jayh August 16, 2005 8:59 AM

“The current UAV accident rate (the rate at which the aircraft are lost or damaged) is 100 times that of manned aircraft<<

Time to step back and consider.

The whole reason that aircraft (including light private planes) are so scrupulously supervised by the FAA (far more rigidly than private motor vehicles, even the dashboard clock must be certified) is the potential risk of an ill maintained plane in the air. Now they’re looking to intentionally introduce a craft with 100 times the risk factor???

jayh August 16, 2005 9:06 AM

Does this really differ from spy satellites? <<

Actually yes.

Satellites are (despite the much ballyhooed claims of resolution) fundamentally limited by the same laws of physics that have restrained astronomers, no matter how perfect the optics, diffraction is proportional to aperture.

Additionally, satellites are often hampered by atmosphere and their regular orbit schedule. Whle good for evaluating military activities, they are useless against individuals are small mobile targets.

Aircraft can fly much closer (below clouds often), stay in an area and follow even harass an item of interest.

DL August 16, 2005 9:14 AM

Finally, an alternative to speed enforcement cameras mounted in plain view by the side of the road. Sure, these drones are expensive, but think of how many speeding tickets you could hand out all day, every day. These things will pay for themselves in no time. And with optional mounted weapons systems, traditional Los Angeles high speed chases are about to get way more interesting.

Dennis August 16, 2005 10:14 AM

I’m torn on this one. One the one hand, I really, really dislike domestic surveillance and domestic military deployment. On the other hand, securing the borders…isn’t that, like, the most basic thing a military is supposed to do? You know, protect the country from invaders, all that? As long as it stays at the border, I’m not so sure this is a bad idea. How did global empire become the only legitimate use of the military, instead of directly defending the country?

Andrew August 16, 2005 11:08 AM

“Putting out Crypto-Gram was a lot of work this time” – like working out which side the government was on in Councilman:

“We must decide whether interception of an e-mail message in temporary, transient electronic storage states an offense under the Wiretap Act, as amended by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2522. The government believes it does, and indicted Councilman under that theory.”

another_bruce August 16, 2005 11:47 AM

the privacy implications of drone aircraft do not concern me (as opposed to cost-effectiveness matters). borders are one of the things that define a country, and our borders need a little more enhancement. technology will continue to advance whether you stay cool or jump up and down like chicken little.

Clive Robinson August 16, 2005 11:56 AM

Just a thought,

After all the bally-ho about Iraq and WMD the only two things that could be brought against Iraq where,

1, A field rocket, could when it did not have a warhead, and with specialy selected motors and fuel, excead the limits placed by the UN… (100Km if I remember correctly).

2, They where developing unmand reconasance aircraft UAV’s to patrol the Iraq/Iran and other boarders.

Although in no way demonstrated it was considered that both systems might possibly carry a small munition of a chemical or biological nature.

So if the US goes to war over Iraq just developing (not deploying) UAV’s then they must in consiquence accept that other people (Mexico / Canada) might regard this as being an act of overt warfare…

greg August 16, 2005 5:23 PM

Those UAV’s are very pricey. Wouldn’t it be cheaper (and safter) to just run regular aircraft? I know plane are expensive. But 5Million buys you a lot of aircraft. And we have lots of non millitary personal that can look after them with regular ground support.


Thoughtful August 16, 2005 7:15 PM

UAVs on the border don’t raise much in the way of personal privacy issues — they don’t see that well. Return bandwidth limits the realtime imagery to standard NTSC video. Yeah, you can see people, you can even see what people are doing in terms of general posture, maybe even limb position. But recognizing an individual is nearly impossible. These things do provide a means of detecting human activity across a patrolled corridor fairly efficiently. I agree more with the poster concerned over the accident rate.

Thomas Sprinkmeier August 16, 2005 9:00 PM

“the privacy implications of drone aircraft do not concern me […]. borders are one of the things that define a country …”

How long before these are deployed elsewhere?

Think of it as an instant CCTV network that can be deployed at fairs, concerts, rallies etc.

I know technology advances, but just because we CAN doesn’t mean we SHOULD (we could all have RFID chips in our skulls by now, the technology is available, but we don’t).

David August 16, 2005 11:18 PM

If the drone is successful patrolling the border, it will only be used in more and more places.

Also, it escalates the overall war. While we can’t just give up, if we start using such drones for security, then other countries will do so. Just like we have a huge nuke capability and now hate it when other countries have them, what will we think when other countries that we don’t like also have such weapons in the air? The Predator already shows they can be armed and dangerous. What happens when a terrorist steals/buys one and uses against us?

Does anybody ever think that such surveillance will eventually go away? It clearly will only get more intrusive.

And while borders may define a country, what does that all mean when we have CAFTA, NAFTA and all the other world trade scenarios in which the entire idea was to open up the world to free markets, but now it seems everyone is concerned about how the other guy will attack us instead and we need to monitor it all.

It is funny how capital in big companies can travel easily across these borders, but a poor sap trying to earn a living can’t cross any of them, from Mexicans coming here, to Americans working in India or China. People are not free to flow, but your money certainly is.

Chris August 17, 2005 12:16 AM

@Thomas Sprinkmeier
“How long before these are deployed elsewhere? Think of it as an instant CCTV network that can be deployed at fairs, concerts, rallies etc.”

Police helicopters have pretty much the same instrumentation package as these UAVs and they can (and have) been deployed at “fairs, concerts, rallies etc.” Aerial surveilance has been a law enforcement tool for a couple of decades now. Saying that UAVs are bad because they can do these things seems like closing the barn door long after the horse has left.

csrster August 17, 2005 1:38 AM

jayh: I think you forgot the word “inversely” 🙂
The bigger the aperture, the less the diffraction.

DarkFire August 17, 2005 4:17 AM

On the subject of UAVs patrolling national borders, again we have a security trade-off. The original article is correct in stating that the unmanned vehicles have certain disadvantages and that they do have an inferior safety record to manned aircraft. I would however question the statement that it’s 100 times worse.

It’s also true to state that having more trained operatives is more desirable as this is at first glance more effective at catching illegal immigrants, smugglers, terrorists or whoever chooses to try to cross the border illegally. However, the problem of force mobility arises. Even if they are mobile, a border such as the Mexico/US is just too big to effectively patrol with people. It could be suggested that the border force be helicopter-mobile but this also suffers from the low endurance figures for most helicopters.

The benefits of the UAVs in this situation are that they are perfect for covering large areas for extended durations. Not perfect, but I would say that if one compares the area searched per unit time for a UAV is far greater that the equivalent for a helicopter-mobile patrol team. Therefore, in the case of catching people and vehicles attempting to cross the border illegally, the UAVs are a sound choice.

As Chris commented above, this sort of surveillance is and has been in operation for a number of years on Police helicopters. In fact, due to the bandwidth limitations also mentioned above, the camera feed from most Police helicopters is significantly better that the feed from a UAV. I can’t see anyone arguing that having Police helicopters makes people less safe at various events, so why the hysteria surrounding the use of UAVs? True, the deployment of the military domestically is a cause for concern (here in the UK this is more or less legally impossible – product of the 17th century Civil War), so give them over to FBI control. Thus you have a nice tool plus the legal structure to ensure it’s proper use.

…it turns out the fellow killed by the police in London
a) wasn’t wearing a heavy jacket
b) didn’t jump the turnstile
c) somehow wasn’t photo’d by any of the myriad cameras available,6903,1548808,00.html

I know this is OT, but a few comments:

1) True, he wasn’t wearing a heavy jacket. However, there is documented intelligence from Israel and Sri Lanka that wearable bombs do exist that are specifically designed not to go around the torso, to avoid this easy ID.

2) The paper in which this latest report FIRST appeared (not the link above) is in fact an organ of the company that controls the tube system. Following the bombings their revenue has decreased measurably. Therefore it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to deduce that the paper could have had an ulterior motive in releasing or, to be blunt, making up this story.

3) This I do not believe at all. I’ve personally visited Stockwell tube station and have seen 1st hand that there are CCTV cameras everywhere. In my judgement stating that the man did not appear on any cameras is a physical impossibility.

I must stress that I’m not defending the actions of the officer who shot the poor man, but let’s wait to see the result of the inquiry carried out by the Coroners Court before lending too much credence to sensationalist journalism.

Grainne August 17, 2005 4:54 AM

Wouldn’t just be cheaper to install a series of stationary cameras around the border? They would have a better picture and are less obvious!
Sounds like they want to develop them more for ‘robo-wars’ and less for surveillance!

DarkFire August 17, 2005 9:12 AM

The problem with static cameras is just that – they are static. This results in 2 problems:

1) Their field of view is short as they have to be at or near ground level. This necessitates a huge number of cameras, which is then potentially a huge drain on resources & repair teams.

2) The smugglers & terrorists will not be shy about destroying them. True, this would instantly tell an operator that someone is there, but you then loose the ability to see where they go, ID them etc.

UAVs have the benefit of being stealthy, quiet (as they fly at a reasonable altitude) and can cover a huge area.

Clive Robinson August 17, 2005 9:56 AM

@Dark Fire

With regard to your OT post,

First off more than half the cammeras on the London underground do not work at any one time (due to water ingress in cables, vandalisum etc). Likewise a lot are actually not recorded any way (tapes to expensive to replace / not checked / not changed in recorders etc).
Few of the operators actually look at the CCTV screans except when other people are present. There was a report about this that made it’s way out into the public domain, unfortunatly few newspapers picked up on it at the time. It was suspected that it was leaked by a member of a Union who at the time where complaining vociverously at the time about the number of attacks on platform staff / cleaners. Transport For London (TfL) made noises, but as usual the organisations who day to day run the London Underground decided it would all go away, and guess what it has.

On advantage of the DHS buying UAV’s is that the price will drop which will make them more atractive to other organisations, and the price will keep dropping, untill they are at or below the price of a new helicopter…

With regard to the accident rate, the little information I have seen in Military type journals indicate, that there are four main areas where there are problems,

1, Take off / Landing (high risk)
2, Air Colision (low Risk)
3, Maintanence issues (low-medium risk)
4, Anti aircraft measures (high risk)

The last is not expected so much on a boarder (unless it’s an active battle field). Also the second is not likley to be an issue either in general you cannot fly along a countries land boarders it’s reserved air space. As for maintanence, as more UAV’s are manufactured, this will become less of an issue, as the part reliability will increase (think of 1950/60’s jet fighter aircraft reliability/crashes and compare to todays jet fighters).

The first issue is due to lack of training procedures on the UAV operators, the type of UAV’s (batle field designs) and environmental factors, also in early military systems and drones they where like ordinary RC models only larger, sort of designed to crash land..

Even for current small systems costing just a few thousand dolars (used for map making etc) it is getting to be a past issue.

One of the (minor) reasons NASA (amongst others) have been looking into solar powered high altitude aircraft is it kind of removes the first two issues at a stroke, as they can stay up almost indefinatly. There is for instance no reason why a radio isotope power generator (as used in deep space probes) cannot be used in an aircraft that is basically a glider, if this is also augmented by solar pannels on the wing surfaces. Like unmaned nuclear subs (yes there where prototypes made) they could be deployed almost indefinatly.

This would obviously not work for military UAV’s they are designed to be fast and manoverable to avoid being shot down, they often use small high performance engines (jet or infernal combustion) which are by their very nature cutting edge, therfore prone to failiure. Non military UAV’s of the high altitude type are going to be extreamly cheap to make, use off the shelf high reliability / redundant components. The only expensive bit is going to be the avionics / auto pilot system, and the price of that is going to drop like a brick in free fall as the market opens up (it is realy only a PC GPS and RC actuators with moderatly clever software).

Likewise for boarder type activities, you are not going to require the complex on board data procesing and signal processing systems or the covert satcoms systems. These are needed in military systems to reduce their probability of detection.

Another aspect of high altitude UAVs that are designed to remain aloft for long periods of time is the savings in manpower. If they are essentialy flown by computer, there is no human pilot required, and you could have a shift system for the “observer” operators.

Unfortunatly (for privacy) UAV’s are definatly going to be a fixture in the future, and a very lucrative market for start up companies that do not have high R&D budgets.

DarkFire August 17, 2005 11:08 AM

@ Clive:

Likewise a lot are actually not recorded any way (tapes to expensive to replace / not checked / not changed in recorders etc).

Hmm this is a valid point. I’ve had problems in this respect – operators of CCTV systems not being bothered to change tapes, worn out tapes etc. etc. It seems that many users of CCTV seem to rely on the system being a visble deterrant, rathwer than a useful prosecuting tool.

Having said that, one would like to think that attitudews had changed in teh aftermath of the tube attacks. Or am I just engaging in wishfull thinking again….

JD August 17, 2005 11:12 AM

UAVs could be cost-effective for monitoring remote stretches of border, provided (a) they have effective wide-area detection capabilities such as IR scanners that don’t depend on some bored guy staring at a TV screen, and (b) there are response teams on hand to fly out and nab violators. (I think the last is probably the biggest issue.)

What UAVs most certainly are not is a privacy threat to the citizenry. If you worry about police snooping in your bedroom, they have lots of better ways.

Clive Robinson August 17, 2005 11:30 AM


Like you I would like to think so, and for the moment it probably will be.

The real question is “for how long” before cost / poor training / poor managment etc bring us back to the same situation 🙁

Bryan August 17, 2005 7:08 PM


So what if UAV’s are 100 times more accident prone – if the accidents are 1000% less damaging?

To be sure, I don’t want to see such technology & money deployed gratuitously. There needs to be a good reason for it and adequate safeguards around it. But that doesn’t mean the tech itself is suspect.

Ari Heikkinen August 17, 2005 9:38 PM

How about hacking into those unmanned drones and then using them as remote controlled “missiles”..

DarkFire August 18, 2005 3:56 AM

@ Ari:

This is allways a possibility, but I would think that the technology and skill set necessary to effectively do this is outside the scope and capability of most smuggling groups. Hopefully…

Clive Robinson August 18, 2005 6:04 AM


Just one point, if the DEA and others are right about the finacial resources of the various drugs cartels, and as is frequently pointed out ex-communist block* etc “rouge programers” are turning to crime, one can also assume they are for hire (this appears to be true with the latest crop of spy/malware writen for profit not glory).

From the programers perspective they have a client who is not only keen to get hold of their abilities, the client also have the financial resources to make the programer happy, and more importantly, the client probably has more to lose by turning the programer in than they would gain, therefore the risk is quite low for reasonable reward…

  • before anybody gets on my case, I personaly do not belive that rouge programmers come from any one part of the world, it’s how the press currently report it. Like most high tec criminals it’s a state of mind not location therefore I expect them every where (including under the bed 😉

another_bruce August 18, 2005 8:45 AM

@thomas sprinkmeyer
what you describe is inevitable, missions will continue to creep whether i stay cool or jump up and down like chicken little. the question is, how dangerous is this to my privacy and should i be concerned about it? will the possibility of a federal eye in the sky watching me cast the slightest shadow on my blitheness and gaiety? no. not whether i’m fishing, gardening or cavorting in my hot tub, it would only be a cost-effectiveness issue if i had my own personal dedicated drone two miles up spying on me. privacy is merely the natural desire to obscure some intimate personal matters from public view, it is not the same thing as hiding criminal activity. a movie of my morning wouldn’t sell very many tickets. bitching in the commentspace here isn’t going to slow the government a bit, and with all the existing tech from police helicopters to spy satellites, i must sadly inform you that our aerial privacy virginity was lost long ago, all that remains is to deploy this tech against our adversaries. like i tell people “my worry budget is fully subscribed right now. absolutely no additional worries will be entertained until the beginning of the next worry planning period. i’ll let you know when that is so you don’t have to keep calling me about it.”

Brett August 18, 2005 9:56 AM


Exactly, we can not rely on the assumption that a technology can’t be broken by the people effected by it. Given enough determination they will break it.

Ed T. August 18, 2005 11:00 AM


Certainly not impossible, but I suspect that these things aren’t running an unpatched version of Windows 2000 — and you would have to have a fairly powerful radio transmitter to sieze control from the ground site operator.

Given the resources of AQ and most of the drug cartels, it would be far easier to buy (or steal) a bizjet, load it up with HE, put some fanatic on board with rudimentary pilot training, and send it out on a kamikaze mission.

Ed T. August 18, 2005 12:13 PM


The cost of one of those unmanned aircraft is small change compared to the cost of a manned one — and most of the cost of the latter is related to what is needed to keep the person(s) inside alive during the flight. In addition, you have the extra cost of fuel (carrying all that extra weight reduces gas mileage) and the cost of paying/training the crew.

Peter August 19, 2005 3:52 AM


True, the deployment of the military domestically is a cause for concern (here in the UK this is more or less legally impossible – product of the 17th century Civil War),

You’d think so – but here in Northern Ireland we’ve had the military deployed domestically for quite some time. It isn’t as much now as when I was a child — there were guys with rifles on street corners only 10 years ago (though, their presence made me feel much safer because the threat they protected us from was only too real).

Clive Robinson August 22, 2005 6:21 AM

@Ed T.

“you would have to have a fairly powerful radio transmitter to sieze control from the ground site operator”

Actually, you don’t need a great deal of transmitter power to overcome the drones very easily especially as you have no intention of controling them.

The reason for this is that due to the cost sensitive nature of the drones (and some technical issues) they will be using terestrial radio systems.

The sat systems proposed for military drones are very very expensive and with their inherant problems, are partly to blame for pilot control issues which cause drone crashes etc (think time delays of 2 or more seconds etc when trying to drive your car at >30MPH at night).

What you need as a smugler is a little observation, patience, and two fairly low power transmitters a couple of high gain antennas and a little forward planning,

1, Due to the inevitable financial cutbacks etc,

The drones that initially augmented the random ground patrols will replace them as it’s a lot lot cheaper the excuse will be “targeted patrols” / “Rapid reaction” based on intel from the drones (see stuff on CCTV in town centers).

Likewise the drone operators will all go to work in a nice office building not in moving / covert trucks etc otherwise they would want danger money or some other finacial inducement for the “front line” risk they are taking.

Also as the manufactures will want to advertise their success their broachers will have photos / write ups of the customers they have supplied (normal practice for security companies allready, again see CCTV stuff).

Then there are the operators and technicians of both the manufacture and the customer, they are very likley to be low paid civilians with similar skill sets (again see CCTV stuff). The chances are that the will talk to their buddies over a beer or three and the information will get around, along with other “war stories”.

All of the above will mean that the technical details the smuglers will need will filter into the public domain fairly quickly.

So nothing about the systems is going to remain secret or covert for very long…

All this is going to be easily obervable to teanagers (think Blue/WifI Jacking) who for the fun of it will hack the drones (they are a target just to good not to). Hey the FBI might just demonstrate it at a trade conferance or two as well…

So the tools to do it and the information required will quite safely be obtainable by the smuglers who then,

2, Identify the main control site and it’s RX antennas put a low power TX with high gain antenna pointing at it, this blinds the operators seeing what is going on. For those about to sugest normal space diversity, think again you need to do base band diversity, which has a whole heap of problems of it’s own, the solutions of which are not to difficult to design in from the start but can be very difficult to put in post production… Also it costs money not just at the design production stage but at the instalation stage as well (and customers will not pay this without good reason, remember like CCTV it’s a visable deterant not an intel gathering system).

Sadly sensible baseband diversity will probably not make it into the drone requirments analysis anyway let alone the final product specification 🙁

Even if it is designed in as a smugler you only need another TX as there is not likley to be more than two sites any way…

3, However what will make it into the requirments analysis is LOS (loss of signal) procedures.

Radio Control modlers are familier with this, you lose the signal the plane goes into a very gental dive on a circular heading, and slowly spirals to ground. It is very likley exactly the same system will be used for low cost drones, although it will probably be more like an auto pilot back to a safe “crash” site.

Public safety would require this after all you do not want a drone doing a 9-11 into an office block or school playground in a nearby town do you?

This is actually in the smuglers interests, as they will know what will happen when the drone gets LOS and will plan acordingly.

4, So based your plans on 3 you use a second low power transmitter and again a high gain antenna pointed at the drone in question by a smugerlers “operative”.

This TX transmits, random data of a similar data / frame pattern up to the drone, it overwhelms the RX front end, but more importantly the random data gets out of the RX into the data proc, where it then mucks up the software etc. Designers tend to forget that jamming margins apply at each stage down the line not just the RX front end, as this is how it’s generally portraied in text books they read when doing their degrees (if they did one).

The UK army knew this in the 1980’s when the IRA where using Radio Control equipment to remotly detonate bombs, If you send out a signal that looks just like the RC signal but does not change, either the bomb goes off when you start coming into range which is usually at a safe distance, or the bomb does not go off. Either way, your troops/assets are protected. The IRA evolved however and used a couple of small telescopes and a flash gun which was actually cheeper for them and did not have the same problems (RC equipment was effectivly a controled substance in N.I. at the time).

So in conclusion if you as a smugler do it in the right order, the drone operators first get blinded (make it intermitant in the right way over a long period of time and it will look normal to them and they will live with it). Then they lose control and the drone becomes usless.

The effected drone will be recovered, nothing will be found wrong with it so the, customer calls in the manufacture to identify the problem. Considerable periods of time will then be wasted while the manufactures technical bods look into the problem and come to no firm conclusion (other than it’s not their problem).

Mean while the smugglers now get a couple of tonnes of grade A white stuff or whatever across the boarder whenever they feel like it, all with less problems than before.

As always High tec solutions have significant problems when done on a budget, and belive me this will be done on a very small budget (see the miriad of postings about the failings of CCTV in other postings).

DarkFire August 23, 2005 12:01 PM

Wouldn’t a spread-spectrum controll system for the drones make interferance / detection of the control signal a significantly smaller risk?

Bruce Schneier August 23, 2005 12:11 PM

@ DarkFire

Yes. Spread spectrum is a good technology for this sort of threat. It needs to be used correctly, however. The U.S. military has mixed results with it, but they’re getting better. I would hope that the drones are controlled via a spread-spectrum channel.

Anonymous January 8, 2006 8:49 AM

are there any third world countries using unmanned aircraft in military service.
What is the average cost of one of these vehicles.

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