Weaponized UAV Drones in the Hands of Local Police

Why does anyone think this is a good idea?

The police in Montgomery County – and area north of Houston, Texas – is the first local police in the united States to deploy a drone that can carry weapons.

[...]

He said they are designed to carry weapons for local law enforcement. "The aircraft has the capability to have a number of different systems on board. Mostly, for law enforcement, we focus on what we call less lethal systems," he said, including Tazers that can send a jolt to a criminal on the ground or a gun that fires bean bags known as a "stun baton."

"You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft. A stun baton would essentially disable a suspect," he said.

I'm sure it works much better in the movies than it does in real life.

Posted on November 4, 2011 at 5:05 AM • 75 Comments

Comments

AlexNovember 4, 2011 5:25 AM

"You have a stun baton where you can actually engage somebody at altitude with the aircraft."

Sounds useful for detaining really tall suspects.

Alex

JerryNovember 4, 2011 5:30 AM

Considering these have not been that accurate, I believe they are for crowd control. Now why do they think there will be crowds that must be controlled?

Clive RobinsonNovember 4, 2011 6:15 AM

Oh dear such a bad bad idea on all levels.

Why oh why do people want to Militarise the Police with unreliable stand off weapons? I'ts plain stupid (if you will pardon the unintentional pun).

Irespective of the acuracy of the weapons what about the accuracy of the UAV, a platform capable of reliably carrying such weapons is not going to be small and repfesents a lethal weapon in it's own right.

The US will not alow "robot" or "remotly controled" road vehicles for good an proper reasons (of liability) who's going to be liable when a UAV comes crashing down into a crowd or into an office block or home, because the idiot guiding (not piloting or driving) it clips a building, cable or another air bourn vehicle?

And contary to the image being portrayed about "non-leathal" weapons being safe, most if not all weapons capable of incapacitating people are under quite a large number of non fault circumstances lethal. But what about "under fault" these things are going to actually be initiated by quite complex systems involving data communications, and thus computers and software, and as most of us know there's yet to be written a complex piece of software that works correctly under all "identified conditions" let alone "unidentified conditions".

And before people start talking about "fail safe" let me just point out these weapons are projectiles propeled by explosives, that are initiated by more sensitive explosives that don't like to be bumped or jolted to hard. It's the reason most balistic projectiles have what are known as "explosive trains" (or chains depending on what side of the puddle you come from) whereby the sensitive triggering explosives have a physical barrier between them and the main charge, to prevent them going of accidently.

Oh and yes I have seen a droped bullet (0.22 cal ~5.6mm) go off on a shooting range when somebody was loading standing up, droped it onto a concrete floor (it's not supposed to happen but hey lightenings not supposed to strike twice either but it does).

FrankNovember 4, 2011 7:02 AM

> And contary to the image being portrayed about "non-leathal" weapons being safe, most if not all weapons capable of incapacitating people are under quite a large number of non fault circumstances lethal.

I guess this is why they are talking about 'less lethal' instead of 'non-lethal' ;-)

RoyNovember 4, 2011 7:04 AM

So-called 'bean bag' rounds are actually bagshot. They are not spinning in flight and do not flatten out as manufacturer's insist. They are less lethal than birdshot, buckshot, or slugs, but they can be lethal.

Worse is the fact that the officer who commanded the vehicle to fire a fatal shot cannot be identified. No badge, no name tag, and no description whatsoever.

Add to your vocabulary 'anonymous extra-judicial killing'.

FYINovember 4, 2011 7:44 AM

Now if it was a balloon shaped like a penguin equipped with a tazer, I would have really been scared.

a different philNovember 4, 2011 7:55 AM

How are any of the weapon systems described in the article effective when fired at altitude? Weapons fired from aircraft either have to be fired at high velocity (bullets) or have some form of self-guidance (missiles, GPS-guided bombs) in order to reliably hit the target, or have some wide-area affect (dumb bombs) so that a near-miss doesn't reduce effectiveness. How, for example, does the police think that they will be able to accurately target a suspect with a tazer fired from an aircraft?

ChrisNovember 4, 2011 8:09 AM

Anyone cared to see the site the image for the UAV is attributed to? It's Finish but by the looks of the other images I wonder about the quality of the information.

ChrisNovember 4, 2011 8:26 AM

This reminds me of a Punk Sci-Fi series called Dark Angel.
There they had 'Hoverdrones' that would constantly spy on everyone. The company that made them eventually developed a variant that had lethal weapons on-board and the bloody thing was capable of autonomous seeking out an assassinate based on a photograph.
Guess what: Even in the show that company lost public face and went bankrupt.

Fred PNovember 4, 2011 8:37 AM

@different phil-

My understanding is that they mean dozens of meters, not kilometers

The spec sheet:

http://vanguarddefense.com/specifications/

Dry Weight: 35lbs (16 kg)
Overall Length: 96 in (243.9 cm)
Height: 29.8 in (75.7 cm)
Width: 17 in (43.2 cm)
Rotor Span: 76.5 in (194.3 cm)
Usable Load: 22 lbs (10 kg)

At least in the ad copy, they don't suggest its usage above 700 feet.

paulNovember 4, 2011 9:16 AM

Oh, dear. First, of course there's the accuracy problem for firing from a mobile platform at altitude. Second, there's gravity. Whatever round you're firing is going to be moving faster than you expected when it reaches the ground-level target.

And that's before you get into the reliability and hazard issues in an urban environment,where one mistake or lightly-armed opponent means 30 pounds of metal plus high-speed rotor falling into a crowd.

Captain ObviousNovember 4, 2011 9:18 AM

I expect the use of this would be similar to vehicle demobilization systems (which can destructively DOS cars at highway speeds, including brakes and steering), for which the officers say:

~"We're not really concerned with collateral damage. As long as we get our guy, this device is relatively harmless to any bystanders that are hit."

Wayne RNovember 4, 2011 9:40 AM

Pure hyperbole at work here. Focus on that it can carry weapons and don't focus on what it is actually being used to do:

"the police says it will be used in chases of escaping criminals and tracking drug shipments."

When you have proof that police are actually deploying weapons on an unmanned drone then get back to me.

DylanNovember 4, 2011 9:40 AM

@Xandar

Of course. And the PATRIOT Act is, er was, to only be used against the terrorists.

@Mark

w00t! Pringles can antenna time.

dbNovember 4, 2011 10:31 AM

Wow. I live in Montgomery County, Texas. I honestly have no clue why in the world the cops here would need a drone in the first place, much less with the ability to hold any type of weapon. The northern part of houston is in montgomery county, however this area is generally more well-to-do. Other than that, I guess the cows will need to start looking skyward.

LarryNovember 4, 2011 10:38 AM

This remind me of the town I grew up in. Back in the 80s the cops wanted to buy some of those automatic shotguns. Town told them no dice since there was no reason for that type of firepower.

But it does prove that this is not a new thing. It has only escalated and the controls to stop this stuff have lessened.

MoNovember 4, 2011 10:45 AM

One of the problems with the militarization of domestic police forces is that military policies and procedures are backed up by the court martial system. (Imperfectly in the real world, of course, but it is there.)

Putting military-level capabilities into a system where police unions and "the thin blue line" serve to enforce a no-accountability mindset rather than strict responsibility for one's personal actions is a grievous mistake.

Interesting to see the outrage of military vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan at the behavior of US domestic police forces at the OWS protests. I hope it opens people's eyes.

AndrewNovember 4, 2011 10:53 AM

Nice toy. I can imagine the applications for one of the most vital tasks a wealthy police department tackles from time to time:

Code enforcement. Really. Taking pictures of estates and over tall fences to see things like unpermitted buildings. You know, really critical national security threats.

I'm not as concerned about the threat to aircraft. Most robots can't do stairs. This is a robot which can do stairs, but can't do doors. I really hope we don't invent one with an opposable thumb.

HavaCuppaJoeNovember 4, 2011 11:01 AM


The Department of Homeland Security gives them $300,000 (nearly one third of a million dollars) and they spent it on an RC helicopter? Man, somebody seriously needs to get fired.

SeiranNovember 4, 2011 11:08 AM

Anyone have a clue on what kind of comms are onboard the UAV?

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2009/12/intercepting_pr.html

Jammers for cell network signals as well as for the 700/800/900Mhz radio band are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, and despite being illegal they are easy to acquire. On the other hand, if it's cellular data being used, there are quite ways to operate your own base station.

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2011/10/cell_phone_surv_1.html

The smarter UAVs will simply fly back to the location they were launched if the signal is disrupted.

Then again, we have this:

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2011/10/us_drones_have.html

It brings to mind the question of whether someone really tried to think through all of the security implications - like securing the operation station - as well as all the foreseeable failure modes.

JoseNovember 4, 2011 11:38 AM

An very old idea, but yes finally done, it is one excellent idea. Hope police in other USA states will adopt such great idea. The only bad is the extreme high price of this toy. I know guy that are studying electronic engineerin, that will do the same with only 10000 or maximun 20000 dollars only. Good look to the new helicopter drones.

Jose

Peter E RetepNovember 4, 2011 11:42 AM

Let's see: 10 kilos uncut X
vs the cost of a drone,
and the loss of a carrier at the border?
How long will it be?

OldFishNovember 4, 2011 11:54 AM

It's a stupid idea. Follow the money: it's a DHS grant. Nothing like a little corporate welfare. Time for an open-source audio profiling and tracking program. ID these things, locate them, knock them down. Laptop, microphones, microwaves, some electronic glue.

-bNovember 4, 2011 1:21 PM

Any system open to abuse will eventually be abused regardless of original intent.

Lethal force deployed against those with differing opinions from those in power has already been demonstrated in Waco, Ruby Ridge, and other places. Now it's more likely because the risk to those behind the controls is reduced (as is culpability).

Some Anonymous Guy On The InternetNovember 4, 2011 1:43 PM

I feel like I'm living in a Matt Bracken novel (the one where the armed UAVs are brought back from the Middle East for use in the United States):

http://a1135.g.akamai.net/f/1135/18227/1h/cchannel.download.akamai.com/18227/podcast/DENVER-CO/KHOW-AM/0709PETE7A.mp3

July 9, 2009 7:00 am
Peter is joined by author, Matt Bracken to talk about his book,
"Enemies: Foreign and Domestic."

http://a1135.g.akamai.net/f/1135/18227/1h/cchannel.download.akamai.com/18227/podcast/DENVER-CO/KHOW-AM/0709PETE8A.mp3

July 9, 2009 8:00am
In the final hour of the show, Peter continued talking with Matt
Bracken about the current direction of the country.

RandyNovember 4, 2011 3:00 PM

I didn't RTFA, so I'm guessing that the only reason they acquired the drone was because there was some federal matching funds that only applied for anti-terrorist equipment. So they couldn't possibly *waste* all that money....Sigh.

Randy -- thisisdefinatelyanaccidentwaitingtohappen

billswiftNovember 4, 2011 3:31 PM

>So-called 'bean bag' rounds are actually bagshot. They are not spinning in flight and do not flatten out as manufacturer's insist. They are less lethal than birdshot, buckshot, or slugs, but they can be lethal.

And it is even worse from the air. Blows to the head are much, much more likely to be lethal than elsewhere on a person. And from the air a larger percentage of the "target" is the head.

bye_bye_droneNovember 4, 2011 6:47 PM

Kudos to the first poster who can describe a reliable, inexpensive (sub-$100 would be nice) system that can bring this thing down.

If irate citizens can somehow lower the average lifetime of an in-service drone to less than a year, police departments won't be able to afford to keep buying them.

..of course, it would probably be branded terrorism and used to justify a huge inrush of funding and some draconian new laws..

Stan M.November 4, 2011 7:36 PM

"The police say it will be used in chases of escaping criminals and tracking drug shipments"

The Texas police forgot to mention pedophiles. These cops are totally inept at selling a "security" product.

Just another guyNovember 4, 2011 8:03 PM

Seems Vanguard got hacked by Anonymous in August, the PDF's released are interesting with lots of technical details on the platform.

SoundwaveNovember 5, 2011 2:54 AM

@seiran Anyone have a clue on what kind of comms are onboard the UAV?

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2009/12/intercepting_pr.html

A true secure UAV must contain full encrypted communications using Frequency hopping (alternating the frequency that the UAV operates) with good quality random generator. Otherwise will be vulnerable to a lot of interesting attacks like hijacking...

If this is not available no problem an excelent alternative is Bluetooth.

Just another guyNovember 5, 2011 3:12 AM

People obviously have no idea how these things work. You're lucky if you can get encrypted because everything is contracted, and as such, nothing works. Anyways, (Insert enemy here) was downloading downlink with a $30 shareware program.

Vanguard uses straight up ANSI CKM, the thing is an atrocity as a taxpayer, Sony optics, straight up COTS stuff with a nice fiberglass frame. $300,000. Reminds me of the StingRay (OpenBTS, USRP %20)

Just another guyNovember 5, 2011 3:13 AM

BTW, this thing operates in the 1.8 to 8.5 GHz range, good luck with that.

MattNovember 5, 2011 3:21 AM

"Kudos to the first poster who can describe a reliable, inexpensive (sub-$100 would be nice) system that can bring this thing down."

Not sub-$100 for first use, but easily thereafter...

Simply attach a group of long thin wires to the underside of your own helicopter by velcro. Fly above the target and let the suction from his rotors be his downfall, with the wires detaching at the velcro to prevent damage to your own machine.

Better still, if your own helicopter has sufficient load capacity, replace the velcro with an rc electro-magnet for emergency release, combined with some kind of sprung fishing reel to smooth the shock and you could not only disable but even capture the target machine, along with its weapon systems of course, for, er, 're-targeting' later.

Run, Jackboots, run. Not so much fun now, is it?

Just another guyNovember 5, 2011 4:53 AM

Considering Vanguard's flight control is based on Windows (face, palm,) I'd wager just overpowering it's RX would suffice. MAYBE figure out C2.

f'edintheusaNovember 5, 2011 9:47 AM

i dont know what to be more angry with; some local police having an "armed" uav, or that they were foolish enough to believe this toy will be able to do anything effective.

cdmillerNovember 5, 2011 11:10 AM

@bye_bye_drone

Brand new .22 rifles can be had for < $100. Surplus high caliber rifles (7.62x54) for even less. Of course .22 is easier to suppress. More fun would be model rockets, or how bout a water balloon sling shot. High tech might be a herf gun pointing skyward...

Doug CoulterNovember 5, 2011 6:22 PM

Think of the possibilities of hacking these!

And how about false flag attacks to discredit the police, whether you control their drone, or your own?

In fact, the RC hobby is under some regulatory attack right now to prevent private people from owning large models....wonder why?

I don't care how secure their comms are - you can still brute force jam and emp them...if they need them to fly, you're done, and it might be pretty cheap.

JTNovember 6, 2011 12:37 AM

with these running as much as they do... its out of the range of most cybersecurity pros to get a hold of one of these systems and do a real security analysis on it. Anyone willing to start a pool of funds to get CCC to analyze one of these things. :)

Clive RobinsonNovember 6, 2011 3:59 AM

@ cdmiller,

"Brand new .22 rifles can be had for

The dimensions of this RC Cop-tor are quite small at a total length of 96 inch.

A quick look at the design would suggest the vulnerable volume would be around 8inch in diameter (about the same size as a head shot), and this Cop-tor would probably be moving at something in excess of 30mph crusing speed. Which if I remember correctly is 44feet/second or 66 times the vulnerable volume. And if it flies at over 230yards (ie 700ft) level flight even when flying directly towards you the angular difference is still going to be high.

Thus unless you have a "Magic Bullet" your chance of bringing it down with a single rifle shot is not that good, even before alowing for a very unknown windage, and compleatly different bullet trajectory due to the upwards not downwards elevation of the gun.

Oh also remember "what goes up must come down" applies to the bullet and the Cop-tor and you have no idea where...

Personaly I would rather not have a half hundred weight droping on my or anybody elses head from 700ft. Admittedly it's propably not going to hurt because you would be rather dead, but it is going to be very messy at best...

Clive RobinsonNovember 6, 2011 5:23 AM

@ cdmiller,

"High tech might be a herf gun pointing skyward.."

The range would be a minimum of 215meters and nearer 600meters on average.

The usual way to make a "homemade HERF gun" is with a cavity resonator magnetron designed for either the 2.5Ghz microwave oven or 3cm X-Band marine radar. Both of which are usually well less than 1KW CW output power. Then feed it into some sort of high gain antenna, the simplest of which is a parapolic dish with horn feed, which usuall for optimal gain usually over illuminates the dish with 10% of the power radiating over the side.

If you are not carefull with either of these frequencies you will most definitely "cook your goose" which would if you were lucky be a trip to the hospital A&E burns unit (mind you most don't know the complications that arise from non ionising radiation burns).

But 1KW CW is nowhere near enough power for the HERF effect on an ordanary FR4 PCB an inch a side with most modern surface mount components at 300meters due to a whole host of reasons but mainly beam divergance.

At 2.5GHZ an 8metre (26ft) diameter dish will give you a -3db contor with a 1 degree beam width. I'll let you work out the exact area in squ inches a 1degree beam width has at 300meters, but from memory it's arround 33,000.

So overly simplisticaly you can see that even with a 100% feed and dish system you will only get the equivalent of 33mW of power per square inch with 1KW at that range, which is not likely to do any damage to a modern electronic circuit.

You can if you wish work it out more accuratly but you would need to do it in terms of field strength in volts/metre, then the effective antenna effficiency of a PCB trace at the frequency of operation and polarisation and it's effective terminating impedence which is all a lengthy and dull set of calculations.

john connerNovember 6, 2011 8:47 AM

35 lbs and 22 useful load hovering at third floor level and recovering from the kick of a lead filled beanbag will throw the tilt roll yaw off and the thing will come down in altitude, then the anonymous pilot has to recover with less than 30 feet of altitude or somebody might have 26 kilograms of slashing rotor blades all over them.
brilliant, and typical cop mentality impunity

john connerNovember 6, 2011 8:57 AM

how resistant to birdshot is this thing, and can the guy with the shotgun get on target faster than the guy with the rc helicopter?

lewisNovember 6, 2011 7:22 PM

I’ve never felt compelled to comment before on this blog, however this idea is so morally wrong it hurts. It surpasses techniques employed by the exaggerated 'extreme' fascist regimes depicted in works fiction, such as half life 2, to keep the presumed guilty masses at bay. The problem in my mind isn't related to inevitable police incompetence or technical malfunction; it is simply that the iron fist of the law is stepping too far.

Christian KochNovember 6, 2011 7:32 PM

The "pilot" of the drone must be totally aware of what he's doing. Controlling the helicopter looks and feels like playing a video game; I hope whoever controls it realizes that he is in fact not playing a video game.

Clive RobinsonNovember 7, 2011 6:32 AM

@ Christian Koch,

"The "pilot" of the drone must be totally aware of what he's doing"

Unfortunatly we know from experiance (Afghanistan) the Predator UAV's have been found to be upto 60K off of their declaired course with the Military ATC by the simple fact of endangering other piloted aircraft flying at night.

We also know from long experiance that flying on instruments or at night is something pilots find difficult and disorienting thus they get rated separately.

Imagine how much worse the "disconnect" is when you are actually not sitting in the vehicle you are controling. And worse your field of view is highly restricted to just a few degrees either side of the forward center line?

As I've mentioned before I have friends who fly radio controled model aircraft including helicopters in which I've helped them install ultra light weight 2.5GHz CCTV cameras and downwards facing digital cameras, and although they get good pictures they would be the first to admit that it is very difficult using just the video feed (and I've got more sense than to even try at the price the big helicopter models cost ;)

LinkTheValiantNovember 7, 2011 7:42 AM

Lovely way to bring out the inner anarchist in all of us posters.

To be honest, my main concern is not that this drone system can be weaponized, though it is more than troubling. No, it is the concept of panopticon that scares me. Traffic cameras of all sorts were only the beginning. How long before we are accustomed to having police drones everywhere watching us?

It surprises me, in fact, that everyone is focused on the weapons to the exclusion of the privacy concerns. Sure, they may back off on the weapons, but the drones will still be there.

RHNovember 7, 2011 10:42 AM

What bothers me is the focus on the weapons, rather than the police presence. Look elsewhere, where riots are handled by calvalry. Its not a matter of efficiency (I expect the cops are actually less effective), its a matter of a multi-ton animal changing the rules of the game (and while the cops are less effective directly, they control that animal with precision).

A predator, or other UAV is designed to be invisible. Its intimidation is from its sting. Such a tool is going to have to be used to be effective.

MattNovember 7, 2011 11:27 AM

I can see some benefits from having one of these, not for "police" functions per se, but for homeland security / emergency response and recovery programs and events.

I mean, think of Katrina recovery, having one of these moving around advising what the terrain looked like, trouble spots, etc. Rather than carrying weapons, it should carry com gear so that it can extend the range of coms.

What is the old saying, the most powerful weapon any soldier carries is his radio...

SchpinkusNovember 8, 2011 8:47 PM


'...Mostly, for law enforcement, we focus on what we call less lethal systems..." Um, "Mostly" ?!

MattNovember 9, 2011 9:36 AM

I don't know if it would cost less then $100, but how about a Trebuchet that can throw a weighted net that would tangle the rotors?

Another might be keeping pigeons on rooftops, release enmasse, repeat as neccessary.

ckNovember 15, 2011 6:26 AM

Has anyone of those who dream these machines thougt of the recoil of a stun baton and what this would do to the filigree structure of this kind of gear? Apparently not.

nioNovember 15, 2011 10:27 AM

How can that drone aim precisely and not hit someone to head? And... what sensors will it have on board? a camera or nightvision? arent those vulnerable to laser blinding? :) the most difficult thing is to aim on the UAV, laser could be put on a mount and there can be some slight mechanical wobbling to cover more area so the camera would be hit and its pixels overflowed to a white picture with an excess accumulated charge, it could even be automatic, with software tracking movement of UAV

Johnny D.November 15, 2011 10:29 AM

I can long cast over 600 feet. I aim for maximum distance, so am casting at a 45 degree angle to the horizon. That means I have a trailer of 850 feet of fishing line in the air reaching an altitude of 600 feet. I bet an intersection with a prop wouldn't be pretty.

SteveNovember 15, 2011 11:06 AM

How's this for a movie plot: Drone gets hacked by those bad guy terrorists (or, as we say here in Texas, tearists). Montgomery County is just north of George Bush Intercontinental Airport (can you see the irony coming?). Tearists, ooops, terrorists fly drone into landing 767. Mayhem insues. Hard questions for Montgomery County sheriff. Answer at press conference, "At the time we thought it was a good idea."

RobertNovember 15, 2011 1:25 PM

I think it doesn't matter if we think it is a good idea or not. It is inevitable. Technology disseminates from high to low risk/reward environments. This technology has already proven itself in the DoD. What laws will protect the systems though? Say it falls in my backyard and I scoop it up (or a criminal swats it down LOL). Does he have to give it back or can he run drugs with it across the border (LOL). Can he outfit it to commit crimes of access and disassociate the cause from himself? Like some firearms, will these systems be restricted purchase for only law enforcement?

I assume the trigger will only be controlled by humans. I think the recognition software would be a little scary to rely on in its current state.

Steve TassioNovember 15, 2011 9:37 PM

How about this for a low budget movie plot? Tearist discovers drone at bean bag altitude raises suppressed, scoped M1A fires once kills drone that crashes. Tearist thinks he got good value for his $2 bullet goes home happy.

WhiskersInMenloNovember 15, 2011 9:37 PM

As bad an idea as this is -- worse is the way the media has morphed this to and extreme example of what it could be rather than what it is and is intended to be.

MarkNovember 16, 2011 8:15 AM

I think Johnny D had one of the best ideas. Cheapest to use something you already have lying around the house. Just don't get careless and let the cops trace the fishing line to your back yard.

My idea: Tethered balloons for simplicity. Same concept as the barrage balloons used in WW2. Cheap and easy to set up. Better yet I'll wager that a drone camera just isn't going to see string of any kind, let alone fishing line.

dustmybroom62November 21, 2011 4:33 PM

2 words: tee-shirt cannon.
How about a shotgun fires magnetized pellets?
Flaiming arrow?

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