I’ve been waiting for this

Smuggling illicit drugs across international borders can now be added to pizza delivery and targeted assassinations on the growing list of applications for drones.

Police in the Mexican border city of Tijuana said a small unmanned aerial vehicle overloaded with methamphetamine had crashed into a supermaket car park.

Always thought it was an obvious use of the technology.

45 thoughts on “I’ve been waiting for this”

  1. So Much for Subtlety

    Well as long as they don’t start delivering illegal immigrants …

    This has long been a threat to Western governments. That is why airplanes are so needlessly expensive and difficult to fly legally. If we all had one, there would be no real jurisdiction left for anyone. So death by regulation.

    Let’s see if drones are regulated out of existence in the same way.

  2. Open question to anyone who knows:

    On a recent holiday on Barbados I would watch daily as the usual collection of airlines flew in: Air Canada, BA, Virgin, Thompson. However, there was also a daily DHL flight carrying post etc. It made me think about drone aircraft. What, if any, are the technical inhibitors to larger jets being drones? There are after all no passengers on board. In fact, why don’t we use drones to fly passengers?

  3. bloke (not) in spain

    “What, if any, are the technical inhibitors to larger jets being drones?”
    They already effectively are. What with autopilots & GPS navigation etc it’s effectively the aircraft’s avionics suite telling the pilot what to do. The little that pilots do. It wouldn’t be hard to take the meat out of the loop altogether.

  4. So Much for Subtlety

    Ironman – “In fact, why don’t we use drones to fly passengers?”

    Regulation. Governments insist on wet-ware being involved. Even though the take offs and landings tend to be automatic. And most of the flying in-between.

    Sometimes though you do need a pilot. Look what may have happened to the recent Air Asia crash – the pilot encountered rough weather and asked permission to fly over it. And was never heard from again. A drone might not have been able to do that. Well, not without a pretty damn good lidar.

  5. In Britain, politically speaking: we are shat on from on high.

    When Isis and al Qaeda, get in on the drone scene – we are gonna be shat upon, shot at and bombed from the air for real.

  6. So Much for Subtlety

    dearieme – “overloaded with methamphetamine”: what dopes.”

    The drone was probably so overloaded that it shook too much and hence crashed. Nothing worse than a tweaking drone.

  7. Bomb drones are a way off; home-made explosive is pretty heavy stuff, and it taks a significant amount of it to cause serious damage.

    There’s no real point in flying a kilo of it into a target when you can walk in 30kg of it.

    As far as we can tell the relevant people don’t have much access to semtex or similar, but as and when they get hold of a kilo of HE then a flying nail bomb into the Stretford End would be my bet.

  8. It is a hopeful sign for the future. The states use of techno-oppression countered by the same technologies. They spy on us–we spy on them. Micro-drones for example, can follow political hacks around just as easily as they can follow the rest of us.

  9. The way the US is going, soon we’ll be able to get legal pot here and have to smuggle our pizzas in from Mexico.

  10. One reason to have wetware at the sharp end of a passenger plane is to reassure the customers that someone well-informed about its safety is willing to fly in it.

  11. And another is to take over when circumstances occur that are outside the parameters of the autopilot programming.

    There are many examples of successfully landing a plane after some sort of potentially catastrophic incident: the Hudson River landing after a birdstrike; and the ‘Gimli Glider’ to name just two.

  12. SMFS

    “Even though the take offs and landings tend to be automatic.”

    I didn’t know that? I had just assumed that it was mainly still manual, even though the machine can. Ie, to keep up practice / experience, for those “outside of parameters” scenarios?

  13. Nice one, PaulB

    Us plebs back in coach have noticed that the Captain is on a pretty good wedge.
    We interpret this as a risk premium.
    So we will only feel safe when the pilots are on minimum wage.

    Or, as the saying has it, in the future a passenger jet will be flown by a man and a dog. The man’s job will be to feed the dog. The dog’s job will be to bite the man if he touches the controls.

  14. Is no-one else thinking of the BBC Friday Film Special Sky Pirates from the 1970s where smugglers are trying to fly in diamonds from France by remote controls model aircraft (and are thwarted by kids flying model spitfires?

  15. PF

    Well, drones are all landed remotely, if not automatically. The safety record, as far as I know is fine (except for.the odd wedding party in the Afghan/Pakistani borders). So I was thinking drones when I saw that DHL aircraft and read Tim’s post rather than autopilot landings (do they exist?)

    At the moment I think PaulB has it, passenger psychology would stop us flying them as drones. Can’t think why cargo isn’t all drone though.

  16. IIRC, a full-sized cargo aircraft flew without a pilot between Australia and Hawaii about 10 years ago in the first demonstration of its kind.

    Given the entire aviation industry and a good portion of its passengers are convinced the use of a Kindle during taxiing places everyone in grave danger, I am skeptical we’ll be seeing pilotless planes any time soon.

  17. “in the first demonstration of its kind”

    But what was its ‘kind’?

    Drone flight appears to be eminently sensible and cost-effective for airliners; automated carries all sorts of obvious complications. There are Ground Control instructions that cannot be pre-programmed. There are aircraft system/technical issues in flight that might, in the most urgent cases, require diversion, There is weather, which will require changing flight plans. There is simple overcrowding in the skies, requiring pre-planned SIDs to be changed or roues to be altered or stacking on approach.

    So the Australia-Hawaii flight sounds very interesting, but could be one of a number of things.

  18. @UK Liberty

    I didn’t say you needed HE for nail bombs, I said you needed HE for nail bombs deliverable by drone.

  19. You actually said you needed HE for nail bombs deliverable by drone into the Stretford End. But let’s not split hairs.

  20. Drone flight appears to be eminently sensible and cost-effective for airliners

    Indeed. But “sensible” and “airliners” are often worlds apart. See the security screening, for example.

  21. @Ironman

    I must confess the Stretford End element is moveable. (It’s the only football ground ‘end’ I’ve heard of. Actually the Kop is another.)

    Doubtless you *could* fly a fertiliser bomb into a football ground, too, if UKL wants to be particularly picky; my point was why would you?

    Fertiliser ex is a low, slow explosive which needs quantity to do real damage, hence my contention that you’d be better off walking a bomb in.

    (Incidentally, HE is not the be all and end all. Low explosive causes more blast wave damage than HE except in very large quantities, which is why windows get blown out some distance away by truck bombs etc.)

  22. Tim Newman

    Thanks for this. And interesting feature of the article comes in the smallprint . When changes to the flight are necessary the operator adds a 3rd click. So not completely, fully automated.

    Interested

    I certainly didn’t think when I woke up this morning I would be discussing the practicalities of blowing up the Stretford End; happy days.

  23. Which way to bet on first fully robotised vehicule- passenger jet or driverless car?

    Cars are a mass market, have got google working on them.

    Planes are big and complicated and operate in three dimensions not two.

    Nevertheless my bet is on planes. Less street clutter up there.

  24. bloke (not) in spain

    If you want to talk about drones, you do have to define what you mean by drone.
    The sort of UFV’s being used in the middle east are remotely guided, although most of the grunt work of flying – pitch/roll/yaw//altitude maintainance – is handled by the onboard processing. The delivery drones Amazon have been talking about are autonomous devices.
    I spent a while playing with a simple drone last year. About £2000’s worth. Acts as a camera platform & when you fly it you’re POV is the aircraft’s, seen on a smartfone. It’s a bit like the UFV’s, in that you only have to choose the direction & altitude. You’re not required to control the flying attitude. That’s being done for you by the drone’s guidance sensors & processors.
    But if you wanted to bomb a football stadium why would you piss around with a rotorcopter? Stick similar avionics on a scaled down fixed wing & you could fly in a half hundred-weight bomb from twenty miles away or more. GPS way-routed to a point of impact within 10 meters. Closer if you used TV for terminal guidance.

    Does make me wonder if the days of the infantry soldier are severely numbered. A battlefield scattered with remotely operated vehicles, air & ground, all sizes from a rabbit or sparrow up & carrying all sorts of ordnance wouldn’t be survivable for long. How much does it cost to put a trained soldier in the field? How cheap can you build drones?
    No doubt the military enthusiasts will wafffle about drones not being able to “take & hold ground”. Why would you want to? You can deny it to others. Isn’t that the point?

  25. Of course the days of the infantry soldier are numbered, if you mean digging pikes into the ground and… Sorry, standing in serried ranks and loading muzzles and… Sorry, jumping out of trenches and running towards…

    Eventually the days of anything done by humans are numbered, my old genius.

    In the meantime, infantry soldiers will probably adapt.

    Until you develop your mechanical rabbits.

    (No, you don’t just want to deny land, it’s rather about getting to use the land for whatever use that you want to deny to the enemy.)

    Probably still need soldiers for a generation or two yet.

  26. So Much for Subtlety

    PF – “I didn’t know that? I had just assumed that it was mainly still manual, even though the machine can. Ie, to keep up practice / experience, for those “outside of parameters” scenarios?”

    I think Take Offs are usually manual actually. I should have been clearer. Although there is nothing to stop them being automatic. The landings, well, even back in the 1950s the automatic systems were doing a better job of it than normal pilots. But there was a lot of resistance from said pilots to using them. Britain was a pioneer in the field because London’s pea soupers (and often normal weather) meant that Britain had a lot of airfields where the pilot would have to land but where he could not see. So they turned the knowledge that had gone into things like Gee into an automatic landing system.

    I think pilots still object – taking off and landing are the only fun part of their jobs after all.

    It is however noticeable that in the new airliners, the pilot is advised to turn on the automatics for a whole range of flight problems. If you are flying over a volcano and your engine flames out, you are now advised to let the computers take over and manage the glide themselves. As they do a better job than the pilot.

  27. bnis,

    “Does make me wonder if the days of the infantry soldier are severely numbered. A battlefield scattered with remotely operated vehicles, air & ground, all sizes from a rabbit or sparrow up & carrying all sorts of ordnance wouldn’t be survivable for long. How much does it cost to put a trained soldier in the field? How cheap can you build drones?”

    No idea how much to build the physical stuff of a tank, but the computer stuff to link a remote operator would be cheap.

  28. SMFS

    That’s fascinating. I get “auto landing” in terms of capability, and with modern computers, but I am really struggling to imagine that a computer did a better job back then, ie before the days of the microprocessor (never mind back in the 1950’s)?

    I do understand a simple system (in those earlier days) getting a plane into the right place (generic velocity, altitude, location) say in foggy conditions, but the actual landing / touchdown itself? Surely a different level of processing capability altogether, and that didn’t simply exist at the time?

    And yes, my gut tells me that, today, a computer (lots of physical sensors), in heavy cross winds, would very easily adjust more rapidly and consistently to changes than a human could even imagine.

    Interesting – although it’s very recent, clearly a script hadn’t been written for the Hudson (concept). Thanks to his air force experience, he did mightily impressively put it down pretty perfectly himself?

    Pity the pilots! Our clumsy, silly little brains need lots of neural attention and feedback, and which of course necessitates being allowed to play regularly with the joysticks?

  29. Automated “drone” take-offs and landings in the most difficult circumstances are already established:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northrop_Grumman_X-47B

    As far as the future of air combat goes, it’s basically a race to develop an autonomous stealth fighter / bomber that can out-manoeuvre any human piloted plane. The technological advantage of the “west” (i.e. us lot) in this isn’t entirely clear to me. The Chinese already “share” the stealth tech, and they’re no slouches at computerisation. Interesting times.

    As for “home made” drone bombers, a “first person point of view” craft doesn’t have to carry a big explosive payload to be effective. Swap a “football end” for a small open carriage of royals, and you have a different value argument. If I can think of this, the nasties already have.

    FPOV drone flying was an area of considerable interest to me until I realised it’s only a matter of time before it’s banned.

  30. Hopefully, drones will make the border so porous that the War on Drugs will crash and burn. It is an abomination to a “free” people.

    Autopilot is fine . . . ’til your pitot tube gets plugged.

    Large scale pilotless aircraft are possible. I suspect the cost of putting a nominal human crew on board in case of instrument failure will always be less than the liability from a crashed plane. Technology has reduced flight crews to just two on many planes.

  31. Pitot tube is very unreliable. A proper fully functioning GPS system will do a better job.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but won’t a pitot tube give you airspeed, while a GPS gives you groundspeed, which is pretty much useless for an aircraft?

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