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How an RC airplane buzzed the Statue of Liberty, with no arrests (arstechnica.com)
140 points by evo_9 on Dec 3, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

A few months ago, the idea that my [hacker] roomate and I were spitballing around was a drone that could fly from my house in Phoenix, to MIT's campus in Massachusetts.

The joke was that we both daydreamed about being able to go to school there, and building a drone that could go across the country would be cool enough to get their attention. They'd have to admit us!

This was the type of thing that we would probably never, ever do, but sitting around drinking beer and talking about how you could do it was still a fun time.

Then the joke got smaller. My mom makes the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. Trouble is that she lives an hour away. How cool would it be to have a cookie delivery robot? Build a plane that can fly across Phoenix to my Mom's house, pick up some cookies, then fly back? Cookie robot sounds almost feasible.

The most discouraging thing was to learn that if we even tried this, we would probably end up in jail. Flying an unmanned model plane like that is very, very, very, very illegal.

There are safety concerns, you see. It's possible to get drones certified as legal by the FAA, but it requires either sponsorship by a University (Roomate graduated, I dropped out, so that is out of the question), or sponsorship by a defense-contractor.

I understand the safety concerns. The reason that the FAA calls this illegal is because they don't want unmanned model planes wandering into controlled airspace, or crashing and starting a fire or something. I get that.

But I understand the safety concerns. Over half of the beers were consumed while having conversations about failsafe mechanisms to SCRAM the thing if it lost radio contact. This is very immature of me, I know, but it's still frustrating.

It's frustrating that this [TFA] is newsworthy because the person who built it wasn't arrested. Arrested? How did we get to this point where, if you tell me a story about somebody flying a model plane around the statue of liberty, my first reaction is that he is probably locked in an interrogation room somewhere being "questioned"?

Does stuff like this put people at danger? Yes. Having a 10-20 pound chunk of couregated plastic and balsa wood crash into the street is dangerous.

Should the person be thrown in jail? I don't know, should the people who drive 4000 guided hunks of steel around populated areas while texting and adjusting their radio knobs be thrown in jail? Is my cookie robot really more dangerous than my 4200 low-speed, guided battering-ram called "Jeep"?

Is my cookie robot really more dangerous than my [...] Jeep?

I think so. This cookie robot would have to fly at least 500 ft AGL, and other aircraft do fly at that altitude-- crop dusters, traffic helicopters, aircraft landing or taking off, etc. If your cookie drone were sucked into an aircraft engine or hit a helicopter rotor, it could be catastrophic for those aboard that aircraft not to mention those on the ground near the crash, which could include hundreds of people. So I'd say yes, the cookie drone is more dangerous than your Jeep, especially if the cookie drone were as popular and numerous as automobiles.

...conversations about failsafe mechanisms...

Personally, I think we'll eventually be able to build your cookie drone. And I think it has a chance of being very popular. But I think it will require a lot of coordination with the existing (legacy?) flying community, including things like new flight rules (maybe AFR for automated flight rules, to go along with the existing VFR and IFR?), standard and well-tested automated guidance systems that are good enough for this use case but not able to be weaponized (existing GPS + accelerometers w/ Kalman filters don't meet this criteria), and new ground systems for takeoff and recovery.

Yup, I've had the same thought experiment. ;)

There are also THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of totally unregulated birds flying at 500 ft AGL.

FAA should ground all the avians...then we'd be safe!

there are other objects flying 500ft AGL and much much higher you know. Every now and then they too hit aircraft and are sucked into engines. How many people have died due to them during last century of flight? As many as car crash deaths in 1-2 hours, few days at most?

And is it because they have some incredibly efficient TCAS module installed?

Griffon Vultures have been seen up north of to 36,000ft (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%BCppells_Vulture)

Nature really, really is amazing. Part of the motivation for "The MIT drone" as it was lovingly called among my friends was trying to beat nature :).

There is a bird called the Arctic Tern which performs a polar migration (44k Miles/yr). The fact that there is an autonomous flying machine capable of refueling itself using its surroundings, and flying that far is really daunting.

Bar-tailed godwits can do a crossing of the Pacific Ocean - Alaska to New Zealand - 10000km in 8 days non-stop.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2664343/ has all the details.

This video clearly shows what might happen when a single engine aircraft at <500 AGL hits an object.


This was an F-16 that ingested a bird after takeoff, engine relight failed and pilots ejected after pointing the plane into a field.

Isn't that why most passenger planes have 2 or more engines?

Well, ALL commercial aircraft have 2 or more engines.

For some reason though, flying around unmanned drones with weapons attached over sovereign countries (Pakistan) even when Pakistan's government request them not to do this is perfectly ok. Even if it means killing nearly 700 civilians.


even when Pakistan's government request them not to do this is perfectly ok

While I agree with the sentiment, I'm pretty sure the last WikiLeak clarified that we had the consent of the Pakistani military brass, who took credit for the attacks, and who were lying to the elected officials/citizens.


The fact that it's possible to make that kind of statement with that kind of confidence really just sent home what Wikileaks might mean at the end of the day. The only fuzz phrase you used was "pretty sure". No more CYA madlibs?

"According to (news network of dubious perspective) (shaky adjective) reports from (unknown, likely irrelevant person) suggest parties in (vague but suggestive geographical region) might be doing (questionable activity)."

It was very clear that Pakistan Army was supporting drone operations long before Wikileaks - there are friggin satellite pictures of US drones on Pakistani airbases.

I have to wonder why there is a contention now though over if they want them there or not? Seems that making it all clear and documented would be very simple.

Perhaps they changed their mind and no longer wish them to act there? I want to read more into the issue, but all I can think is that if they withdraw their consent, then we should leave immediately.

I want to read more into the issue, but all I can think is that if they withdraw their consent, then we should leave immediately.

When who withdraws their consent? The Pakistani people, or the (unelected) Pakistani military officials?

It's not a big deal because they have the plane. It is a big deal because of where they flew it.

I'm sure it wouldn't be news if they were flying around a field, but the alternate reaction could have been "Oh my god! a plane! around the statue of liberty! terrorists are trying to blow it up!, ARREST THEM!" and thankfully here nobody over reacted.

I'm of the mind that they should have no fly zones (around airports) and a ceiling (a few hundred feet so as not to interfere with airplanes) and a floor (a hundreed feet so as not to interfere with powerlines) and then allow people to fly their own UAVs, but thats just me. There are probably too many reasons why it is a bad idea.

The rules you suggested are already in place in AC 91-57. the operating site should be away from populated areas, must contact the airport if within 3 miles of an airport (effectively, don't fly near the airport), and stay under 400ft.

I wonder how you contact the airport if in such an eventuality you wanted to do that?

It just comes down to entrenchment and popular opinion. Much in the same vein, alcohol and tobacco "aren't drugs," but pot and 'shrooms are.

He said he read up on all the applicable laws before hand. If I recall model planes controlled by a human within line of site under a certain altitude are perfectly legal and it looks like that is what was done here. In other words this wasn't a UAV.

You're not going to have enough battery or gas in your rc plane to fly cross-country or even a two-hour round trip.

Also, your radio won't be able to communicate with the plane for more than a hundred meters legally and a few miles illegally.

>You're not going to have enough battery or gas in your rc plane to fly cross-country or even a two-hour round trip.

There was an R/C plane that flew trans-atlantic; it wasn't much larger than a hobby store plane. Cross country is much, much farther (about twice as far as the transatlantic flight), but this is what makes the problem so much fun.

(link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3145577.stm)

(Picture of the plane: http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/39393000/jpg/_39393283...)

>Also, your radio won't be able to communicate with the plane for more than a hundred meters legally and a few miles illegally.

The point is to make these things happen autonomously. Beyond that, yes, it is absolutely possible to control the thing all over the world (albeit this would be illegal). While it absolutely wouldn't work for doing real-time controls, HAMs have been bouncing radio waves around the planet for longer than I've been alive.

Aerosonde's Laima, with a wingspan of under 10 feet and a fuel capacity of about 1.5 gallons, flew trans-atlantic in 1998, a distance of 2044 miles. It's 2462 miles from LA to NY by air. (It was partly R/C and partly autonomous.)


autonomously? that's definitely illegal.


There's a whole thriving community of hobbyists building and flying autonomous aircraft, publishing information and code, and selling custom designed hardware.

Here's _their_ take on the legality of autonomous aircraft


It's technically illegal according to the FAA.

You can only do it so long as you could take control of the aircraft any time. This means you need LoS, and you need a radio.

Yep. Conditions which the NYC flight could probably claim to have had ( it's a little unclear whether the on board video let them fly it outside LoS, and if it did whether they ever did fly it outside LoS.)

I guess my point is that it's no more "definitely illegal" than driving a car. There are rules and regulations, but there are many people working within those rules, and legally flying autonomous drones. Nobody says driving a car is "definitely illegal" because you need to have a license, a registered roadworthy car, stop at red lights and drive on the correct side of the road. The regulations do allow for autonomous rc aircraft. They don't allow for them to do 60 mile round trips to collect cookies from your Mom, but saying "thats definitely illegal" needs at least qualifying with something like "except under certain constraints and conditions" or it's at least misleading, if not outright wrong.

People keep saying this, but I cannot find proof. The best I can find is a regulatory advisory: http://rgl.faa.gov/Regulatory_and_Guidance_Library/rgAdvisor...

Current drones fly under FAA part 91:


Here is where they are talking about drones:


"Recreational use of the NAS is covered by FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57 which generally limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic."

This is recreational use, and I consistently see people deferring to this "Advisory" circular which specifically states it merely "encourages voluntary compliance"

I know, that is the point.

solar power? It'll help somewhat. Radio? Amateur radio. Use either the existing satellites on the vhf+ bands, or get really good at antenna design and make a good, small hf antenna (good part is the hardest, you don't really want to be putting out more than 5 watts), and hope for good sun activity.

These people need to get into a LOT of trouble. This is not legal, and for good reason. I say this from the perspective of having designed, built and flown RC fixed-wing and helicopters for well over twenty years. As neat and sophisticated as they might look, these things are still toys.

They are not built to the same standards as real aircraft. Single failure modes abound and they are, in most cases, catastrophic.

I have seen model airplanes loose a horizontal stabilizer in flight for no apparent good reason. Or simply fall out of the sky like a brick when one of the cheap electronic parts inside fails. Figure out the kinetic energy of a 8 to 10 pound object travelling at 100+ miles per hour to understand the lethality potential.

The airspace he covered is flown by full-scale aircraft. Imagine being a tourist taking one of those NYC helicopter flights (done that) only to plummet to your death because some a-hole decided it was OK to take his $300 toy on a joy flight.

Beyond, that, imagine if this was, in fact, legal. Would you like to see 100 of these things flying without control around an airspace such as NYC? Bad idea.

They need to get into a LOT of trouble. This is definitely not something anyone should emulate or replicate. It will ruin the model aircraft hobby in the US forever.

I've not seen anything that said RC flight is illegal in controlled airspace, do you have a link showing this?

Operation of UAV's is most definitely regulated by the FAA, and for good reason. Per FAA rules, the fellow in question needed to follow full-scale airframe and operator certification (UAV operator), carry appropriate insurance and observe airspace restrictions per the FAA. If you are interested search the FAA site and regs.

As far as him having checked for flights before launching: What a lame joke! I have flown in a full scale helicopter in that airspace, around the Statute of Liberty, etc.. The pilots are in constant communication and visually scan the airspace for potential danger. They can't and don't do whatever the heck they want.

I am one of those people who doesn't need a law to understand that something should not be done just 'cause you can. It is dumb, stupid, moronic and dangerous to fly an RC plane over, around, close to people, buildings, bridges and small farm animals. You could kill people. No law needed in order to understand the reasons this is so. But they are there for those who lack common sense.

This guy is a moron. Certifiable. Sorry, no other way to put it.

"The airspace he covered is flown by full-scale aircraft"

He did check if any full-scale aircraft was going to be flying at that time before hand so that wouldn't be an issue.

This guy's Vimeo account has a bunch of these videos. Most of them look like they're shot up mountains in western Europe (Austria?).


If you're going to watch one:


In the downhill sections he is turning off the motor and gliding at about 150 km/h.

So having watched the video you suggested, and remembered the music on the original video I immediately recalled this:


These guys do the same close-proximity flying in Alps, but in wingsuits. If you only watch a bit of it, skip to 3:05 and compare to the vimeo video!

That is quite beautiful.

Now he just needs two cameras, for a stereoscopic display.If Avatar and HTTYD told us anything, it's that the killer app of 3D cinema is flying sequences.

Why is the guy thanking the TSA? What could they do and why would he even think they could be involved with something like that?

So many acronyms, should be thanking the FAA I guess.

they checked him fully so he got some paper saying he is "clean" and thus avoided problems at other airports. edit: its not a typo, its TSA!

Art Vanden Berg launched an autonomous glider up to where the sky is black in the daytime, six [edit: five] times, back in 2002: http://members.shaw.ca/sonde/

He wrote all the software (avionics, telemetry, and ground support) himself. It maintained a telemetry link during most of each flight, and landed successfully five [edit: four] times, I think most of them on autopilot.

Around that time, Jef Raskin wrote a thought-provoking piece on the security implications of UAVs such as Laima. I can't find it on Raskin's site anymore, but here's a mirror: http://allnurses-central.com/world-news-current/next-time-ca...

There's a site about building amateur autonomous UAVs run by a Wired editor, which nevertheless seems to have relatively reliable information. Disturbingly, it has a diagram of a Predator on the front page: http://diydrones.com/

These guys are doing a bunch of stuff with kites and balloons as well, specifically to make maps available. Although some jurisdictions (like China) place restrictions on such activities, they seem to be doing a lot of good, and so far nobody's ended up in jail: http://grassrootsmapping.org/

In 2008, someone used a small flying dildo helicopter to make a political statement against Garry Kasparov (warning, includes photos of a flying dildo): http://hackaday.com/2008/05/19/flying-rc-penis-violates-ches...

The first writing I recall reading about this issue was "Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy", published in 1974; it mostly discussed the use of teleoperated UAVs for spying, not violence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danny_Dunn,_Invisible_Boy

I think the concerns about terrorism are overblown. The world will never be perfectly safe, and people will keep on using violence against each other for quite a while yet, but fragile UAVs don't seem like they'll be a particularly big force multiplier as weapons. The concerns about privacy are probably much more significant.

I see a lot of comments here about (autonomous) drones, but this video was made with old-fashioned remote control. The laws are different. I think the only novel aspects of attaching a camera to an RC vehicle are (1) the fact that cameras are now cheap enough that you don't care if it gets destroyed in a crash, and (2) OMG terrorism.

When the cost of these kinds of robot drops by another factor of ten, they're going to have the biggest impact on military security since the invention of nuclear weapons.

I don't think it's the cost of the plane that is the limiting factor here.

You might be underestimating the difference between this type of R/C plane and a military-class drone like a Predator. One of the more difficult challenges to overcome is the range of the communication link between the pilot and the plane. This guy demonstrated a range of mile or so. For many of the kinds of military uses that would have the "big impact" you're talking about, the plane would need over-the-horizon range-- which as a practical matter would mean satellite-based comm. So basically you need satellite launch capability to support this kind of project. The cost of that would be a limiting factor.

I wonder how technically difficult it would be to utilise 3G mobile phone networks for cheaper remote control?

Probably not TOO hard, but the main issue there is the communication would not be reliable enough for something real time that had a low failure tolerance, like controlling a plane. If some packets got dropped and had to be re-sent, it could mean that the plane crashes if the communication was some sort of emergency time-critical maneuver.

The plane would have to be programmable and would have to support a semi-automated flying mode. Then there won't be a need for a high-capacity realtime data stream.

But then the plane would have to have obstable avoidance, auto-pilot, and it must return back to within radio range if it flies too far.

"it could mean that the plane crashes if the communication was some sort of emergency time-critical maneuver."

You don't need a very quickly-responding plane to have a large impact on military tactics.

That's where the autopilot comes in.

Far more difficult than deactivating/destroying the cell network.

Deactivating AT&T's 3G network just requires more than 10 iPhones in one room :)

Perhaps one could launch a tethered helium baloon with the antena and thus increasing the range ?

Or in the city one could deploy a bunch of radio relay stations and create a mesh.

Then I guess it all depends on how automated the plane is. If it is able to track terrain, can stabilize itself and can be programmed to fly a round-trip mission, there might not be a need for a constant realtime radio link to it.

I can see configuring a flight & surveilance plan, launching it and just waiting for it to complete its mission then return, in a complete radio silence mode.

> Perhaps one could launch a tethered helium baloon with the antena and thus increasing the range ?

I used to know this guy that did something very very naughty back when he was a budding teen (late 1960s). He ordered a weather balloon from Edmund Scientific, filled it with helium, then attached an entire roll of heavy duty institutional grade aluminum foil to it. He then let it go... off the west coast of Florida. MacDill saw something on the radar, and sent a few fighters up to see what it was.

Somehow they tracked it back to him (possibly via Edmund) and he got a serious talking too, and then some.

Why? They're already so cheap the military could buy an unlimited number of them. Or because people will use them to remove military security? I don't follow your logic.

  Or because people will use them to remove military security?
Exactly. Unless some kind of corresponding defense evolves, they're going to democratize sanitary application of force, which has largely been a privilege of governments until now. (Sanitary to the people ordering it, not to the people directly involved, obviously.) Can you imagine what ethnic cleansing would have looked like in the Balkans if the Serbs had been able to afford thousands of predator-style drones? It won't be long before the cost comes down to the point where they could have.

Not really, some of the tech on the predator is not cheap.

The easy part is making the plane, I'm sure you could rig up a cessna like Hollywood rigs up stunt cars for remote control and you'd have a "UAV" (didn't Iran do that already?).

The guided missiles, the communications, the optics and sensors, those are the hard parts.

I honestly think a bunch of boots on the ground with rifles is the scariest way to do ethnic cleansing, if you just want to level houses you have artillery and tanks too. The predator is good for surgical strikes and intelligence, which a lot of enemies really don't care about.

The video is missing how the plane itself looks like. Otherwise, amazing!!

RC planes (drones): soon the staple of any serious paparazzi.

If I had a billion dollars and had paparazzi chasing me, I would love for them to try this so that I'd get to mount an AA gun on my yacht and shoot them down.

I have an unshakeable imagine of an Englishman in a tweed jacket chomping on a cigar holding a shotgun. "Hunting ducks always struck me as uncivilized. Skeet can't dodge. Drones, though, drones are perfect."

All is fun and games until drones start firing back at ya.

... or that just means you are in Pakistan.

I picture Jack Nicholson in this role.

Jack Nicholson and Dick Cheney, in the buddy movie to end all buddy movies.

Cool video - it's too bad the sensors and processing power were external to the robot. I look forward to the day when something like this is truly autonomous.

I'm... not so sure I look forward to that day.

Thus, no doubt, spoiling it for everybody as it suddenly becomes illegal to fly a remote-controlled plane without a licence.

If those things have enough range, you can just stay indoors, safe from police interference. It would be very difficult to trace unless the cops ran around in triangulation squads.

Other ways to do it could be by wireless internet.

Or they just wait until it lands. Either they catch you picking it up or they confiscate it from you; either way the flight becomes unworthwhile.

If the contraptions are cheap enough, or the footage valuable enough, there'd be no need to recover it.


There are already 802.11 drones with video and cell phones that can act as a wireless hot spot. Combine the two and I don't think latency would be bad enough to prevent you from flying it remotely.

I would be more concerned with battery life or dangers of mechanical failure on something large enough to use liquid fuel.

[1] http://ardrone.parrot.com/parrot-ar-drone/usa/

[2] http://techcrunch.com/2010/05/13/exclusive-google-to-add-tet...


Shouldn't a license or some form of registration be required? What if it hits a building or car by mistake? There needs to be some way to trace it to the owner to pay for the damages.

Are you going to be as happy when someone makes that same argument about baseball?

"What if a baseball hits a car or a building?

I mean, those things aren't even under the operators control after they've left the hand (or bat). And my god, think about it! They could fill one with high explosives!

Quick, we need to regulate this. Every baseball needs a registration number so we can identify it's owner, and every baseball bat and throwing arm needs to be licensed!"

I don't see how the two are similar at all. When a baseball comes crashing through your window or hits you in the head the person who's responsible is most likely a few dozen feet away. Chances are it's a neighborhood kid who's easily identifiable.

When a model airplane smashes into a car, person, building, etc. the owner could be thousands of feet (or miles as we see in this video) away. It's extremely difficult to trace the plane back to the owner.

I'm thinking the owner is probably the guy who runs up saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Will that always happen? No, of course not. Some people are jerks. Are most people jerks, though? No. The last thing we need is more laws, especially ones that enforce responsibilities most people will take on for themselves.

These planes can fly for miles as did this one in the video. The owner isn't going to be running up to anyone after a crash because he'll have to get in a car first and drive over.

If your going to be flying something though the air that has a large range and can seriously hurt someone or damage property, it's not to much to ask that it be registered somewhere. Simple registration number so we know who the owner is.

Edit: The remote can also lose contact and the owner wouldn't know where the plane crashed to cover property damages.

By this logic, people should have registration numbers tattooed on their foreheads, so that if one commits a crime (or just looks at you wrong), we can immediately find it.

Makes perfect sense, right?

No, that doesn't really make any sense, but having people register long-range aircraft makes sense to me.

Yes.. sadly this will end with regulation- more of it.

Why is that sad? As these get more and more autonomous they will be capable of targeted assassination. The same hardware accelerated face-recognition chip in your $50 point-and-shoot camera will wind up making point-and-shoot a taboo phrase.

Well, with this kind of thing becoming more popular as it becomes more possible (thanks to improved batteries and cheap small video cameras) it's only a matter of time before it gets regulated.

Even if everybody only used them with the best intentions, someday someone's gonna get seriously hurt by getting clobbered on the head by one of these things.

Still, for now: awesome video!

Isn't this "what if" thinking the whole problem with, for example, the TSA?

Yes, someone will get hurt. Someone may even die. It will be terrible, but it will be an accident. We can't prevent all accidents, nor should we try.

Does anyone know how the police found him? (The Ars post mentions the police visited him while he was doing it, and you can see the police at the end of the video)

Someone phones in to 911 an RC Plane buzzing buildings, etc... but with the tools at the police's disposal, how would they have found where he was?

He had a fairly large antenna set up on a large stand next to him, and presumably the PoV headset on and a controller and things like that. If a police car drove by, I think they'd consider it worth asking him what he was doing.

I say asking, not freaking out over, because there is an important difference.

They probably took the address from the caller and looked for the plane near there. Once finding it, they likely looked around the area for a guy with an RC remote.

Of course they could have also used a radio direction finder.

Hmm but he was flying over a huge area - from Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, apartment buildings on the waters-edge, etc.

I'm wondering if they used radio direction finder - but a) would they have that equipment to hand and b) how would they know what frequency to be looking on?

About two years ago I lived in Long Island City, around Vernon Boulevard and 44th Drive. At least a couple times a week I'd see an RC plane doing circles around the neighborhood and I always wondered who was controlling it and for what purpose.

Now I know.

My immediate thought: filming POV shots for superhero movies just got a whole lot cheaper.

Thought #2: it's only a matter of time before someone tries to use such a setup to kill someone using a small anti-personnel explosive delivered by such a device.

Great. One more way to strike fear and add to the regulatory glut.

No. This is the wrong response. Just as the general public shouldn't be afraid of things like this, we shouldn't be afraid of the regulatory response. It is our responsibility to fight that response and preserve fun. If hacker news's response to this video is "great, here comes more regulation", then we have truly lost.

Referring to the suggestive title of the article, which seems to cultivate a negative knee jerk reaction to those outside of Hacker News.

These sorts of unauthorized flights, combined with model rockets from hobby stores and household cleaners could have created a terrorist nightmare. Where are the feds?

Even worse, the New York City authorities missed the opportunity to tax the filming:



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