broglie June 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Yes. I am surprised the reference came so far down the queue.

Sanjay June 28, 2013 at 7:55 am

I thought it as all bad news until the starling thing.

anon June 28, 2013 at 8:01 am

The travel industry takes a hit, as does the population of starlings.

Two wins. So long TSA.

Archaeopteryx June 30, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Naa. The TSA is entrenched. They have already discussed metal detectors and rape, err ahh, pat down body searches, at municipal bus depots, the entrances to shopping malls.
So, if long-range transport went away, they would just “find” a reason to operate on the short range stuff.
Keep in mind that the airport abuses is not even intended to keep flying safe. It’s intended to get Americans used to having that sort of thing done to them All The Time.

Martin June 28, 2013 at 7:55 am

This problem has already been solved: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM6E3f2lT14

Reed Roberts June 28, 2013 at 7:56 am

Drone zapping shouldn’t be all that hard, even in a selective fashion (ie no starling collateral), as this video demonstrates. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM6E3f2lT14. Drone zapping device would then be relatively mobile so high status figures wouldn’t be drastically more limited than they already are with bodyguards etc. I think limits to speed of drones and mechanics of wings would mean this technique of detection would be difficult to avoid.

Richard B June 28, 2013 at 8:02 am

It will be a lot like gun control.

– Some countries will ban them and have dedicated capacity to deal with the few people who have them (like SO19 in the UK). Most people in this society won’t want them.
– Some countries may allow them within varying limits, with arguments about the right to have a defensive drone that can protect against other people (like the US with firearms)
– Other countries will use them as a means to enhance their repressive apparatus
– While other countries will not be able to control the flow of them, and sub or trans-national actors will utilise them as their way of exerting control.

It strikes me that this is just a new technology in the ever-present struggle among political actors for control of their locale / society. Just like guns didn’t really change how society interacted, neither will drones.

Jan June 28, 2013 at 8:10 am

I think it is a mix of 1, 3 and 4. They are not mutually exclusive. The risk is overstated for some of the reasons listed, but precautions will nonetheless be taken and they will be primarily technolog- based. I don’t think they will be giant zappers around whole cities, but something more confined.

Bruce Cleaver June 28, 2013 at 8:38 am

And so the Fermi Paradox has another candidate explanation.

Grant June 28, 2013 at 8:56 am

The book Second Shift, part of the Wool book series by Hugh Howey, addresses this issue. Instead of bee size drones, in the book there are nanotech drones. His conclusion is that this type of technology does not bode well for humanity.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 11:48 am

I only ever read the first set of novellas in that series. Would you recommend the second set?

hanmeng June 28, 2013 at 9:57 pm

I thought of Stanislaw Lem’s “The Invincible “.

Urso June 28, 2013 at 9:10 am

Bodyguards stop carrying handguns, begin carrying electrified fly swatters. $9 on amazon, $18 if you want to step up to the “executioner” model. TINGS.

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_15?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=electric+fly+swatter&sprefix=electric+fly+sw%2Caps%2C381

anon June 28, 2013 at 10:14 am

electrified fly swatters

There is no great stagnation.

JP Lewicke June 28, 2013 at 9:25 am

The battery-related caveat in the article may be over-optimistic about the drones’ ability to stay aloft for even a few minutes. I know someone working on the robot bee project, and they basically have them on an extension cord all the time when they’re flying. Even if they have the same flight time as a regular quadrocopter(10-30 minutes), their smaller size will mean they can cover much less distance in that same period of time.

If the main advantage of the bug drones is undetectability, one way to get around this is with pervasive recording of the electromagnetic spectrum. You don’t gain much if the NSA can just pull the records for all wireless transmissions in the area and analyse them to figure out exactly where and when the commands were being transmitted. AI good enough to independently identify the target in question and navigate to it would be an important advance in state of the art, and would need many generations of Moore’s Law to unfold before it could be miniaturized enough to go on a bug drone.

NPW June 28, 2013 at 10:12 am

This.

There are several technological barriers to these drones becoming a legitimate threat. And more specifially, the threat of assassination by drone would require non-trivial engineering breakthroughs to exceed the current threat of assassination by current means.

The projects that I’ve been around that are considering weaponizing micro-UAVs are looking at swarming solutions, not individual drones. This also may change the threat matrix.

I’m pretty sure I could take out a target with a drone using today’s tech, however, the planning would be roughly equivalent to using a rifle or bomb. I’d have to pattern the target to be prepositioned. The range of a micro-UAV is simply much to short.

derek June 28, 2013 at 9:42 am

Hmm. Sounds like most summer days around here. There is an insect size drone that targets me personally whenever I go near it’s home. It has the ability to sting me without landing on me, multiple times. I carry a can of some foamy stuff that stops it dead. I also carry a device that I poke into my thigh when I get stung, otherwise swelling might cause me to choke. If I crush one of them all it’s family attacks me. It’s home may be a gate that I open, an electrical box or equipment compartment.

The great stagnation continues.

RV June 28, 2013 at 9:58 am

Has anyone read Marvel Zombies? The zombified superheroes were only able to defeat Magneto once Wasp shrunk down to a tiny size, snuck up behind him, and bit him. If this technology can be the undoing of Magneto, we should all fear it.

efp June 28, 2013 at 10:21 am

If insect-size drone assassins can be obtained by ordinary people, I predict everyone learns to turn off their cell phones in theatres.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 11:57 am

I predict everyone learns to turn off their cell phones in theatres.

I predict the fit will learn to turn off their cell phones in theaters.

Corey June 28, 2013 at 10:26 am

I think this issue is going to present itself long before we’re down to insect-sized. Imagine a drone smaller than today’s quadracopters but much bigger than an insect. Just big enough to suspend a shotgun shell facing downwards. Maybe a raspberry pi to go into an autonomous head-tracking glide for a few minutes after initial positioning.

From some height where it’s not heard, it shuts off and glides down within a foot above the targets head and then goes off.

I think we’re going to see the assassinations start sooner than we’ll see robot bees or nanobots.

Also, regarding range and having the attacker close enough, this is easily solved with a network of small UAVs or a hierarchy of UAVs of various sizes. If the security cordon for EM / drone detection of various sizes is in concentric rings, the relays just have to be outside the rings. And they’re not rings, they’re spheres. So going high enough above works too. Gravity can do a lot.

NPW June 28, 2013 at 10:46 am

While not impossible, death from a drone large enough to carry a shotgun shell, a barrel/trigger mechanism, sensors, processor, and power storage would need a delivery system about the same size as a quad copter. The limits are due to the thrust/weight ratio of a rotorcraft that have been an issue for helos for years.

The range issue is due to the range of a UAV carrying an onboard power supply.

Small airframes are greatly impacted by the wind. It would not be feasible to shut off the power and glide down for precision target removal.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Quadcopter with handgun (actually, this is a type of handgun that fires a shotgun shell):

Video: http://geekologie.com/2013/06/that-should-be-illegal-flying-drone-with.php

M. Report June 30, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Instead of a handgun, with its weight and recoil problems. use a gyrojet launcher: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyrojet
If one cannot get LOS on target, the round drops a uUAV for the final search-and-destroy phase.

Cargosquid June 30, 2013 at 2:54 pm

There’s no need for shotgun ammo at all
Just have it glide to the target and hit…injecting ricin.

john personna June 28, 2013 at 10:28 am

I think this is all far enough ahead to be science fiction, but it is pretty good fiction. Let’s for instance give the insect killers solar cells, ability to sit on branches and wait, and facial recognition …

radmike June 28, 2013 at 11:02 am

I’d question point 4.

Agreed that technologically we’re not there at present, and there’re extrapolations of Moore’s Law and power storage/transmission requirements to make this a reality.

But –
A. http://makezine.com/2011/03/04/remote-controlled-cockroach/ leverage biological energy / delivery systems + lightweight electronics

B. once the technology / materials side catches up, and these are technologically feasible, anyone w/ hobbyist level (or moderate electronics training could probably put one of these together using commodity parts.

Point 4. assumes that there’s some component or material that only governments would be able manufacture or use. Quadcopters are already commoditized as hobbyist-level projects:
http://www.adafruit.com/blog/2011/12/22/elev-8-quadcopter-kit/

John Schilling June 28, 2013 at 11:06 am

Are we imagining that would-be assassins are going to be building their own killer nanodrons? As others have noted, would-be assassins are already quite rare; the subset of would-be assassins with the necessary technical skills is likely to be insignificant.

If we are instead imagining that would-be assassins will be buying killer nanodrones in the open market, then I don’t see much reason for the market to provide some of the features an assassin would need. Untraceability, in particular. With non-assassin nanodrones, one of the key issues will be making sure each customer can reliably control his own drones and no others. If we by this time have ubiquitous WiFi, then the drones get secure WiFi links and their own unique, registered IPv6 address, or something roughly equivalent. Possibly hard-wired, and definitely serial-numbered. With the system architecture being set up by people who are aware of the threat, and unless I am missing something do not have any motive to make it even remotely possible for consumers to have drones that can’t be trivially traced once the drone or the network traffic logs for the target area are in police hands.

With sufficient technical talent, it would almost certainly be possible for an assassin to work around this, but that brings us back to assassins being rare and talented hackers being rare such that the intersection is nearly a null set.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Are we imagining that would-be assassins are going to be building their own killer nanodrons? -

Assume cheap 3-D printers.

John Schilling June 28, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Cheap 3-D printers will give everyone the ability to make cheap plastic models of killer nanodrones. If you are imagining that people will be able to press a button on their household replicator and get an actual, working killer nanodrone, you need to assume magic.

Where sufficiently advanced technology is concerned, “assume magic” may be a reasonable thing to do. But then you pretty much have to assume that everything changes, and beyond recognition, which makes this specific bit of speculation rather pointless.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm

No, I imagine a world where I can buy most of the electronics, servos and control components at a Hobby Store. Those are components that are so widely used that they can’t be traced back to the user. Then I use a 3-D printer to create the specific model of weapon.

John Schilling June 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm

OK. In that case, the 3-D printer is a red herring, what matters is the hobby shop that carries the critical working parts for a nanodrone.

I think this is about as likely to ever happen, as it is for Radio Shack to carry the parts I would need to build my own smartphone. And for homebuilt smartphones to be so popular that when the police start tracking down sales records the suspect will be lost in the noise. I must have missed all this the last time I was at Radio Shack.

Some things, hobbyists basically just don’t make for themselves, even at the level of assembling professionally-built parts. Ham radios, yes. Smartphones, no. Quadcopters and RC planes, yes. Nanodrones, no. And anyone who tries, will stick out like a sore thumb when the police start interviewing parts suppliers.

Sunset Shazz June 28, 2013 at 11:14 am

This post begs for some Hansonian input.

yi June 28, 2013 at 11:46 am

The insect and bird-sized drones will be a solved problem within 10-20 years. Anything you see in nature can and will be duplicated. Nature is the proof of principle.
So the power problems will be solved.
But the drones will be better than birds and insects.
They will have facial recognition and GPS guidance.
Dive-bombing birds could be launched from hundreds of miles away.
They will be autonomous.
A large bird drone might carry dozens of insect drones, in fact.

Laser defenses will be key.
But this is a difficult problem.

question June 28, 2013 at 11:52 am

Do you think bees have facial recognition? I don’t.

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I think bees have flower recognition, and I know my iPhone has rudimentary facial recognition.

yi June 28, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Don’t be such a moron. The drones will.
Try to think more clearly.

JSIS June 28, 2013 at 11:50 am

Don’t forget genetically targeted microbial assassins. This assumes, TGS continues for mind-control and surveillance techniques. Future is either Minority Report, Gaia or Mad max.

john personna June 28, 2013 at 11:51 am

BTW, you probably can’t “jam” an autonomous drone without killing all personal electronics use in the same area.

Two Thoughts June 28, 2013 at 11:51 am

1) Once tech gets to the point of insect assassins, there will surely be little insect lasers to kill them.

2) Why not just give a speech behind a mosquito net?

JWatts June 28, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Why not just give a speech behind a mosquito net?

I think this is the best counter yet. Though I would say to use a Pope Mobile.

Joshua June 28, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Frank Herbert included them, but you had to be close to operate them. It seems plausible this could still be the case, seeing as RF control is a fundamental physics issue. Thus limited effectiveness.

mpowell June 28, 2013 at 1:01 pm

This is all bullshit. Bullshit that we are technologically close to game-changing drone assassins and bullshit that you can hypothesize about a world where the tech exists. What kind of assembly will be required? What kind of defense will be available? Sometimes, like nukes, offensive capabilities far outstrip defensive ones. But that is an unusual case and even there the required tech is prohibitive for all but the most committed state actors.

Willitts June 28, 2013 at 2:12 pm

This is a good economics and moral question, but you erred in making the means of murder too particular. Now people are all wrapped up in the mechanics of your device rather than the implications.

Forget about drones and just contemplate a situation where an ordinary citizen can kill at will without being detected. What will become of our world?

The one part about the drone that is relevant is that it puts a resource constraint on potential killers, and thus limits our thought experiment to exclude a madman killing everyone, including himself, for no particular reason.

I’m reminded that many people have the means to kill others undetected and choose not to do so. I believe that morality is inherent in the human species.

I’m also aware of the quip that “some people are alive only because it’s illegal to kill them.” So does that mean the jerky boss will become more polite?

I firmly believe there would be a lot more murders than we want but far fewer than we might fear. We might end up with voluntary wealth transfers.

An alternative scenario would be an information state. If I were a CEO making a lot of money, anonymity would be my shield and information my sword. I would pay to find out who might want me dead and launch pre-emptive strikes.

That presumes the CEO lives to become CEO. I wonder how society would develop if initial endowments were more equal. There are far too many people with an overactive sense of entitlement and companion hatred.

Mark Thorson June 28, 2013 at 6:08 pm

I’m reminded that many people have the means to kill others undetected and choose not to do so. I believe that morality is inherent in the human species.

How do you know they choose not to do so, if they’re undetected?

Will June 29, 2013 at 2:06 am

Though who kills is undetected, the existence of a death is not likely to be. While perhaps some may kill undetected via heart attacks, car accidents, etc., this is not the means that Willitts is referring to, and so is irrelevant.

ohwilleke June 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Small drones are much more potentially game changing than big ones. One of the main reasons that WMDs have been less of an issue than doomsayers feared is because destroying an entire city is rarely a useful military objective. In contrast, killing a particular individual without putting the person doing so in harm’s way, has always been an important military objective.

The sweet spot, however, is probably not a poison sting drone the size of a bee, but a quiet battery powered bird sized drone packing the equivalent of a handgun. A drone like this made with what is or soon will be commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology that someone could make available over the Internet to anyone interested in doing so, could cost less than $10,000, could use hard to trace mass produced handgun ammunition, and could be controlled with an easily and anonymously share hack to existing legitimate apps the allow for the remote control of drones via your smartphone. A range of twenty to a hundred meters (similarly to the effective accuracy range of a handgun) would be more than sufficient to make it very threatening weapon that would proliferate widely.

Border control of a weapon like this one would be far more difficult than controlling chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. It would be easier to smuggle this technology than to smuggle drugs since material parts of the whole could be carried overtly with only a tiny portion truly smuggled. A Saudi or White Supremacist sympathizer could purchase scores of them and then deliver them covertly to people who would use them to carry out attacks elsewhere.

The effect in the hands of terrorists or criminals would be a bit like you’ve seen in the Mexican drug war were a breakdown of law and order has made threatened and carried out assassinations of law enforcement officers and their families routine and made being the sheriff or a tough on crime judge a short life expectancy job. One also worries about a serial killer who gets this tech and just kills people at random for fun (a bit like the DC Sniper case).

For the military, it would likely make targeted assassination a much more attractive option because the risk of collateral damage would decline, the likelihood of being able to make a strike before it is detected and evaded would be greater, the cost of doing a drone attack would be lower, and the amount of the tech that is so sensitive that it needs to be guarded and can’t self-destruct is smaller.

Small drones would make defense against counterinsurgency strikes from forces that have these weapons on forward operating bases (or even theater headquarters) much more difficult even though there are systems that exist that could identify and shoot them down. Still, imagine someone strapping one to the bottom of a Humvee on the way into a base past defensive systems that then releases at night, finds its target with night vision or infrared sensors, and fires away before anyone knows that it is even there.

Strategically, the best literary analog probably is Frank Herbert’s Dune, with bird sized drones on assassination missions against senior leaders becoming the predominant form of warfare. The best defense against it is probably not military at all – it is to depersonalize elected offices and bureaucratic positions in such a way that a successor to a target will carry out the same policies as any target who is killed.

Myron June 29, 2013 at 5:18 am

“The best defense against it is probably not military at all – it is to depersonalize elected offices and bureaucratic positions in such a way that a successor to a target will carry out the same policies as any target who is killed”

Hasn’t this already been implemented?

M. Report June 30, 2013 at 5:10 pm

One cannot change a nation state’s behavior by assassinating a bureaucracy, but a particularly dangerous dictator, yes, and he is less likely to be replaced by an equivalent successor.

Gordon Mohr June 28, 2013 at 4:06 pm

6. High-status, and high-office, is then only held by pseudonymous cryptographic identities that can’t be linked to soft, locatable, assassination-prone meatspace bodies. This also makes it possible for a high-status identity to be a branded collective that continues beyond the death of any its members.

News from the future: “The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 ruling authored by Chief Justice @CyberJeffersonian_7, rejected the suspiciously-late election returns from Puerto Marte, throwing the 2096 election to Senator @Verax1983 over Governor @Locke2001, in the closest Electoral College contest since Bush-Gore in 2000. From his/her undisclosed location, President-Elect @Verax1983 praised the ruling and again denied allegations that he/she has been a software-only entity for the last 17 years.”)

I, for one, welcome our new pseudonymous overlords.

William Gibson June 28, 2013 at 6:49 pm

They sent a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it
to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him
on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his
rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab
tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and
flaked TNT. He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was
the pink stucco facade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.

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とエレガントな ディープ ブルー 。シャネル ファッション性の高い コレクションだった すべて 厳しい移動 そこ から、
時代を超越した グラマー他 画家 示されている ながらで このシーズン 方法 、パリは代わりに、シャネルを提供
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Bawb June 30, 2013 at 3:29 pm

There’s a precedent of sorts. There was a political theory that the widespread ownership of longbows and the skill to use them was a moderating force in England. The aristocracy tends to be more moderate in their actions when any unpopular measure could lead to them being assassinated from a great distance. The longbow led directly to the Magna Carta. And there is a saying that the six gun gave women the vote.

elkh1 June 30, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Much easier for the President to order a drone kill of American citizens living abroad. Don’t forget AG Holder never ruled out using killer drones inside the country.

What happened to Hastings? An accident, or assassination with Switchblade, a six pound drone missile that could zero in on an individual?

Buck Smith June 30, 2013 at 3:53 pm

great discussion – here is another take on micro drone assassinations and a possible market based solution:

http://pjmedia.com/richardfernandez/2013/03/12/the-history-of-the-future/

PacRim Jim June 30, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Thallium drones?
Remember the anti-Soviet guy who was murdered with thallium on a street in of London?

Ed Snack June 30, 2013 at 5:30 pm

This article overlooks (as many do) the one obvious factor: as the technology to make drones improves, so does the technology to take out drones. So also will the ability to trace drones improve; someone touched the drone at some point in its life, traces will remain.

PD Quig June 30, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Quick. Somebody bat a hive of the little buggers and throw it over the fence at the White House before the jammers are in place.

Toby June 30, 2013 at 6:04 pm

The problem of power is long since solved. The smallest drones have the same performance characteristics as bioenergetics because they use bioenergetics.

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/411814/the-armys-remote-controlled-beetle/

When these cyber-beetles came out back in 2009, folks mostly worried about their use in surveillance. Remote control seemed merely a reach to independent agents.

http://www.newdaedalus.com/articles/2009/4/1/cyborg-beetles-cyber-security-smart-buildings-and-the-smart.html

That was before, howver, it became the open policy of the US to use drone-enabled assasination as a tool of foreign policy, and before the US government demonstrated a willingness to use the full powers of federal agencies against its own people. Today, maybe we need to think differently about this.

The only thing missing four years ago was the payload for delivery…

Anon June 30, 2013 at 7:18 pm

with DNA and genetic-engineering, why use drones? Just get tissue samples from where the target has been at some point, generate a virus that will degrade that person’s immune system over a number of months, and then spray it in a number of places the target is likely to eventually go.

But there’s also such things as using lasers to power the drones, and nanotechnology-capacitors to store dramatically more energy. Also, as drones get smaller and smarter, they could simply use updrafts off of buildings to stay aloft, and generate power to run their systems off of that.

I recall someone pointing out (many years ago) that when anybody can kill anybody, either one winds up with a totalitarian state, or one where politicians work very, very hard not to tick off anybody. I.e. everything gets decided very slowly – if decided at all.

Yannai June 30, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Scott Adams’ (Dilbert guy) The Religion Wars forecasts a similar future where remote control aircraft can deliver precise explosive strikes. In his world the defensive technology is focused o nanotechnology for extremely fast (re)construction as opposed to prevention.

Dave June 30, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Philip Luty, who famously designed a machine gun made from plumbing supplies, said that every new technology begins as a tool of oppression, but as it becomes cheaper, more widely available, and better understood, it becomes a tool of liberation. For example, the first firearms allowed Europe’s nobility to massacre rebellious peasants from a safe distance, but when commoners were able to buy or build guns, the nobility lost their divine right to rule. I expect the same will happen with drones.

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Robert Koslover July 1, 2013 at 10:56 am

None of the above. Countermeasures of substantial but imperfect effectiveness will be developed and deployed in parallel with any such mini-drones. After all, the world is full of computer viruses — and much anti-virus software — co-existing.

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