Building a Drone With Your iPhone

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.

Presented by

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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