Remote-Controlled Toys and the TSA

Remote controlled toys are getting more scrutiny:

Airport screeners are giving additional scrutiny to remote-controlled toys because terrorists could use them to trigger explosive devices, the Transportation Security Administration said Monday.

The TSA suggests travelers place remote-controlled toys in checked luggage.

The TSA stopped short of banning the toys in carry-on bags but suggested travelers place them in checked luggage.

Okay, let’s think this through. The one place where you don’t need a modified remote-controlled toy is in the passenger cabin, because you have your hands available to push any required buttons. But a remote-controlled toy in checked luggage, now that’s a clever idea. I put my modified remote-controlled toy bomb in my checked suitcase, and use the controller to detonate it once I’m in the air.

So maybe we want the remote-controlled toy in carry-on luggage, where there’s a greater chance of detecting it (at the security checkpoint). And maybe we want to require the remote controller to be in checked luggage.

Or maybe….

In any case, it’s a great movie plot.

EDITED TO ADD (10/4): Here are two news stories and the DHS press release.

Posted on October 4, 2007 at 10:20 AM42 Comments


greg October 4, 2007 10:33 AM

I would think that small/large RC devices are probably not a good idea on a plane anyway. With the aircraft electronic interference issues and all that.

I realize that the interference issue is perhaps not as serious as they claim. But not using electronic devices for take of landing or a cell phone for the flight is not a hit to my freedom or liberty.

Nicholas Weaver October 4, 2007 10:47 AM

Gee, lets go put a 1 lb, high powered, LiIon battery pack in the cargo hold, connected to a remote-operations device…

a nony mouse October 4, 2007 11:02 AM

You mean you don’t think it violates your freedom when you don’t have to hear all the intimate details of the surgeries and indiscretions of the person sitting behind you as they talk on the phone?

Evan October 4, 2007 11:15 AM

So why don’t they confiscate everyone’s cell phone as they board? They make great “remote” detonators. Or how about laptops? Use their bluetooth or wifi signal. This is dumb, at best.

notaname October 4, 2007 11:30 AM

Most people have a remote control device for their car on their keyring. Will this new security theater require us to check our key-fobs now?

Greg October 4, 2007 11:32 AM

Oh yes. Dam I can’t play with with my RC car on the plane, oh the humanity!!

Liquids restrictions are far far Dumber.

And FYI you are not suppose to have wifi etc running on your computer at anytime during the flight IIRC.

Its clearly not a big risk or you would not be alwoed to carry laptops on the plane. But what can you do with a RC toy if the RC unit must be off. A laptop has use without Wifi and bluetooth.

@a nony mouse
Dam right! In fact listening to everyone else ipod music is rather freedom stripping too!

Rube Goldberg October 4, 2007 11:42 AM

Mechanical dog (a) lures away bomb-and-drug-sniffing dog (b), which allows pet rock collection (c) to continue covering up kilos of marijuana (d). Meanwhile, Roomba floor washing robot (e) wets floor, repelling bomb-and-drug sniffing cat (f) into area where remote control plane (g) drops pound of catnip (h).

derf October 4, 2007 11:44 AM

Iraqi hackers are sucessfully modding garage door openers to extend their range and set off roadside IEDs in Iraq. What about garage door openers?

I haven’t heard of remote controlled toys being used successfully in any attack, have you? I’m sure some genius at TSA got promoted over this.

George October 4, 2007 12:11 PM

Perhaps those passengers who insist on putting their remote controlled toys in carry-on bags might be doing that because they actually want their property to arrive at their destination when they do. Between the TSA’s inspection and airline cutbacks, there is no guarantee that either checked bags or their contents will arrive at the destination with their owner. Not everyone can afford to FedEx their belongings every time they fly.

Reducing the contents of carry-on bags to the barest minimum is actually a good idea for many reasons. It reduces the hassles for passengers as they play their roles in the Security Theater, and also simplifies boarding and deplaning. But until the airlines can provide reliable delivery of checked bags, anyone who actually needs their property will have little choice but to be a “bin hog.” As with all aspects of air travel, the passenger just can’t win.

Erik N October 4, 2007 12:27 PM

What we want is for security personel to ask passengers to demonstrate the toy is a toy and not a bomb by pushing all the buttons in front of them…

Urox October 4, 2007 12:27 PM

I don’t want TSA or other baggage handlers anywhere near any gifts. There are too many cases of theft.

And of course, then there’s the incident where I brought toys in my carry on, and the TSA OPENED the FACTORY SEALED PACKAGE in front of me because they didn’t understand something the equivalent of magnetic tinker-toys.

Dom De Vitto October 4, 2007 12:34 PM

What is it with the TSA and remotes?

Can anyone recall a remote bomb on a plane?

But remember all those hand-operated (shoe-bomber) and time-bombs (Lockerbie)?

I don’t see why this would help anyway – in Boston you’d be shot as soon as the Police saw you holding something ‘lectric in public.


George October 4, 2007 12:38 PM

@notaname: Most people have a remote control device for their car on their keyring. Will this new security theater require us to check our key-fobs now?

@Evan: So why don’t they confiscate everyone’s cell phone as they board? They make great “remote” detonators. Or how about laptops? Use their bluetooth or wifi signal. This is dumb, at best.

You’re both guilty of over-thinking, one of the most severe violations of TSA regulations. You have now been added to the “secondary screening” list (which now numbers over 500,000– Kip Hawley will tell you that the larger the watch lists the more effective protection the TSA can provide).

My customized Storm worm hacked into Bruce’s computer and got hold of some of the outtakes from Bruce’s interview with Kip Hawley. Kip apparently had the sections classified after he realized he had inadvertently given away too much information about certain aspects of the TSA’s Security Strategy. Specifically, he discussed the TSA’s approach for reacting to generalized threats (e.g., remote-controlled bombs) through specific restrictions that appear to the uninformed outsider (e.g., terrorists, including over-thinkers) as inexplicably arbitrary. So while laptops, cellphones, and key fobs are at least as useful for remote-control detonation, the TSA’s classified policy to combat the remote-control threat intentionally focuses on toys for now. At a classified time in the future, the classified strategy will call for special scrutiny of infrared controllers for devices like cameras. After another classified but apparently random interval, the TSA will announce a ban on ultrasonic dog whistles.

This strategy was developed by an obscure psychological operations branch of Halliburton under a classified no-bid contract, based on the latest Russian research. This approach keeps terrorists off balance by projecting a carefully-crafted false impression that the TSA is stupid and incompetent. That will embolden terrorists to carry their plots forward. Then, when the plotters reach the airport, the TSA’s Behavioral Analysts (who have been carefully trained by Halliburton under another classified no-bid contract) will apprehend them at the checkpoint and ship them off to an undisclosed location where Blackwater consultants (operating under a classified no-bid contract) will use their proprietary classified Enhanced Interrogation Methods to obtain full details of the entire Al-Qaeda operation.

The Take-Away here is that when over-thinkers point out how arbitrary, stupid, and incompetent the TSA is, they’re just part of the Security Strategy of lulling terrorists into false complacency. For underneath the TSA’s clown suit is a set of private contractors operating under classified no-bid contracts who provide highly-effective protection against the terrorist threat.

Josh O October 4, 2007 12:51 PM

Bruce, I was waiting for you to talk about this story, because I wanted to relay what I heard on CNN when it first came out. They actually spoke to an official at TSA, and they said something to the effect that we can’t just ban things that terrorists might use to commit a crime, because they will just change their tactics. He went into slightly more detail than that, and basically just said they were going to investigate RC toys a little more than before, and were mentioning it only because you could avoid further delay by not having those things. All in all though, his comments sounded similar to what I’ve heard here many times before. Maybe TSA is reading this blog after that interview you did. Somebody there finally gets it. It was a few days ago on CNN in the morning (like between 6:30am & 7:30am.

Anonymous October 4, 2007 12:52 PM

@greg, the risk from electrical interference may be small, but the consequences could be pretty bad.

what risk of crashing an airliner is acceptable?

turning off cell phones and other electronics during takeoffs and landings is a cheap precaution.

but the risk must be small, based on the number of people I see ignoring the prohibition on using electronic devices during those flight phases.

hmm, I smell a business opportunity. Get the FAA to fine violators, use part of the fine revenues to fund airline purchases of EMI monitors, the rest for FAA funding. Waddya think?

Whatever October 4, 2007 1:03 PM

Cell Phone – OK
WiFi laptop – OK
Car remote entry device – OK
R/C Toy – Extra search for you.

bob!! October 4, 2007 1:03 PM

Someone mentioned key fob remotes – the problem is worse than that. Some car manufacturers include the remote as part of the key.

Just what you need when they lose your luggage on the return trip – you lose your car key too.

Mhmd October 4, 2007 1:36 PM

If a terrorist organization can get a bomb – even in a cargo hold, they probably wouldn’t need to put someone on the plane to press the button. They can use an altimiter trigger, cell phone, probably even GPS.

Someone once told me that the most intelligent people in TSA are the screeners. I think that’s true.

Incidentally, there was a story out of Houston last week, I don’t know if it made the news, but a Delta employee flying out for vacation with his family (must have thought the line at the checkpoint was too long) decided to bypass the checkpoint, so, using his airport badge, he and his family went around to the ramp and past some TSA screeners who were setting up a random employee inspection station (part of ADASP) but TSA didn’t stop or question him or his family.

Some time later an Airport (not TSA) Security employee was walking by and the TSA screener stopped and asked him if an Airport employee was permitted to escort his family onto the ramp to board a flight.

By the time they figured out who the employee was the flight had already left.

Urox October 4, 2007 1:36 PM

I’m right there with you. Even carry-on is not safe. I’ve had TSA open up an unwrapped, yet manufacturer-sealed gift I had in my carry-on. They demanded that it was opened because the toy had magnets, clearly labeled on the box.

Hellfire October 4, 2007 2:09 PM

Seems that a cellphone is a far superior radio-controlled detenator. RC cars have a range of what… 30 feet? If the point is to blow something up with you not near it, this really doesn’t work well. Cellphone and WiFi coverage at airports is usually pretty good. With either, I can blow something up from anywhere in the world.

comreich October 4, 2007 2:24 PM

@anonymous: “turning off cell phones and other electronics during takeoffs and landings is a cheap precaution.

but the risk must be small, based on the number of people I see ignoring the prohibition on using electronic devices during those flight phases.”

It’s a cheap precaution but totally unnecessary. During takeoff and landing a plane is traversing through a hostile RF environment already. How many airports have cell sites on them, not to mention the 50kW radio stations on the flight path, television antennas and what not? Most of the planes destined for Calgary fly directly through the beams of several large satellite transmitters. We don’t have planes dropping out the sky in these instances, irrespective of whether passenger electronic devices are powered up or not.

I no longer power down my cell phone on flights, although I may put it in flight mode. And this concession is largely necessitated by the fact that battery life is curtailed by listening to music or reading ebooks. But RF interference from the phone causing aircraft malfunctions? That just doesn’t hold up to visible evidence.

Paul Crowley October 4, 2007 4:09 PM

comreich: interesting assertion, but I’d want to see the numbers to be convinced. The sources you name are putting out a lot more power than a cellphone, but obviously they’re also much further away. Also, there will be a lot of cellphones in the plane; you have to assume they’re all switched on, and all putting out as much power as they can because they’re not getting any replies. And they’re making a sustained assault.

I’m not saying it’s for real, I’d just like to understand the arguments on both sides better – thanks!

John Ridley October 4, 2007 4:54 PM

The toys can be anywhere, as long as the remote control is in the baggage hold.

Care to bet how long it would take me to put the remote control into the car, and how detectable that would be? I could easily put two controllers in the checked luggage and have one car in the carry-on, but the one in the carry-on actually has the remote transmitter in it. I bet about 4 hours if a careful job is done so it’s not really detectable.

Bet I can put the electronics in what looks like an iPod, and cram a small MP3 player in there too so it even works if they check. Don’t even get me started about how much room there is in a laptop battery, if you take most of the batteries out and put in much smaller ones that are big enough to run the computer for a 5 minute check.

Snark October 4, 2007 7:01 PM

‘George’ hits the dilemma right between the eyes: “Between the TSA’s inspection and airline cutbacks, there is no guarantee that either checked bags or their contents will arrive at the destination with their owner.”

Remote-controlled toys are expensive and there’s no way I’d put one into a checked bag — any more than I’d put a camera or a diamond pin in my suitcase!

Zytheran October 4, 2007 11:34 PM

Isn’t it easier just to fly the radio controlled plane with a foil streamer over a major airport , shut it down and cause a huge panic costing millions of dollars? Why bother with a real bomb?

chuck October 5, 2007 5:49 AM

I’d go for a variant of a dead-man switch: when passively receiving bomb looses the transmitter for an extended period of time, it goes boom.

clvrmnky October 5, 2007 8:01 AM

We can look at this problem from a little further out, like we do with the idea of weapons of any sort in the cabin.

We can ban anything that can be used as a weapon, and we all fly naked, helpless and restrained in our seats. Or, we can place restrictions around how much damage that can be done by having strong bulkhead doors leading to the cockpit that can be properly locked. This mitigates /most/ of the disastrous uses bad guys have for an airplane if they manage to get any sort of weapon into the cabin.

Similarly, some airlines have installed lightly armoured luggage units in airplanes such that a typical bomb does not instantly turn the fuselage into shrapnel. The idea is to mitigate the actual danger, so that reasonable controls on what goes in the luggage compartment is backed up by a last-chance system. Really, it’s a relatively light metal box that spreads the force of the explosion along the entire surface, usually saving the airplane from immediate decompression and fiery disaster.

Of course, once the bad guys realize that a suitcase bomb is not enough to /immediately/ turn an airplane into several pieces, they have less incentive for coming up with clever ways of getting such suitcases onto the airplane. Or they build much bigger bombs.

The main downside (I’m told) is that such compartments add weight, which has all sorts of implications for fuel costs, total amount of fuel necessary to be carried and other attendant issues.

That is, it’s cheaper and easier (in terms of risk management) for most airlines to risk the occasional Air India disaster than to actually try to mitigate the effect of a bomb in the luggage.

badf00d October 5, 2007 10:28 AM

With the ability of people to choose their own seat online for most flights, it seems so easy to pick a seat that would put them right over the cargo hold and then use use wifi or bluetooth from a laptop as their remote. Who needs an RC toy….

Given the fact that I travel internationally almost constantly with large amounts of electronic equipment, hard drives, etc. It seems it would not be too difficult pull off or even test which seat has the best wifi visibility to the cargo hold.

More TSA silliness…

Truepath October 5, 2007 11:23 AM

First of all turning off a cell phone in flight is a good idea for two reasons.

1) It drains crazy batteries to leave it on. Whenever I have forgotten to turn my cell phone transmitter off it is pretty much dead by the end of the flight.

2) My understanding is it causes undesirable interference on the ground.

As far as the “just be safe” approach to transmitters this doesn’t fly at all. At some point we need to do a cost/benefit analysis otherwise we would have to ban drinks on plane flights as well for the worry they would spill and seep down into the electrical connections. Now what kind of risk do radio transmitters pose?

Well given that some airlines have offered in flight wifi (internationally I believe) I’m inclined to believe not much. Moreover, let’s just assume your average cell phone increased your risk of death on a plane more than say trying to switch channels on your car radio increases your risk of death. If this were true then we should expect a transmitter that was a 100 or 1000 times more powerful to pose a (probably super-linearly) increased danger. It would be trivial for terrorists to modify common electronic gadgets to output MUCH greater radio power and just walk onto the airplanes. Not only would it be easy but it would be so hard to detect that they could probably coordinate and board many planes in one day. No one would even be able to figure out what had happened for a long time giving the possibility for multiple attacks.

Besides, if planes were this fragile there would be far worse things to worry about. Like radio emissions from passing lightning.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro October 5, 2007 3:25 PM

In other news, Iran has announced plans to launch its own radio-controlled toy development program. Despite its protestations that the technology will only be used for peaceful purposes, the US has already demanded an urgent Security Council meeting to discuss sanctions against Iran if it does not halt the production of such dual-use technology.

Shad October 6, 2007 11:04 AM

Who needs remote control? Whoever flew with his eyes open likely noticed that sealed containers, like e.g. bags of chips or those little plastic cups of coffee cream with aluminium/plastic foil over them, inflate as the altitude increases and cabin air pressure decreases. The effect is even more pronounced in the nonpressurized cargo holds. Applications in improvised pressure switches are left on readers’ imagination.

Paul October 15, 2007 12:08 PM

3 nights ago I was waiting for my flight in the departure lounge at O’Hare, and thought I’d browse the stores. I was quite amused to see a remote controlled micro helicopter for sale, alongside batteries, etc. These things operate on reasonably predictable frequencies, so any problem you can think of with a remote brought from home should also apply to the remotes included with these toys.

These inconsistencies are amusing (and frustrating). It’s funny to see that the TSA have a problem with you taking remotes for toys through security, but that you can always buy one before you get on your flight.

Mr TSA October 22, 2007 8:22 AM

It’s sad, so sad.

Remote controlled bombs using RC toy hardware? Entertaining.

As someone already said, will they prevent people from coming on board without their car keys which nowadays contain a transmitter for locking and unlocking the car remotely?

Will they prevent laptops, wifi-enabled ipods, cell phones and other gadgets?

Will we reach a level where people simply get hospital style robes and slippers and they’ll be checking in all their cloths, shoes, jewelry, wedding rings, engagement rings, hair clips and whatever other accessories they may have or use, then be subject to head to toe x-raying in order to make sure no foreign objects are found in any and all body cavities?

I say, clip my new sharp-as-a-razor-blade-polymer-fingernail before I go on board, too.

Unfortunately, no matter how much security is in place and how draconian the rules are, those who want to break in badly enough eventually will find a way.

Air marshals on every flight? Can a group of 20 or more highly trained terrorists spot and neutralize these marshals out? Most likely.

Direct access to fortified flight deck required? Nah, why not just access other parts of the plane and sabotage it in just the right way… to gain enough control of the situation and then psychologically pressure the pilots to open the door?

What a sad reality we’re living in.

J Hamilton November 7, 2007 6:05 PM

It would be easily used in an open stadium scenario. The pilot can see beyond line of site with an onboard camera also now sold for hobbyists. I have seen many videos from this they are all over U tube and the price is very low considering what it can do. Whats even more sad is that 100cc motors can be used from chainsaw/leafblower type motors. Conversion kits are already available and being used by the modelers themselves.

The AMA is an insurance company that charters over 2500 model clubs in the USA. They have even told clubs not to talk to news or press. Their name is The Academy of Model Aeronautics. They have a website. You may not know it but large 35 pound models are now normal at clubs. Its the newest “rage”.
Please limit the size America.

How many of us have to die till something is done?

Squawkers McCaw June 19, 2008 5:39 PM

Does anyone know if they are still doing the more intensive searches for RC toys?

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