Up in the Air

The drone revolution isn’t coming—it’s already here. Can UT expertise help us navigate the future?

Up in the Air

The stadium was buzzing. It was a balmy day in late August and more than 93,000 fans were finally getting to see the topic of endless hype for themselves. Thousands of articles had been written, teeth had been gnashed, hands were wrung, and no one—not even the experts—knew what would happen. They weren’t watching the game. They were watching a tiny white helicopter with four rotors and an array of flashing lights cruising high above the Longhorns’ season opener.

The device, belonging to a branch of the unmanned aerial vehicle family called quadcopters, hovered over the stadium momentarily before landing on San Jacinto Boulevard. UT police swiftly found its operator, a UT student, detained him briefly, then released him pending further investigation. They kept the device. The police log for that day includes four arrests for public intoxication, three for possession of alcohol by a minor, and one active investigation listed under “Deadly Conduct: Recklessly Places Another In Imminent Danger.” It’s no surprise that the department, still in the process of investigating the incident, might not be quite sure how to classify it. That is, after all, one of the big problems with drones.

As with many new, fast-growing technologies, the regulatory regime for drones has barely begun to be codified. Just a smattering of piecemeal regulations have passed on the federal, state, and even local levels. Research in the field is growing, with some surprising results. Businesses are embracing them, and the military (and the CIA) have been at it for years. Further down the expanding drone food chain are the smaller, quieter drones available to civilians at a low price. But still, the loose patchwork of laws, combined with the huge variety of devices that fall into the drone category, means we simply aren’t sure what to make of them. Federal regulations prohibit aircraft from flying over NCAA stadiums, but is a drone an aircraft? Texas’ drone law allows them to be flown on over public property, but does the stadium count? That might be why UTPD’s investigation is still open, and why no one’s quite sure if the incident was illegal at all.

The Wake-Up Call

Assistant Professor Todd Humphreys is handsome and tall, with twinkling sky-blue eyes and a voice like a worn wool blanket. He looks like the guy you might cast as the geeky scientist-turned-superhero in a summer blockbuster. Humphreys is the owner of an impressive CV and oversees his own lab on campus. He’s eloquent, articulate, and it should go without saying, very smart. He’s also the man trying to take down your drone.

In February 2012, he told a crowd at TEDxAustin, the local offshoot of the ever-expanding big-idea lecture series, that they could “scarcely imagine the kind of havoc” that would be wrought if evildoers began to hack, or “spoof,” GPS systems like the ones that guide drones. He said he hoped those kinds of vulnerabilities could be prevented.“But meanwhile,” he added, “grab some popcorn, because things are going to get interesting.”

Things got very interesting—at least to national security types—about four months later in the New Mexican desert. At the invitation of the Department of Homeland Security, Humphreys and his students demonstrated their ability to spoof a small unmanned aerial vehicle, essentially hijacking the drone’s GPS navigation without the vehicle knowing. It was the world’s first solid evidence that drones could be hacked and their navigation overrun. A senior defense contractor called it a “wake-up call.” A year later, Humphreys’ team did the same thing to a 213-foot, $80-million yacht.

Up in the AirCongress was concerned. Earlier that year, lawmakers included a provision in the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget requiring the FAA to establish guidelines for drone flight by the end of September 2015. In the wake of his spoofing demonstration, Humphreys was in high demand, embarking on a press junket for cable news’ latest obsession: the coming drone revolution (or disaster, depending on the channel). A House homeland security committee called Humphreys in to testify on the matter in July.

Framed by C-SPAN’s ubiquitous under-the-rostrum camera shot, Humphreys explained that there are two types of GPS signals: military and civilian. Military signals are encrypted. Civilian signals are not. Those signals are free for anyone to use, hackers included.

“That explains their enormous popularity—their usefulness,” he said, “but it also opens up a vulnerability: It makes them easy to counterfeit, or in other words, to spoof.” He went on to compare these open, easily counterfeited GPS signals to Monopoly money. That goldenrod $500 might look like a bank note, but hold it up to a light and you won’t see Rich Uncle Pennybags’ face appear. Members of Congress watched a video of the test in New Mexico. Hovering in the dark, the team’s drone, a miniature helicopter, slowly dropped to the ground. While the FAA had experience regulating safety in the air, he noted, they were not experienced in securing the air. That meant that other agencies, like Homeland Security, may have to step up.

Texas’ Michael McCaul, the subcommittee’s chair, called it astounding. He said Humphreys had done the nation a great service. Both agreed that no one was minding the store, in terms of federal oversight, when it came to the security of the country’s civilian drones—a category the FAA predicts could reach 30,000 by 2020.

Affordable unmanned vehicles are being used to survey real estate, monitor crops, and even take selfies, known—of course—as dronies.

Civilian drones are being used in increasingly varied ways. While the word may still conjure up images of military Predator drones dumping ordinance in grainy nightly news footage from Yemen or Pakistan, smaller, affordable unmanned vehicles are being used to survey real estate, monitor crops, and even take selfies, known—of course—as dronies. Once the realm of hobbyists, quadcopters are popping up everywhere, relieving filmmakers of the need for expensive cranes and giving first responders an eye in the sky. Police and sheriff’s departments are slowly embracing them, and the Border Patrol already has. Google and Amazon want them to deliver your packages. FedEx, DHL, and UPS are all working on their own drone fleets. Martha Stewart wrote an article for Time magazine titled “Why I Love My Drone.”

“Imagine what Louis XIV could have accomplished at Versailles if he’d had one,” she gushed.

You can buy one that fits in the palm of your hand for about $20. The market is growing, but the laws governing unmanned aerial vehicles—not to mention public perception of them—are still catching up. As technology and business zoom skyward, governments, from local to global, are struggling to keep pace.

Practical Privacy

To understand the slowly emerging field of drone law, we have to start with hot air balloons. The original disruptive aerial technology (perhaps second only to the arrow), balloons can float over people’s property, whether manned or unmanned. They can also be militarized, which first happened in France in 1794. Traditional property rights dictated that everything above and below one’s land was their property. But that was before man could fly. The rise of lighter-than-air balloons raised a new question along with it. If your neighbor piloted a balloon over your land, could you shoot it down?

Balloons, however, never took the world by storm and never warranted much attention when it came to regulation. But when airplanes became viable, lawmakers had to act. When it became clear that commercial flights could not fly solely over public land, the world warmed to the constant presence of planes overhead.

But what happens when man can fly, even with two feet safely on the ground?

Robert Chesney thinks we’re facing a moment similar to the birth of aviation, with an Information Age twist. Chesney, a law professor, is the director of UT’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and coauthor of the Lawfare blog, which focuses on the intersection of conflict and law. While we may be in a similar dilemma to those faced by previous generations, Chesney points out that the abilities of modern-day drones are groundbreaking. Civilian drones are small and maneuverable. Unlike full-sized helicopters, they’re quiet, and they can loiter in place without arousing suspicion.

“This raises the stakes,” he says, “for how the law—and maybe technology—respond to rebuild what had been the practical privacy we enjoyed on our property.”

That’s exactly the concern that prompted then-state Rep. Lance Gooden to draft Texas’ first drone law in 2013, with some help from Humphreys. Gooden, BA ’04, BBA ’04, Life Member, carried through a bill that Texas Monthly called “pretty much the opposite of every other state’s drone law.” Where other states had cautiously eyed the ability of the state to violate privacy with drones, Gooden’s version put limits on personal use.

“This raises the stakes for how the law—and maybe technology—respond to rebuild what had been the practical privacy we enjoyed on our property.”

“When anybody asks me, ‘Well, why did you file this [bill]?’ I feel like I need about 20 minutes,” Gooden told Jim Henson, director of UT’s Texas Politics Project in a January 2013 interview. He explained that he was prompted by Kaufman and Henderson county landowners who were nervous about their neighbors and business owners who were concerned about their competitors. You could park a drone over a playground, or a school. You could case a bank or other secured location. You could certainly spy on a neighbor’s piece of the North Texas oil patch.

Gooden filed the bill the day after his interview with Henson, and it was signed by Gov. Rick Perry on June 14, 2013. Despite a whopping 38 exceptions, including for university research, as well as protests from journalists and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the legislature established the state’s first steps toward protecting Texas from a drone-filled sky.

“Any lawyer will tell you that the law evolves slower than technology,” Chesney says. When a new technology emerges, people do things that, in his words, the law does not already forbid. If those things make people uneasy, as is the case with drones, the pressure builds on policymakers. They can act in ways that impede good progress—crippling the commercial drone industry, for example—or in ways that allow the technology to run amok with limited oversight. The FAA has just under a year to determine in which direction it will push the fledgling drone industry.

The terminology is nearly as convoluted as the law, and that may be part of the problem. Despite what their friendlier monikers—unmanned aerial vehicle or unmanned aerial system—would imply, drones are very much manned. Most civilian drones are essentially remote-controlled helicopters with an operator piloting, and military drones are run by two-person teams who often stalk their targets for extended periods of time, watching them go to the market, meetings, or family events. Despite the video game-like footage on TV, studies show that drone pilots are under tremendous stress, some even reporting levels of clinical stress close to those seen in Iraq combat veterans.

Studies show that drone pilots are under tremendous stress, some even reporting levels of clinical stress close to those seen in Iraq combat veterans.

But even if military uses don’t dehumanize the enemy, and even if civilian use is neatly organized by the FAA, there’s still the question of security. The question of spoofing. It’s a problem Chesney knows firsthand.

Recently, some of his colleagues from the Lawfare blog decided to have a Robot Wars-style battle royale. The rules were simple. Each contestant would buy the same quadcopter drone from RadioShack, outfit it with whatever gear they thought would disable their opponents’ drones, and meet on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to duke it out. That was until the FAA, the agents of which were apparently fans of the blog, kindly let them know that such a gathering wasn’t allowed in the national capitol area. They rescheduled at an undisclosed location in Maryland.

“The day comes,” Chesney says, “and the time is called. They all start going up in the air, and one by one, all but one of them started crashing to the ground and wrecking themselves.”

The grounded contestants flailed helplessly at their controls.

“Immediately,” Chesney continues, “one of the participants turns and says ‘Is someone hacking us?’”

Nearby, the teenage child of one of the organizers sat with a laptop, using the unencrypted frequency the RadioShack drones operated on to drop them to the turf one at a time. They’d been spoofed.

More Commonplace

Ryan Baker was disappointed when he was given three photos taken from a helium balloon. He was helping map an archeological site using 3D mapping technology, but the aerial shots were underwhelming. When he asked about getting more pictures, he was told that the three balloon shots had already cost $5,000.

“That seemed a little pricey,” Baker says. So while he was still a UT archeology student, Baker, BA ’13, decided to pull together a small startup company dedicated to solving the archaeologist’s mapping woes using drones. Now Baker is the CEO of ArchAerial, which produces tough, durable, and portable drones built to perform in dusty, ancient deserts and sticky, dense jungles—the kinds of places that sustain the archeology business and ruin electronics. Looking at his boyish face, young-looking even for his 23 years, you’d be forgiven for thinking Baker is, perhaps, the CEO’s assistant, or a plucky intern. It’s a young company in a young industry with a very young staff, but Baker says they’ve seen plenty of interest in their sturdy quadcopters that come with easy-to-use programming software and can hover and glide in automated patterns for up to 15 minutes.

drone_webThough they were designed with archeological digs in mind, ArchAerial’s drones are getting attention from all kinds of businesses. The company’s software, which allows you to draw a flight path with your finger on a tablet or phone, has made it popular in real estate, for example.

“Say you’ve got your ranch, and you pull it up on Google Maps,” he says. “You draw a square, or whatever polygon pattern you want, around that area, and it will fill in a lawnmower pattern,” he says, plotting the drone on a snaking course to survey your land. It’s the kind of thing landowners might like, and might want to prevent others from doing to their land, as Lance Gooden learned from his North Texas constituents.

Ben Martin, BS ’12, is the company’s lead engineer, in charge of ensuring the rugged little fliers are safe and dependable. Like Baker, he looks slightly too young for the job, but also like Baker, any concerns about experience drop to the ground like a spoofed drone once you spend some time with him. After all, even old-timers lack experience in this field; it’s still being created. Martin is optimistic.

Drones, Martin thinks, are here to stay, like that other dangerous technology that once took the world by force: the car. “The regulation has to be there,” he says. “You have to be accountable for what your particular drone or car does, but I’d like to get to the point where they’re getting more commonplace.”

He might not have to wait long. Their company, and others like it, are seeing interest from the extreme sports industry and the energy sector. Even high school football coaches are getting in the game. Some coaches have even been accused of spying on other teams with their drones. It’s a brave new world, indeed.

Asked to predict where the drone industry will be in another decade, Baker smiles and ticks off a list: It’ll monitor oil spills, aid bomb squads and search and rescue teams, and keep an eye on tornados and hurricanes. “It’ll be everywhere,” he says.

In the meantime, he says, the more attention drones get from the public and from regulators, the better. The more we understand them, the easier it is to use them safely.

“The FAA is polling our industry on how we can use these things, and what are the most responsible ways that we can do that,” he says. “It’s a huge industry that can’t really be ignored.” Within the next year or so, he believes, the FAA will begin to regulate the civilian use of drones.

Humphreys isn’t so optimistic. Sitting in his radionavigation lab on campus, a quadcopter drone on a table over his shoulder, he thinks back to his testimony before Congress. Drones don’t have a human failsafe, unlike commercial airliners, which are on autopilot for the bulk of most trips. And they can be hacked, as Humphreys himself demonstrated, making their navigation—or any other information they collect—vulnerable. That raises questions. The panel asked Humphreys if the FAA, perhaps with some help from Homeland Security, would be able to sort out the rules and protections needed by their 2015 deadline. He said it was doable.

“I no longer believe that’s the case,” he says. “I think things are going too slowly, and the problems are too big. We’ll probably miss that deadline, and many more deadlines, as we try to bring drones into the national airspace.” The FAA agrees. In June, the agency announced that they would not meet the 2015 deadline, even going as far as to say that they were not sure when they would be ready.

Humphreys is, however, confident that unmanned, autonomous systems are here to stay, and they are poised to upend the economy, replacing menial jobs the way new technology has since the first shrewd caveman cracked two stones together to make a spark. Autonomous technology might even do away with some not-so-menial jobs, like commercial airline pilots. With military pilots seeing less combat action in lieu of unmanned vehicles, is Drone Airlines far off?

“Who ever thought that a pilot of a commercial aircraft was menial work?” he asks. “That’s a tough job. That takes brains, bravery, concentration, discipline. But it’s going to be on the chopping block. And many other good jobs are going to be replaced.”


Fraught With Significance

This summer, months before the Longhorns’ season opener, a group of high school students was standing on the sidelines at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, excitedly watching the action on, or rather slightly above, the field. They were on campus for a summer camp called “My Introduction to Engineering,” and Humphreys was showing off what he could do with (and to) his drones.

It was an impressive feat, not just for the fact that the radionavigation team could exhibit their drones, even program a few to play a real-life version of Pong, but because they were using the stadium as their laboratory. It’s not the kind of permission the athletic department usually grants, and Humphreys was thrilled.

Even Congressman McCaul was impressed when Humphreys showed a video of the event to the Homeland Security subcommittee.

Humphrey’s relishes getting students involved with his research. The complications and hiccups that will surely define the near future of drone research are good for academic business, and very good for teaching.

“Engineering students thrive when their academic preparation is fraught with significance, when, from their first introductory courses, they realize the future needs them,” he says. “I plan to shamelessly leverage the public ramifications of this research to captivate and motivate students.”

Proving drones’ vulnerabilities in order to improve them is the natural point of Humphreys’ research, but even the experts can be surprised. At the stadium, as one of the drones whizzed by the crowd in an automated pattern, it lost control briefly and veered toward the campers. One of the researchers had to step in. The pilot was able to correct, but Humphreys’ research team was a bit shaken. The campers weren’t. As the drone came closer, they were exhilarated. The drone was coming right at them, and it was their favorite part of the show.

From top: Humphreys in June 2012; Humphreys’ drone flies over DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium; Summer campers watch as drones play Pong above the field

Credits, from top: Randal Ford; UT Cockrell School of Engineering


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