Quad-rotor helicopter drones have been getting a lot of good publicity lately, from the viral too-bad-it's-illegal idea of the taco-delivery UAV to semi-invasive observation copters being tested by everything from Russian media outlets covering protests to local police departments to corporate or college security staffs, to the highly stable, eminently flyable, still-pretty-illegal Parrot AR Drone that can be controlled from an iPad or iPhone.
A video released today changes all that with a demonstration of the first
civilian-owned remote-operated quadcopter drone overtly armed with automatic weapons that can be fired by an operator on the ground.
The breakthrough comes from FPSRussia, a YouTube video series focusing on the efforts of an engaging, English-speaking host to shoot, smash or destroy things in interesting ways.
"Charlene" carries a modified submachine gun, 100 rounds of ammunition and flies as high as 1,300 feet and as fast as 30 miles per hour, according to the video.
It also carries a camera that broadcasts a picture of "everything the quad-rotor sees" to a tablet computer/controller on the ground.
"You see everything that the quad-rotor sees so you get a bird's eye view of what's in front of you. And Once you see what's in front of you…maybe you don't want it in front of you anymore," Dmitri narrates ominously.
Charlene, which maneuvers neatly, looks easy to control and shoots accurately, at least at short range, is "the weapon of the future" for armies that need to get "around and above" a highly mobile enemy, according to FPSRussia.
During the demo, FPS blows away a group of manikins on a nearby hill, peers in a (false) window to execute a table of manikins playing poker with containers of gasoline resting casually by their sides (because blowing up gasoline is a lot more exciting than shooting up manikins).
So is shooting up old cars and then blowing them up using the drone quadcopter like a Kamikaze.
"This baby is equipped with a self-destruct payload with a 15-foot blast radius," the peppy pyromaniac hosting the video says just before flying Charlene in the blown-out back window of a "borrowed" car and setting it off. "As much as it pays me, I'm going to blow this thing up."
Clearly the time of the quad-rotor remote-controlled drone has come. The only questions are: Come for whom and to do what?
Aircraft without pilots are currently banned from U.S. airspace, but the ban only applies to high-flying "real" drone aircraft, not personal, toy-sized fliers like the quad-rotor in the video, versions of which are sold in electronics and hobby stores.
Drones in U.S. skies may threaten more than just privacy
The FAA is in the middle of a $64 billion upgrade to the national air-traffic control system that will allow it to track more and smaller aircraft, including drones, in time to comply with new rules passed by Congress requiring that drones be allowed to fly in the U.S. by Sept. 30, 2015.
Most of those demanding to use drones in the U.S. now are police or security agencies looking for eyes in the sky, help monitoring long borders and other observation missions.
That's the role drones started with in the U.S. military, too.
It didn't take long for them to grow up and start carrying guns, though, weapons that went from taking out the occasional target of opportunity to being a primary weapon in the Obama administration's campaign to eliminate terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other privacy-protection groups are lobbying for rules that would keep drones from being used in ways that invade the privacy of people on the ground, especially if they're cheap and easy enough for private organizations or individuals to buy and fly.
If, as Dmitri demonstrated at FPSRussia, however, we may have more to worry about than spying eyes in the sky.
There is a rich and inventive DIY undercurrent in American culture that meshes neatly in real life and reality shows like SSons of Guns with an equally energetic, creative movement dedicated to protecting the ownership and proper use of guns.
Combine the two with a little proof-of-concept from FPSRussia and you have a whole 'nother class of remote-operated flier in the skies of the U.S., one that may do more than invade the privacy of people it flies over.
If nothing else, the senseless shooting of unarmed, unoffending, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford Fla. by the overzealous, under-responsible neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shows how fear of intruders and the stand-your-ground impulse can combine into tragedies.
Put the gun on a flying platform that can keep an eye on far more "suspicious" characters – especially if the drone and the guns are owned by private citizens rather than police – and it's not just the enemy that will fear "Charlene" and formidable fliers like her.
"I hope you guys enjoyed yourselves as much as I did," Dmitri says in the closing to his video of playful destruction and the termination-with-extreme-prejudice of lifeless manikins. "Looks like the future is going to be fun."
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.