The Coming World of Killer Mini Drones

If you think drones are bad enough, the military industrial complex is already working on the second generation.

This video (or more accurately, the part I want you to watch, which starts at 4:46) ran a few days ago on the Atlantic, and the author was duly freaked out. It depicts a world in which no one (or at least no ordinary person) will be safe from constant surveillance and the possibility of immediate execution.

The one bit of good news if you listen to the video carefully, this is all vaporware. It sounds like General Dynamic and its brethren are pumping to get stuff like this funded (or more accurately, the missing bits). But I wonder if the authorities understand what a Pandora’s box they will be unleashing. A more troubling use of the drone that killed the presumed bad guy in the picture is to carry small payloads of toxic chemicals. One of the reasons the concern over WMD in the wake of 9/11 was so overhyped was that it is not trivial to deliver a toxic agent in a manner that it will be in high enough concentrations and disperse adequately. But little drone swarms could go into crowded areas (subways? airports? Davos?) and do lots of harm. If I were part of the military, I’d want to be sure I also had the defensive technology for drones in place before I unleashed more of these critters.

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  1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    I don’t get it.

    There is nothing a drone can do that a pigeon implanted with a directional finder and GPS can’t do.

    Plus pigeons are cheap – which is important these austerity days unless we have the MMT cavalry to the rescue – and bio-degradable.

    Why can’t we go green in our military and save the drones for mail delivery?

    1. ambrit

      Dear MLTPB;
      An interesting case in point is the US Navys’ work with Dolphins to place mines on ship hulls and other such stuff. A lot of the research part of the program was carried out at the University of Miamis’ Key Biscayne “campus.” (Just down the road from where Dick Nixon and Bebe Rebozo used to frolic.) I believe it started out as research into the possibility of Human Dolphin communication. (They’re VERY smart people, the Dolphins that is.)

      1. nonclassical

        …because like Postal Service, drone builders have retirement benefits that must be “protected” (projected) out 50 years…

    2. OMF

      There is nothing a drone can do that a pigeon implanted with a directional finder and GPS can’t do.

      That would be one amazing pigeon!

      1. Mark P.

        [1] Pigeons can’t construct buildings. They can also fly split-second trajectories in formation with a speed and agility way beyond that of birds or insects and play real instruments in musical ensembles. Here’s a demo from Vijay Kumar’s GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania —

        [2] Below, one commentator says: “At the rate technology is progressing, at some point in the not too distant future we’ll be able to manufacture our own inexpensive mini drones in the comfort of our homes.”

        Wrong. We’re doing these things NOW —

        Hackers have developed DIY drones armed with lethal antipersonnel ordinance —

        Besides the models available from places like Amazon and Costco, components for drones can be 3D-printed as here —
        “3D printable quadcopter”

        — using open source CAD files and parts available at Thingverse —

        — or at repositories like UAVForge, which is a crowd-sourced drone design competition run by those hipsters at DARPA.

        Hey, artists are even doing art with and about drones!

        [3] The core point: drones are the physical extension of a network. Putting it another way, smartphone chips are already used as the brains for some $300 drones —!D45D229F-EF5A-44C7-AAD4-5C35ABD3D65C

        So one way drones can be conceptualized is as flying smartphones running apps. The most significant difference, in this context, is that a terrorist-commandeered smartphone can’t be used as a missile against a ground target or flown into an airliner’s path.

      1. Emperor Wang of Market Mongo

        On Mongo we use long haired tribbles and saved all the surgical expense.

        But they still get run over and stepped on a lot, especially by people in intelligence work.

  2. Tad Ghostal

    The ability to project tangible power without serious risk of loss effectively eliminates any external pressures to resolve conflict through peaceful means. Look for both foreign and domestic policy to aggressively pursue unilateral policies demanding compliance, fealty, and subservience as drones become more capable, and so cheap as to be ubiquitous tools of oppression.

  3. Veri

    Another scheme by the MIC to bilk Americans out of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.

    Much like the Fail-35 with its two jet engines, limited capability already surpassed by modern fighter jets in the Russian arsenal… however, the Fail-35 comes with a $2 trillion dollar (as of right now and increasing in the future) WealthCare MIC price tag.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I didn’t say it in the post, but we’ll be lucky if this turns out to an expensive failure.

      1. from Mexico

        Yep. Failure is the best we can hope for.

        I thought this comment from a thread yesterday is apropos:


        February 22, 2013 at 8:22 pm

        Please see reference to beginning of UNESCO in last paragraph quoted below:

        //The drive for social control and eugenics was largely responsible for the emergence and growth of the scientific study of molecular biology. This came about when large foundations, primarily the Rockefeller enterprises, set out in the United States in the early 20th Century to engage in a massive research campaign to discover the inner workings of man and in turn devise methods of social-biological control. Thus the United States became the 20th Century progenitor of eugenics./

        /The belief that mankind’s rational and scientific control of nature will lead to a kind of Biocratic Utopia is found throughout the writings of H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and others. These works themselves (which have become often cited examples of the Biocratic Utopian’s ideal world) are based on what where present day trends in science, along with the stated goals of the world’s elite. The “scientific dictatorship” that Aldous Huxley spoke of is the natural modern extension to the age old practice of tyranny./

        /H. G. Wells brushed shoulders with and had intimate relationships with some of the most prominent people of his day, including outspoken eugenicist Margaret Sanger, Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw, and the Huxley family. Thomas Henry Huxley, often referred to as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his strong promotion of Darwinian ideals, tutored H.G. Wells and taught him biology. Aldous Huxley and Julian Huxley were T.H. Huxley’s grandsons./

        /As the first director general of UNESCO, Aldous’ brother Julian Huxley wrote in the organization’s 1947 mission statement, “…it will be important for UNESCO to see that the eugenic problem is examined with the greatest care, and that the public mind is informed of the issues at stake so that much that now is unthinkable may at least become thinkable.”//
        MORE at;


        1. Nathanael

          Biocratic utopia — one could do worse. Actually, we ARE doing worse.

          Rule by short-term-thinking psychopaths is a lot worse.

      2. Crazy Horse

        No need to speculate about vaporware like the article you posted does. The technology for coordinated drone swarm attacks that are, through multiple redundancy, virtually impossible to defend against is already operational. And you can buy your own basic quad rotor drone on line for a few hundred dollars and use it as a prototype to develop your own drone army. And use your Google Glass based control system to direct it.

        Fortunately we’ve trained a whole generation in the art of warfare through computer games, so there will be no shortage of skillful operators.

        “May you live in interesting times”

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          And you can buy your own basic quad rotor drone on line for a few hundred dollars and use it as a prototype to develop your own drone army.

          Technically correct (and even if true that the above video is vaporware, most of the technology is already fully functional and tested – power supply and coordination, among other things, remain issues).

          But on the subject of personal armies in this country at least, that is, use by the 99%, besides expense and other formidable problems, I suspect we will soon see regulations requiring that all interfaces to automated robots be accomplished via “certified” web (or centralized) software that can be controlled and overridden by government and/or powerful private corporations. Many, perhaps most, of the automated toys available on the market today already are only controllable by similar means. The public market will be used to defray development costs, but meaningful access to the technology will be increasingly controlled. The law for thee but not for me…

          Of course, that totally ignores things like foreign countries or other entities with deep pockets scooping the technology (reverse engineering, etc.) or doing their own development under the legitimate argument that if the US does it so can they, but then who expects caution or restraint from the Empire that sponsored preeminent wars based on lies, deep sea oil drilling, the pipe-line in Canada and the whole mess of such extraction, fracking, extra-judicial and remote killing of people, and the list goes on and on. This is a perfect case of, give the technology away to the 1%, at our expense, but keep it out of the hands of the public. And our gov/military has proven over and over that it’s idea of “cautions development” or “anticipating the consequences”, is simply to make a feature, rather than a bug, out of catastrophe. Over and over and over.

          1. Brooklin Bridge

            but meaningful access to the technology will be increasingly controlled. The law for thee but not for me…

            And dang it, if that doesn’t make sense, given that so many people seem willing to make the case that the public shouldn’t have access to so much as a squirt gun.

          2. Crazy Horse

            I suspect that a private airforce of weaponized nano quadrotor drones is well within the financial capability of more than a few individuals right now, not just billionaires like Jamie Dimon and his fellow financial criminals. And the idea that laws will control them is a fantasy.

            Take for instance a hypothetical brilliant software engineer who helped develop Facebook and was fully vested with stock options. And just happens to have had his entire family back in Pakistan killed as collateral damage during one of Obama’s assassination missions.

            When you open Pandora’s box you may not like what you find.

      3. Brooklin Bridge

        Another point is that killer drones, and other programs related to robotics in general, do not require the same sorts of all or nothing development that a large fighter plane, say, does. Robotics and miniaturization, killer drones of any type, can be developed in small affordable increments with each advance in technology contributing to the whole.

        What is similar to the big ticket items, however, is the “arms race” effect. It is probably already unstoppable.

    2. Keenan

      History repeats.
      The saga of the F-35 is replay of the 1960s F-111, which was pushed by Robert McNamara: A multi-role, do-everything aircraft intended for use by the Air Force and the Navy.
      The Navy walked away when the plane couldn’t meet the weight limit for carrier operations. The Air Force took delivery of their version, with all its design compromises, and the only models which served effectively, in some raids on Libya and the 1990 gulf war, were the tactical bomber and the electronic warfare aircraft.

  4. dadanada

    Is this a mosquito? No. It’s an insect spy drone for urban areas, already in production, funded by the U.S. Government. It can be remotely controlled and is equipped with a camera and a microphone. It can land on you, and it may have the potential to take a DNA sample or leave RFID tracking nanotechnology on your skin. It can fly through an open window, or it can attach to your clothing until you take it in your home. Given their propensity to request macro-sized drones for surveillance, one is left with little doubt that police and military may look into these gadgets next.
    And for all you who automatically say “fake” because you don’t think your glorious government is funding this… do some research:

    Actual research paper:

    1. AbyNormal

      this zoomed across my screen last week an my 1st thought…west nile virius won’t have nothin on this mayhem of a critter
      In a posting this week, EFF said some reports indicate the FAA has issued 1,428 permits to fly drones over the U.S. since 2007.

      “This new number points out again how difficult it is to answer the most common questions EFF gets from reporters about drones – just how many agencies have applied for drone licenses?” wrote EFF’s Jennifer Lynch. “How many licenses has the FAA issued since it started issuing licenses … and how much has domestic drone use increased over the years?”

      In just the past few weeks, the London Daily Mail reported the U.S. Air Force is developing fly-size drones that can sneak up on someone and execute him. The report said it was a project was of the Air Vehicles Directorate, a research center, that was working with Micro Air Vehicles.

      The Hill also recently reported that 18 states have considered plans that would restrict the use of drones because of civil liberty and private protection concerns.

    2. Thorstein

      Twenty years ago I served on NSF award panels, and ten or fifteen years ago I might have been lulled into thinking the NSF research dadanada cites is a benign piece of “pure science”. Since then, however, whole divisions of NSF have been diverted to “anti-terrorism” research that serves the emergent U.S. police state. This maintains the fig leaf that DoD research is not directed against U.S. citizens, and it keeps NSF supported by congressional fascists in the face of criticism from Republicans who otherwise assail “big government”.

  5. roots

    At the rate technology is progressing, at some point in the not too distant future we’ll be able to manufacture our own inexpensive mini drones in the comfort of our homes using cheap 3D printers. I’ll use my fleet of tiny drones to patrol the airspace above my yard. They will give timely warning of intruding drones, thus giving me time to get into my bunker.

    1. c

      3d printers aren’t going to compete with the clean room requirements for production of silicon. All of this depends upon Intel’s fabtech. You might be able to take off the shelf components and rig something larger that would work, but the military aka governments that have early access, read this stuff is live this year, will always have the smaller more powerful ones.

      1. Mark P.

        No, you’re wrong. It’s 2013: standard smartphone chips are already used as the brains for some drones —!D45D229F-EF5A-44C7-AAD4-5C35ABD3D65C

        Also, drones are the extension of a network — it’s about the distributed intelligence in that network. So cutting-edge specialty fabware is absolutely unnecessary.

        Furthermore, if drones can be conceptualized as flying smartphones running apps, the chip technology is moving fast. Recently, Broadcom announced a new chip enabling integration of multiple signals – GPS, altimeter, wi-fi, cell phone tower, magnetometer, etc. – which will “indicate location ultra-precisely, within a few centimeters, vertically and horizontally, indoors and out.”

        Though the Broadcom chip’s advertised use is in phones, “the street finds its own uses for things” and when those chips are in drones, they’ll support highly-refined guidance apps. Whatever the drone mission, within a decade there may be an app – downloadable off the Internet – for it.

        he most significant difference is that a terrorist-commandeered smartphone can’t be used as a missile against a ground target or flown into an airliner’s path.

  6. diptherio

    We are so, so f#@%ed. But maybe it’s for the best. Does a species that turns every new discovery into new, improved killing machines deserve to exist anyway? Perhaps we should all do the right thing and join these guys.

    1. Claudius

      Well, there is a potential upside. For example, imagine avian bird flu (H5N1 pathogen) pandemic has broken out on the Asian continent, has already killed hundreds of thousands and is heading towards Europe and the North American continent. Release swarms of nano-bots to deliver vaccines and the 60% fatality rate might be at least reduced if not eliminated.

    2. different clue

      That part of the species which is not involved in discovering and developing these killing machines certainly deserves to exist.

      If the only part of the species not involved in developing these machines is the alpaca herders along the shores of Lake Titicaca, then that is the only part of the species which deserves to exist. But if the ranks of the non-involved include more than just the alpaca herders, then those more people also deserve to survive and exist . . . in the narrow terms defined by this comment.

  7. docG

    There was a wonderful movie that never caught on big, starring Robin Williams, called “Toys.” It was about a toy company that got taken over by the military, which was secretly producing weapons of exactly this type. They had identified kids who were really good at video games and were secretly training them to operate these “drones” by remote control, via consoles that worked exactly like video games. Some of the “drones” were really tiny, as I recall, almost like little insects — but they could carry a really powerful payload!

    When I saw that film it blew my mind, because to me at least it was apparent that this was in fact the wave of the future. And I’ve often wondered about the background of the people who made this film and whether they had some inside information as to what sort of research the military was doing at the time.

    While this sort of thing is truly disturbing, it actually makes a lot of sense, because the wars of the 21st century are going to have to be very different from those of the past. And in some ways that can be a good thing. After all which would you prefer: old style bombing raids in which entire cities get wiped out, or precisely targeted “mini-drone” attacks aimed at a solitary individual?

    We live in disturbing times . . .

    1. Alejandro

      What I find disturbing is the sophistic rationalization of perpetual war. Can you really “justify” drones as a scaled down version of “shock and awe”, without reconciling the legal and moral issues? Are we incapable of extracting wisdom from history and restraining the use of power to a universal morality?

      How can WE, in the name of security, accept the one-way mirror of surveillance? Where does it end? Can your sex life become entertainment for who knows who, without you knowing?

      These are disturbing times indeed.

    2. RepubAnon

      Looks as though someone at the DoD read Ron Goulart’s story “The Hellhound Project” and said “untraceable miniature killer assassin drones – what a great idea!”

    3. different clue

      If that solitary single individual is NASA’s Dr. Hansen . . . selected for drone assassination because he threatens coal and oil company profits . . . is that better?
      These micro drones will be used by pro Upper Class governments to wage war and control against their own subject populations.

  8. Emperor Wang of Market Mongo

    Yes, we have these on Mongo. Ming The Merciless funded the R&D and volume production and now they can be bought on the black market by anyone.

    They can be a real pain in the Royal Petoot. Your Emperor has installed “airdoors” on all palace doors and windows and wears his Royal Kevlar Long Johns when going out on the town.

    Bug zappers are installed on the palace grounds. The electronic bug thinks “Aha! Food!”, then the 50,000 volt zapper makes the little bug battery explode.

    These products are available in the Mongopoly Online Catalog.

    Sad, but true.

  9. Claudius

    Again, NC is in the realm of Military Industrial Complex (MIC) promotion and propoganda. The main media and internet thread for this story has been running since June of last year when the MIC first released “discussion documents” and position papers related to nano technology and drone warfare (some four months after the EMP thread was started – later picked up by NC this January).

    Still,fundamentally it’s nothing so new. In 2006 Flight International reported that the CIA had been developing micro-UAVs as far back as the 1970s and had a mock-up in its Langley headquarters since 2003. And, while we can go on listing various types of roach-bots, swarming nano-drones, and synchronized MIT robots, what’s important (as the video article points out), is the recent(ish) convergence of drone technology with bio-technology and its lethal nano-swarm application – the big fear factor.

    And, I guess the fear is not so much that it’s likely oneself is going to be poisoned by US Army nano-cyber-ants, but that someone important to you (a president, a senator, a union leader, a religious leader, a group of ‘maverick” people, whomever) might be, and there is no legal checks and balances or accountability for it, yet.

    Which leads us to a principal reason for the reticence of the current administration to share its documents on the legal justifications and executive memos on drone deployment; because, those documents references not just the typical pilot-less stealth drones seen on TV being used in Pakistan, Iraq, Iran etc. but encompasses protocols that refer specifically to “drones” in its widest terms of reference (including spy drones, nano-bots, cyber-bio-drones etc.), and not just internationally but also domestically. And, why not? After all the US MIC is an early adopter of this technology. It can define its own laws in terms of its actions before the laws define them and its actions. The historical trend is clear:

    Whenever ‘new’ technologies enter the market (and the marketing campaign began last June), illegitimate uses by malevolent state actors quickly follow legitimate ones.

    So, how might the general public protect itself (nationally, say) from swarms of such nano-drone invaders and possible attack? Well, from the pathogen side of the attack, already, bio-detectors have been built that can sense known pathogens in less than two minutes (and these will improve quickly). Does this mean that crowds, groups or even individuals will carry around an array of detectors? No. The host of such detectors will be, similarly, nano-drones.

    From the inorganic, cyber-macro, micro- or nano-drone facsimile side of the attack; each inorganic drone has a signature that identifies it from its natural (organic) counterpart (let’s say a cyber-mosquito or a cyber-ant), because it’s practically impossible to inorganically clone an organic entity – which means that, with the correct sensors, it stands out like lighthouse on Plymouth Rock. So, your defense nano-drones will detect the inorganic signature of the fake nano-ant-drone (very much like ants detecting pheromones of alien ants entering their colony) and will attack and destroy the invaders. And your personal nano-drone defense will just ‘live’ in your clothing. Sounds fanciful, I know, but it’s already reality.

    And who will provide this defense? Ironically (perhaps) the best defense against an attack is transparency: open source cyber schematics (signatures) and open source pathogen DNA (relatively safe

    because building robust pathogens is an extremely costly and time consuming process – silicon ‘seeded’ military grade anthrax is a good example) to the public at large. This may seem counter-intuitive, but open-sourcing this problem might turn out to be the best defense; following the very successful path of the computer sciences – the speed of development far exceeds the ability of any individual expert, working alone.

    There again, it only takes one malevolent genius….

  10. Pelham

    The Air Force has just awarded a contract to a computer scientist to greatly increase the capacity of a key supercomputer so it can be used to develop and test in a virtual environment these MAVs. Just FYI.

    As for defensive technology, how about a 12-gauge shotgun?

  11. Noni Mausa

    Those of us who have been reading SF since the 40s will not be surprised by any of this. One Brunner novel had a tiny drone that flew into the White House and up the nose of the President IIRC, either killing or reprogramming him, can’t recall. Another novel, “The Gameplayers of Zan” deals in part with the problem of outwitting really smart ubiquitous and detailed surveillance while planning a major project — in this case, getting an entire subpopulation off of a paranoid and overcrowded Earth.

    Alas, we still are not likely to get our hovercars. Sigh.

    1. BondsOfSteel

      Agreed. If this technology is pandora’s box… it’s already open. There’s no way for governments to stop it. You can 3D print most of the parts and get the rest from consumer devices.

  12. craazyman

    God forbid if Beavis and Butthead got a hold of one of these things. No woman relaxing in the backyard pool would be safe from the flying “Butt Scope”.

    1. Mark P.

      Beavis and Butthead ARE going to get hold of these things. The technology is fast, cheap and out of control.

  13. barrisj

    My God, even “green, progressive” organisations are carrying adverts from drone mfrs. Check out this add from latest Sierra Club mag for members:

    Coolest wind toy ever. The PARROT AR drone 2.0 is a quadricopter with two cameras: a high-def one that points forward and another with a wide-angle lens that points down – all controlled by your smartphone or tablet. No, it’s not perfect, and yes, you will crash it and subsequently need spare parts. But it’s your own personal drone. With live streaming video. That you can fly from your phone.

    So, all you guys out there who always suspected that that luscious 22year-old babe next door sunbathed in the nude, but could never see her because of the high fence surrounding her property…well, guess what? Now you can ogle away to your wanking contentment – we have the “tool” for you!!

  14. OpenThePodBayDoorHAL

    This entire subject just completely depresses me. Starting with the shredding of the Constitution by Obomba, through the civil liberties/privacies issues; to the normalization of robot murder machines; and yes to the backyard hobbyist, who inevitably wants to do something other than just fly these around, all activities that impinge on my own personal rights (and airspace). What a depressing place the future has become.

    1. Inakatta Roboto

      The Polish SF author Stanislaw Lem predicted all of this in his 1986 book One Human Minute, and further that the long term effect would be the disappearance of anything resembling “peacetime”.

      I remember reading an interview back then where he stated categorically that, given the chance to be magically transported to the future, he would refuse; at the time it seemed a peculiarly fuddy-duddyish sentiment coming from an SF writer, but now that I’m living in that future I can see what he meant. :(

  15. Nathanael

    The thing which the lunatics in the military-industrial complex don’t realize is that once these things are created, ANYONE AND EVERYONE will have them. The government will NOT have a monopoly. This is the sort of thing which makes overthrow of the government far more likely.

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