Building a Drone With Your iPhone

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How smart phones and other consumer technology can aid, or even replicate, some military uses.

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A U.S. Army soldier uses a mobile phone to take a picture of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers at Camp Kalsu / Reuters

On Tuesday, Apple released its financial results for the first quarter of fiscal 2012, which comprised fourteen weeks and ended on December 31, 2011. The company earned record quarterly revenues of $46 billion, largely due to the thirty-seven million new iPhones  sold in that quarter--an increase of 128 percent from the same period last year. Overall, however, smartphones like the iPhone are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, as they are now used by 43 percent of all Americans and 27 percent of all people worldwide.

The past few years have witnessed an exponential development of applications (or, 'apps') that can be used wherever a smartphone has high-speed data access via mobile broadband or Wi-Fi. In the App Store alone, there are over 500,000 apps, which have been cumulatively downloaded tens of billions of times. Many are silly in nature, such as Hangtime--toss your smartphone in the air and see how far it goes and how long it takes to hit the ground--and CatPaint--add cat pictures to any photo! Others are practical: iNap@Work produces noises such as keyboard clicks and rustling while you take a nap at the office (because that is sure to fool your boss), and Designated Dialer, which prohibits you from calling certain contacts (think exes or frenemies) that you wouldn't call sober.

The ongoing expansion of smartphones, apps, and high-speed data access provide users with a networked system that can serve almost any purpose, and are limited only by the imagination. In many ways, the components and uses of a "smartphone system" are comparable to unmanned aerial systems, or drones. Within the military, only fifteen years have passed since drones were first used in a meaningful way for surveillance missions--and only ten years since they dropped bombs--and yet they already comprise one-third of all aircraft. On the civilian side, drones are used by environmental activists to track and monitor Japanese whaling ships, and a paparazzi drone could soon be used to track down celebrities. Last summer, engineers at the University of Southampton even "printed" a nearly silent surveillance drone with a 3-D laser printer that was assembled by hand within minutes.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that smartphone apps have been applied to drone technology. In 2009, the MIT Human and Automation Lab, in coordination with Boeing Research and Technology, designed and built an iPhone app and a miniature drone--a helicopter with four rotors called the Ascending Technologies Hummingbird--within six weeks for $5,000. In a test, the Boeing engineers in Seattle successfully flew the drone, located over 3,000 miles away at the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last July, Stephen Colbert interviewed Professor Missy Cummings, director of the MIT Lab, and demonstrated how to use an iPhone to control a drone, although with limited (albeit entertaining) success. As Professor Cummings acknowledged: "The military stuff is kind of passé. It doesn't take a rocket scientist from MIT to tell you if we can do it for a soldier in the field, we can do it for anybody."

Active duty soldiers are also capitalizing on the pilot programs and designing smartphone apps to use in the field. The apps cover a wide range of utilities, including assessing burn wounds, providing visual feeds of base perimeters, and even tracking the Taliban. As of September 2011, the Marines had more than thirty iPads in the cockpits of their helicopters and fighter jets, used for pinpointing locations and quickly determining best flight patterns.

It goes without saying that if engineering students can create a functioning unmanned aerial system quickly and cheaply, intelligent nonstate actors with deep pockets and malicious intent could do so as well. There are well-known examples when American students did as much, but with a vastly more destructive weapons system.

In 1964, U.S. government scientists devised the "Nth Country Experiment," in which they hired two PhD students, with no knowledge of nuclear physics, to determine "if a credible nuclear explosive device can be designed with modest effort, by a few well-trained people without contact with classified information." Within three years, using only publicly available scientific literature and the crude computational power of punch-card computers, the two students created technical specifications for an implosion bomb fueled by plutonium. The bomb was subsequently deemed credible and classified by the U.S. government. In 1977, Princeton undergraduate student John Phillips famously repeated this feat with his term paper, "How to Build Your Own Atomic Bomb." His advisor physicist Freeman Dyson later recalled: "I remember telling him I would give him an 'A' for it, but advised him to burn it as soon as the grade was registered."

Over time, the guarded knowledge of how to build a nuclear weapon has only widened. In 2004, then-Senator Joe Biden went so far as to tell an arms control conference at Georgetown University:

"When I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee...I gathered the heads of all the national laboratories and some of their subordinates in [the Capitol]. I asked them a simple question. I said I would like you to go back to your laboratory and try to assume for a moment you are a relatively informed terrorist group with access to some nuclear scientists. Could you build, off-the-shelf, a nuclear device? Not a dirty bomb, but something that would start a nuclear reaction--an atomic bomb. Could you build one? They came back several months later and said, "We built one."... I literally asked the laboratories to physically take this device into the Senate...it was bigger than a breadbox and smaller than a dump truck but they were able to get it in. They literally put it in a room and showed and explained how--literally off-the-shelf, without doing anything illegal--they actually constructed this device."

Of course, these nuclear weapons designs would still require access to the essential ingredient of fissile material to fuel any explosion. Nevertheless, the fact that what the Pentagon terms "Critical Nuclear Weapons Design Information," the most highly classified documents within the U.S. government, could have been replicated by educated nonexperts and built with Home Depot components, is a prime example that even the biggest national security secrets cannot and do not remain truly secret.

As compared to nuclear weapons, smartphone applications and basic drone designs are freely available and designed to be user-friendly, cost efficient, and modular. There are effectively blank-slate platforms that are intended to be updated constantly to meet the innovative user demands, with an ever expanding repertoire of tasks and functions. Beyond the iPhone app created by Boeing and MIT, there are several that already allow you to operate a drone from afar, including AR.Drone, Free Flight, and Drone Control. As one would expect, the App Store will give the green light to any app that is "free of explicit and offensive material." What someone does with these apps, or with smaller, cheaper, faster, and more lethal drones, is anybody's guess--for good or bad.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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