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Image created by Meredith Roberts.The war on everything, at your doorstep soon.

Sailing south through Summerland on the 101, I soon started down the curving palisades known affectionately as the Ventura Highway. This delightful stretch of road transports me to a sunny azure fugue every time … except on this day when I was snapped from my reverie by flashing lights and an ear-splitting siren.


Lights whooshed by my driver’s side to take up a position very close to my left front quarter panel, lunging at it threateningly like an F-16 forcing a jumbo jet to an alternate vector. I came to a stop on a dirty patch of nowhere beside lines of whizzing vehicles. The drone hovered at my window, which I obediently lowered.

“Mr. Hersh, is that you?” the bot inquired.

“Yes sir, or um, yes, it is.”

“Please look directly into the red dot for a moment, sir, while I confirm I.D. Okay, Mr. Hersh, according to my pitots you were doing 72 in a 70-mile-an-hour zone.”

“Seventy-two? Are you sure? And that’s Dr. Hersh to you.”

“Yes Dr. Hersh, my sensor has been deemed accurate to within point zero-zero-zero-zero-nine miles per hour. Here’s the GPS confirmation.”

“Don’t bother.”

“Actually I am required by law to provide proof positive when the perpetrator inquires. By the way, Mr. Hersh?”


“I see that your most recent infraction was back last spring.”

“Okay ….”

“That means you qualify for traffic school. This option will bring your ticket cost down eighty dollars to $130 if you now choose one of the government-approved traffic schools. In person or online?”


“Sort by?”

“Price, lowest to highest.”

Music jangled and a new voice came to life.

“Hi, Doug. It’s the gecko. Did you know that if you switch car insurance now I can save you the rate increase your current provider will charge you when officerbot Smith processes your ticket?”

“What, they have names now?”

Coming to a sky near you? This unmanned aerial vehicle, known as an Octocopter, is used for video and photo production.“Excuse me sir,” the traffic drone chimed in, “but I am a semi-autonomous officerbot of the law. I may choose any name I wish. Now how are you going to pay your $250 ticket?”

“Two-fifty? You said $230 before!”

“No I didn’t!”

After choosing an approved online traffic school and switching my insurance to avoid the rate increase, the whole affair cost me about $150. Demoralized like a specimen in an "Outer Limits" zoo, I crept off to the mall and parked near my favorite Made in Space store. All their products are auto manufactured in high earth orbit, so they pass the savings on to you.

“Hey, Douglas Hersh” a familiar voice called. “Sucks to be on the 101 today, eh?

I whirled and looked behind me. Not a soul in sight on aisle seven.

“No, Douglas, over here. Your pantry shows that you are dangerously low on coffee and well, here you are, right in front of the best deal on Kona you’ll find for miles. And I know how much you like a hot cup of Kona in the morning!”

Just then, a blimpbot floated over carrying a steaming cup of my favorite Park Place, two sugars, warm soy, no foam. "Nothing like a hot cup of joe to perk you up after an experience like that, right, Mr. Hersh? Scan you for a five?”

“That’s Dr. Hersh to you.”

“Uh…oh, Indeed, right you are. I am processing your payment for $6.00 now, including my Federal Trade Commission approved service gratuity. Thank you Dr. Hersh.”

“Six dollars? Damn Starbots!”

When scenarios like this become commonplace, let’s hope we remember where it all started. The FAA MODERNIZATION AND REFORM ACT OF 2012, signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 1, 2012 is a bill claiming “to streamline programs, create efficiencies, reduce waste, and improve aviation safety and capacity, to provide stable funding for the national aviation system, and for other purposes.” Yet buried within Title III–Safety–you will find Subtitle B bearing the euphonious appellation “Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” Within this concise subsection of a 300-page aviation bill is language intended to:

Allow a government public safety agency to operate unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less, if operated—

  • within the line of sight of the operator;
  • (ii) less than 400 feet above the ground;
  • (iii) during daylight conditions;
  • (iv) within Class G airspace; and
  • (v) outside of 5 statute miles from any airport, heliport, seaplane base, spaceport, or other location with aviation activities.

Click on image to read the full report.This legislation permits a phased approach to the civil use of drone aircraft, initially by government agencies such as law enforcement, and then by private companies and hobbyists. Computerworld’s Jaikumar Vijayan writes that drones will soon be seen used for “fugitive tracking and traffic management by law enforcement agencies, crop monitoring, land management, news reporting and filmmaking.” In fact, the ruling is moving ahead so rapidly that within a year the Secretary of Transportation must have a comprehensive plan developed, including a 5-year roadmap to “integrate civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.” The bill reads:

Not later than 270 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with representatives of the aviation industry, Federal agencies that employ unmanned aircraft systems technology in the national airspace system, and the unmanned aircraft systems industry, shall develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.

The “pilot” testing will take place at six separate ranges, likely within the Arctic circle near the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas. A report is due to selected congressional committees within ninety days of the termination of this 5-year study. The report will also include findings on the ability of the Department of Defense to “to develop detection techniques for small unmanned aircraft systems; and validate the sense and avoid capability and operation of unmanned aircraft systems.” During these five-plus year test phase, untold numbers of drone licenses are expected be issued.

Click on the image to listen to the entire John Villasenor interview, "Drones Over America: What Can They See?" on NPR's "Fresh Air." No language in the bill addresses the Fourth Amendment implications of civil, public or private use of flying drobots. “Anything you can do from a smartphone, you can put your smartphone on a drone and do it from a drone,” notes John Villasenor, Senior Fellow in Technology Innovation for the Brookings Institution, in a recent interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." On the other end of the spectrum, most people today associate aerial surveillance with satellites. Yet Villasenor reminds us that “satellites are much farther away. Even the lowest of the low-orbit satellites are never less than roughly 100 miles above the earth’s surface. Compare that with a drone at 60,000 feet and you’re talking about something that’s about one-tenth as far away, so these drones will be able to image in much more detail.”

And these drones will likely be capable of doing much more than shooting still pictures and video. Senior Policy Council at The Center for Democracy and Technology Harley Geiger predicts that domestic unmanned aerial vehicles “can be equipped with facial recognition cameras, license plate readers, thermal-imaging cameras, open WiFi sniffers and other sensors … to conduct continuous and pervasive surveillance over a wide area.”

Moreover, given Moore’s Law, these autonomous machines are likely to evolve divergent designs to suit equally divergent missions. According to Villasenor, “As these drones get cheaper, more prevalent, easier to get, more common, they attract less attention. It certainly raises the risk that they will fall into the wrong hands and be inappropriately used.”

A friend of mine complained the other day about being issued a $60 ticket by a red light camera. I smiled and thought wistfully that he might as well party like it was 1999!<>