The Drone Threat to National Security and Privacy

John Villasenor

The following was first published in Scientific American. This is the first of a two-part series on security and privacy during the age of drone warfare. Part two is available here.

The year is 2020. Two Air Force officers sit in a darkened control center at an Air Force base in Nevada, carefully watching a bank of computer screens. One of the officers gently pushes a joystick to the right, and half a world away a swarm of a dozen small drones, none weighing more than a few hundred grams, banks to the right and continues to skim almost silently across the ground at about 65 kilometers per hour toward a small settlement that has been identified as a source of possible terrorist activity. A large monitor in the front of the control center displays the live view from a night-vision camera in the lead drone. About 300 meters ahead, the first buildings pull into view.

The second officer enters a series of touch-screen commands, and three of the drones break away from the formation and begin to circle the perimeter of the settlement, acquiring video that will later be used to build a high-resolution three-dimensional model of the terrain, streets and buildings. The other nine drones fly just above the settlement, break formation and embark on a series of specialized tasks. Two drones sniff for minute quantities of chemicals associated with explosives, then combine the resulting measurements with on-site wind measurements to identify a building likely being used to store explosives. Another group of three drones with high-resolution cameras converges on the suspect building to collect imagery of the walls, roof and perimeter, including brief stops to hover outside the windows and take pictures into the interior.

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