Last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller finally admitted that the Bureau uses drones to carry out surveillance on Americans. Meanwhile, the tweens next door are probably spying on you too, watching you pick your nose using a $300 drone they bought online. UAV use -- and public anxiety over it -- is exploding. And Domestic Drone Countermeasures, an anti-drone technology startup, is building a business around it.
DDC is a small, two-person company based in Oregon City, just south of Portland. Its founder, Tim Faucett, has a background in defence contracting, but he and his partner Amy Ciesielka pivoted into anti-drone tech in February. Faucett is frank about the fact that DDC is capitalising on the growing fear about drones. "We sensed that people were feeling a bit helpless about drone technology, as far as personal privacy goes," he told me over the phone. “It’s not that drones are bad. It’s the people using them.”
A Map of Domestic Drone Authorisations in the United States.
Do we really have reason to be concerned? There are plenty of ways in which UAVs are helpful to the public good -- like fighting fires and monitoring crime scenes. On the other hand, according to many watchdog groups, the government is poised to abuse the use of UAVs to monitor citizens without warrant. “All the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life,” argued the ACLU in their report on drones, “a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.”
People who agree with that statement are Faucett's target customers. DDC’s lower-end systems -- which are marketed mainly to homeowners -- are designed to perform three basic tasks: detect, identify, and alert. Faucett is purposefully vague about the specifics, but these are systems designed to distinguish the approach of a UAVs, not eliminate them. According to him, UAVs can be detected using a series of motion and electromagnetic sensors, which can distinguish between a drone and, say, a plane or bird, because UAVs have distinct electromagnetic fingerprints. Once the system detects a nearby UAV, it alerts residents through a sound or light-based alert. According to Faucett, DDC has already filed patents for most of their systems. "There’s a lot of levels you can go to, to basically do what the military does,” he says. “We’re just bringing it down to a consumer level.”
Then there are DDC’s higher end systems, which are built by Faucett to include a distributed network of sensors and cameras. “The residential systems are really just detection systems, and they discriminate at a very short distance,” he explains. “The higher end systems are for commercial businesses, who would be interested drones doing industrial espionage in their facility.” The exact profile of these systems changes according to the client, but most of them involve the installation of antennas around a client’s property. These transmit back to a central computer, and if a UAV is detected within the perimeter, the system will deploy “countermeasures." Faucett is hesitant to say exactly what those countermeasure are, beyond sending users an alert, but he's adamant that they're non-combative.
Of course, it stands to reason that the nature of the countermeasure depends on the client -- and according to DDC, the client ranges wildly in profile. “It crossed a lot of boundaries,” Faucett says of DDC’s high-profile launch earlier this year. “We were getting inquiries from militia groups and from housewives. We were getting hits from gun owners and people who were anti-government, as well as pro-government people.”
Most of DDC's products cost about as much as a luxury car -- which is pretty expensive, for many homeowners. There also isn't much information available about their accuracy, or about quality control in general. It's hard to say whether DDC is a bellwether for a whole new industry, or if it's simply a fascinating outlier capitalising on the public's anxiety. But the market does seem to exist; Faucett claims to have gotten thousands of inquiries over the past few months. “It really resonated with a lot of people,” he says. "We're giving them some hope, when they had felt hopelessness against this technology."
We've seen plenty artists and designers comment on the surveillance state in recent months -- for example, artist Adam Harvey's drone-proof hoodies and architect Asher Kohn's drone-proof city. But DDC is actually building and selling products to the public, which is far more interesting than any conceptual project. It's unlikely that anti-drone tech like theirs will ever become truly ubiquitous (imagine new cars that come standard with drone alert!), but the mere existence of DDC shows how UAVs are already beginning to change the way we conceive of privacy in an age of omnipresent surveillance.