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The New Great American Pastime: Drone-Hunting

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

On Monday, a hobbyist’s drone made a surprising appearance on the lawn of the White House

These drones, you might have noticed, are everywhere. They serve as useful tools for filmmakers, farmers, real estate agents, and wildlife conservationists; on the other hand, they can “rattle" the Secret Service, and invade your personal privacy.

Perhaps as a result of that latter threat we can now add a new entry to the ledger of stuff drones may one day be used for — destroying other people’s drones.

This, at least, is the promise of the Rapere Intercept Drone. It’s an unmanned aerial vehicle (as these gizmos are more properly called) designed to track other UAVs and launch a “tangle line” that gums up a target’s rotary blades and sends it crashing to earth.

(Photo: Rapere)

At the moment, this device is basically a proposal with a website, so it’s hard to say whether its developers can really deliver on this promise or whether they’re even serious.

But the mere idea has attracted plenty of attention — and no wonder. As regulators try to figure out where UAVs can go and under what circumstances, the drone revolution has already made plenty of Americans nervous and others straight-up freaked out.

Whatever becomes of the Rapere, it’s a concept that’s tapping directly into the zeitgeist — and a fear of drones that’s been hovering just under the radar.

“Numerous Shots Rang Out

“The first American patriot that shoots down one of these drones that comes too close to his children in his backyard will be an American hero,” Judge Andrew Napolitano, a commentator on Fox News, predicted back in May 2012

As it happens, at least one shootdown had already been reported by then. In February 2012, an animal rights organization dispatched a MikroKopter UAV over a South Carolina property to document a pigeon shoot. “Seconds after it hit the air, numerous shots rang out,” the head of that organization said at the time. “As an act of revenge for us shutting down the pigeon slaughter, they had shot down our copter.” (In 2013, the same group reported a similar drone-downing incident in Pennsylvania.)

Since then, we’ve seen a number of drone-rage incidents evidently escalate to attacks on these flying objects, or an overt attempt to do so. Last year, for example, a man in Lower Township, N.J., was arrested for allegedly shotgunning down a drone that someone was using to document an under-construction house nearby.

Sadly there’s no footage of that incident, but for a glimpse of a shotgun vs. drone face-off, you can watch some field tests demonstrating the resilience of a super-tough UAV, with the gun moment starting at about the four-minute mark in this video.

Earlier, someone in a Colorado town attempted (unsuccessfully, despite reportedly having the mayor’s support) to “sell hunting licenses to shoot down drones inside city limits.” Still, a lot of licenses were reportedly sold — essentially as novelty items — and the effort made it onto The Colbert Report.

And then there was the concertgoer in Peru who managed to snatch and disable a drone in mid-air.

Now, I’ll concede, that guy’s motives are not particularly clear — and I’m certainly not saying he’s a “hero.”

But set aside thoughts about hashing out tech policies for a moment and admit there’s something incredibly satisfying about watching some random dude swatting down a sophisticated device with his bare hand. What’s that about, exactly?

The Drone-Hunting Hero

At some point in the past couple of years, the mere idea of treating drones like invasive predators attained a certain level of  acceptability — marginal, perhaps, but real.

A Montana Republican candidate for the House of Representatives last year gunned down a “government” drone — or rather, pretended to — in a political ad in which he promised to “get Washington out of our lives.” (He lost.)

Also last year, a company that that makes silencers explored the idea of drone-whomping spokeshero in an online ad that subsequently made the rounds:

Actually, “Johnny Dronehunter: Defender of Privacy” doesn’t do any speaking per se, but the notes on this YouTube clip explain the premise: “In the not-too-distant future, privacy is a thing of the past. Undeniable rights degrade like the paper they were written upon, and Big Brother has a constant eye on you and your family.”

It reads mostly tongue-in-cheek, and the video itself has an action-movie goofiness, as this vaguely Mad Max-style figure blasts a flock of UAVs from the sky with a shotgun. (It’s not clear why this would require a silencer — particularly because, for some reason, each drone explodes on impact with the ground. But whatever.) Here, in fictional form, is the heroic drone-slayer that the Fox pundit imagined. 

And it turns out the idea of consumer demand for a drone-thwarting tool more sophisticated than a shotgun predates the Rapere floating into view. An outfit called Domestic Drone Countermeasures claims to have patents pending for “a variety” of “drone detection systems” –– and, according to past reports, has explored technology that could render UAVs “unable to complete their missions.”

The Rapere pitch positions it as “a professional tool” for a narrow audience, not the drone-nervous average citizen. The unnamed developers claim to be veterans in this particular field of technology who have “never come across any bogus use of drones.” But, the pitch continues, “it’s inevitable that will happen, and for people such as celebrities, where there is profit to be made in illegally invading their privacy, there should be an option to thwart it.”

OK. But as this brief history of anti-drone sentiment demonstrates, opponents of this technology aren’t just famous people worried about paparazzi, and they don’t seem to be motivated by foiling the potential economic incentives behind these flying machines. There’s something more basic, almost primal, going on here.

The Stranger With a Drone

In May 2013, the Capitol Hill Seattle blog’s local-crime roundup included an unusual item quoting an unnamed resident of the area: “This afternoon,” she wrote, “a stranger set an aerial drone into flight over my yard and beside my house near Miller Playfield.” She spotted it from her third-story window, “hovering a few feet away.” The operator of the device was apparently standing on the sidewalk, and the woman’s husband asked him to knock it off.

The stranger refused, until the couple called the police, at which point he left. “He purported to be doing ‘research’,” the woman related. “We are extremely concerned, as he could very easily be a criminal who plans to break into our house or a peeping-tom.” Not surprisingly, the story was picked up by a variety of media outlets.

There’s a kind of mythical quality to this anecdote — it sounds like an exaggerated story made up to illustrate a plausible dilemma with which we can all identify. But that’s not a reason to dismiss it. In fact, that’s why it matters: It’s exactly the kind of repeatable and relatable miniature tale that throws the whole issue into sharp relief.

Among other things, it gets at something that most of the drone-attack tales, and certainly the drone-attack fictions, never quite pin down: It’s not really the machines that some people fear and loathe: It’s the people who control them. The machine is merely a stand-in for the power of the observer over the observed; destroy the machine, of course, and the power shifts.  

It’s one thing to talk abstractly about balancing privacy concerns against useful technological progress. It’s something else entirely to consider a drone showing up unexpectedly on, say, your lawn — particularly if you don’t happen to have a phalanx of Secret Service types to lock down the area and determine its origins.

Or to notice a guy standing outside your house and using a complicated machine to get a better view through your upstairs window. What would you do? And maybe more to the point, what would you want to do?  

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.