The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Registering Drones with the Government Matters

DroneSo, drones must now be registered with the Department of Transportation in the US.

Drones are a big part of the future of war. They are cheap, easy to make, and drones will be a chosen weapon of the weak and relatively poor. They are also going to become more and more effective. A drone whistling by at 45 miles an hour is very hard to hit by a person with a gun.

A lot of people focus on an “armed population,” but future wars will be fought more and more with robots: autonomous or guided (which is what a drone is).  These robots will eventually be more effective than human soldiers and can already do things humans can’t.

And they are cheap.

This is being done by the Department of Transport, presumably for safety reasons, but those who worry about the tracking and confiscation of guns, if they were really smart, would worry about the tracking and confiscation of drones.

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  1. Dan Lynch

    If drones are outlawed, only outlaws will have drones.

    Seriously, I think the important thing is for citizens to be familiar with the technology (another argument for universal Swiss-style militia service).

    Drones are certainly an interesting weapon, but they have not allowed the U.S. to control the Middle East or Africa. No war has even been won with air power only.

  2. Ian Welsh

    Drones won’t just be air power. And they will be universal and far more numerous than you see now.

    The technologists who have thought about the possibilities of this tech are coming up with some very scary stuff.

  3. marku52

    Yes, Imagine a drone designed to keep a population in place, and to deny access to others (Keeping you safe from TERRORISTS!) . Just inject the desired population with RFID tags, and have the drones attack anyone not bearing that tag. Can also be used to ensure that less-desirable populations stay in their Bantustans.

    Ideally this would be done by clouds of small drones the size of a butterfly, with a one-use nerve toxin dart.

  4. TWAndrews

    As a measure of control, I don’t think that drone registration amounts to much. As you said, they’re cheap, and relatively easy to build.

    In the case of actual resistance against the government, it would be easy enough to create unregistered drones.

  5. JustPlainDave

    Man, I hope our opposition is stupid enough to use these systems. The lower level tiers of this tech (i.e., no LPI, no space-based comms) make you a complete shit magnet.

  6. Tom

    AQ just has to target electrical substations with the drone, whose picture you have in the article. No explosives needed, just put some foil and crash it into the substation. Buy up dozens and do it in mass strikes. Pay out in cash for them, file off the serials, and keep doing so.

    Pack a half pound of explosive (40mm grenade here), fly it to someone you hate and boom.

    That is what I came up with in 30 seconds of thinking.

  7. JustPlainDave

    The problem with these types of tactics is they don’t have a great ROI compared to simpler means. I’d far, far rather deal with an enemy who wants to deliver 40mm charges using Phantom drones rather than an M203. That opponent is spending about 100 times the resources per round, tying up ten times the manpower, creating a specialized logistical tail and producing a huge sigs splash with a signature that gives me lots of warning prior to attack – all for a substantially less effective delivery. Please, my all my enemies be so obliging.

    As a technical note, anti-grid payload would be spun carbon fibre filaments, not foil. Foil doesn’t work. It also requires about a metric ass ton of it to work.

  8. Tom


    An M203 grenade launcher is even more trackable than a phantom drone, you have to get in closer and have a line of sight and you’re heavily exposed.

    A Phantom, you can stage far out of sight. Deliver the payload and get out as innocent as you please. The only way to stop the attacks is to disable GPS.

  9. JustPlainDave

    Sorry, not so much. A 203 has a point target effectiveness of 175 metres and an area effectiveness of 400 metres. Both the acoustic and optical signatures are significantly smaller than most other small arms (akin to firing a suppressed rifle [suppressors don’t work as well in real life as the movies would have you believe]). It can be fired from quite restrictive cover / concealment and does not require direct LOS (a key usage of grenadiers is holding dead ground at threat). All in a little package that has a sustained fire rate of about 8 rounds a minute in skilled hands. It draws on an entirely standard logistics and supply train and the user is able to easily maneuver and bring fires on different targets as the scenario evolves. Even minimal preparation of firing point and exfiltration routes significantly enhance chances of clean disengagement.

    The only advantage of a Phantom as near as I can see is range. Everything else it sucks ass at. It moves at the pace of a leisurely jog and has high acoustic and optical signatures while it flies towards the target area. It has to be launched from an open area that can see the sky and doesn’t have obstructions that would interfere with flight path. It can’t reliably fly low enough to terrain mask on GPS guidance and if one controls it directly to do that it one needs LOS with the drone over a range of about a klick (much less in most real world scenarios) and pushes out a huge sigs splash that off the shelf systems automatically recognize and can exploit (across the whole spectrum from detect through spoof). Once one detects the thing, small arms are able to knock it out of the sky at a distance. All of this draws on a specialized and non-systematized logistics and development tail that requires orders of magnitude more resource investment. Basically you have a very expensive weapon with zero flexibility – it can only execute very canned attacks (flying the drones towards fixed co-ordinates with GPS guidance) unless one is willing to embrace some huge disadvantages. Add that to pretty modest target effects and it ranks way, way behind conventional attack.

    The point about technically leveraged weapons of the weak is that contrary to what sideline spectators imagine, they don’t look like high tech systems dumbed down. They are simple, low-tech very traditional systems with little high tech jewels embedded to significantly enhance their effectiveness. Think EFPs – the high tech parts added in are the liners (precision fabrication) and the detection electronics (instrumentation and image processing). Everything else is low tech and very conventional. This whole drones as chosen weapons of the weak is just straight line forecasting based on superficial impression and no experience. We’ll see them as niche things, but they aren’t going to scale except with state players and even there the capabilities will be a big step down.

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