The Lawfare Drone Smackdown

The much-awaited Lawfare Drone Smackdown is taking place today – as I write, in fact, at an undisclosed location somewhere sufficiently far away from DC in Virginia that it will not run afoul of the FAA’s objections.  It’s a long and complicated saga that you can catch up with at Lawfare, but the short version is that Ben Wittes of Lawfare proposed a “smackdown”: Dogfights among AR Parrot 2.0 “drones” – the little toy that you can buy on Amazon.  The official rules allow modifications to the drones up to a certain dollar limit in order to allow the drones to attack each other.  Much cleverness in modifications and strategy involved among the five contestants.  However, after an Alert Regulator at the FAA noticed the Smackdown, scheduled for Fort Reno Park in DC, an FAA official called to let Ben know that although the Parrots are tiny toys with a 12 minute or so battery life, this would violate the FAA ban on drones in the DC protected airspace.  Plus some other folks in the protest communities mentioned they were going to come and “bear witness” against drones.  Net effect was to move the event to the outer reaches of Virginia.  You can follow the back and forth at Lawfare blog, and it will post YouTube videos of the competition as well as a series by Team Wittes & Progeny detailing modifications and strategy.  I am sorry to say that I cannot be there, but I am with the Smackdown in spirit.  May the best drone win.

PS.  I am mildly surprised that Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog and Wired Magazine editor, and owner of the DIYDrone website, Chris Anderson, as well as the various robotics websites in California, haven’t taken more notice of the great Smackdown as well as the FAA kerfuffle.

PPS. The twitterhashtag is #DroneSmackdown.

PPPS.  Well, the results are in!  Stuxed!  Team Wittes – Ben Wittes and his two kids – wins hands down by hacking the enemy Parrot drones through their WiFi. As Shane Harris, who served as judge for the competition, tweeted, there’s a lesson there … don’t neglect cyber defense.  To which Matthew Waxman and I, contemplating our forthcoming Policy Review article, Law and Ethics for Robot Soldiers, would add … maybe next time, go fully autonomous and harden the system by cutting the cyber communications link entirely.  

PPPPS.  And here is the last thing Contestant John Proctor saw on his control screen before his drone went down:

One final comment.  Over at Lawfare, contestant Paul Rosenzweig – a cyber security expert – offers a very interesting discussion about Team Wittes’ cyber attack and ways of defending against it.  He cites an email with Ben Wittes in which Ben talks about how Team Rosenzweig could have used cyber defenses to block the cyber attack.  But Paul adds something quite different, and I thought very interesting from a strategic perspective on cyberwar:

What I find remarkable about this is that Ben assumed that the countermeasures I was thinking of were cyber.  They weren’t.  Last night over dinner (drowning our sorrow in defeat) my grandson and I thought about how cyber is not really a separate domain — its part of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Quick research suggested that a strong electro magnet (strictly speaking a Flux Pumped Compression Generator) could have been relatively easily built (for under $200).  When operated it would have wiped out any proximate computer and/or cell phone — frying the innards.

So, I sort of wish we’d built one  (or bought one).  Then I’d have announced a declaratory policy that any computers or cell phones that are “on” at the start of battle (with the exception of the drone controller) would be presumed to have hostile intent and be subject to destruction. I’d have said that any child who wanted to keep his or her laptop would have to turn it off and hand it over for safe keeping.

Of course, in the end, I probably wouldn’t have pulled the trigger.  I’m too nice a guy to destroy $1000 worth of computing power.  [I wonder if the US ever has that problem?].  But I wish I’d worked my way through the problem more deeply if only to watch Ben have to decide between his drone and his electronics.