No wires, no laws, no limits: How a flying drone network could liberate the Internet from above

electronic countermeasures drone

Internet pirates have a problem. As the shutdown of MegaUpload, rise of legislation like SOPA, and even new “six strikes” rules have all demonstrated, authorities are cracking down on illegal file sharing.

When The Pirate Bay recentled announced its plans to build GPS-controlled server drones, the torrent community was enlivened with excitement. It was a novel, futuristic and all-around badass concept. Imagine server drones whizzing overhead, actively eluding the detection of law enforcement officials. As officials are scrambling to take down these flying servers, nearby users will be sharing files without apprehension. The days of file sharers receiving threatening emails or having their connections throttled by ISPs would be just a fleeting memory. It sounded too good to be true, and not surprisingly, skeptics expressed their doubts. The Pirate Bay does, after all, throw around great ideas that aren’t being built.

But server drones aren’t science fiction — they already exist. The website Torrent Freak was quick to point out that a London-based thinktank has been cracking on the problem for some time. In fact, the group was months ahead in the game and had already tested artistic (yet fully functional) prototypes for a media-arts festival in the Netherlands.

We dug deeper to find out more about the promise of flying server drones, the complications, and how far they might be from spreader further.

Electronic Countermeasures

Liam Young helms the London thinktank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, which created the first server drones. Young explains that his drone project, titled “Electronic Countermeasures” began early in 2012 as a ‘provocation.’ “This is about inspiring others to explore the possibilities of drone technology for non-militarized opportunities, but also to raise awareness about just what is going on with the privatization of data,” Young told Digital Trends.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you’ve already read about amusing commercial uses for drones including the TacoCopter. But the more serious bit of news lately was Congress’ recent approval of a bill to allow private, commercial and military unmanned drones to fly in the same airspace as manned planes. The days that drones will be monitoring our locations, delivering food, or used for classroom research just may not be, legally, too far off. “Drone technology has very quickly revolved from being exclusively high end military and research technology to becoming exceptionally cheap and accessible,” Liam revealed. “The police are using drone networks as aerial surveillance infrastructure in the city, and it is inevitable that we start to imagine many more uses for this aerial infrastructure.”

Getting creative

We all know why The Pirate Bay started the conversation on drones. There’s a mounting pressure by corporations and the government to shut down file-sharing networks and platforms. The Pirate Bay has come under fire, while its peers, including MegaUpload, have been shuttered completely. But there’s a concern with today’s servers: Any server grounded in the same spot for long can easily be shut down. Attach a rotor to a server, and you need to capture it first.

Electronic Countermeasures how it works

While The Pirate Bay made claims that shooting down a drone was an “act of war,” in reality, a drone flying over UK territory can legally be detained by the country’s government. But the complex issue of ownership, if the drone has been built for the very purpose of eluding capture, shouldn’t be an issue in the first place. Liam tells us, “By the time authorities organize themselves to bring the network down, it has already moved on.” This flexibility is where the power of such drones lie. “They are able to swarm into formation, broadcast their pirate networks, and then disperse, escaping detection, only to reform elsewhere… it is their temporary and nomadic nature of the network at the scale of the city that makes them more difficult to control.”

The limitations and potential of flying servers 

There are inherent limitations to these mobile servers. Like the L-train ‘notwork’ and the Pirate Box, flying file-sharing drones are localized. The broadcast range of Young’s drones reach merely between 200 and 300 meters. While the range could be boosted, with today’s technology, it’s still impossible for a file sharer in China to share a file with user in New York, 6,000 miles away. Realistically, such drones would have to occupy oceans and litter continents to connect one end of the world to the other.

While restricted by the capabilities of today’s technology, Young believes that file-sharing drone networks are still feasible. On a smaller scale, a single drone server could cover just a local street corner. With enough resources and funding, enough drones could be dispatched to service a festival or even a nation state.

The second big hurdle boils down to power. The flight duration of Young’s existing prototypes is a mere 20 minutes before needing to be autonomously recharged at charging stations. The solution for an extended flight time might be as simple as solar power. “It is also easy to imagine technologies like solar power, which is at the moment cost prohibitive, becoming much more economical in the near future,” Young told us. But with breakthroughs like Twin Creek Technology’s streamlined manufacturing process of solar wafers, the cost and weight of panels will one day fit seamlessly with these diminutive flying drones.

Not only does a drone network’s broadcast range and battery life require scaling, but to achieve aerial maneuverability and avoid detection, drone-to-drone interactivity must exist. Admittedly, Young’s prototype drones have a long way to go before they even remotely rival UPenn’s autonomous quad-rotor drones, but Young and his team have been mulling over the upgrade. “Yes, we can imagine future iterations of the project that develop these autonomous drone-to-drone interactions,” Young told us. But the team is already thinking about taking it a step further. What Young revealed to us, is their goal to include an extra variable in the interaction – the users. “We are interested in how the aerial choreography of the drone flock can be more responsive to the way the audience below is interacting with it. We already imagine our own network as a dynamic aerial choreography where the drones follow GPS way point routes but collectively respond to audience interactions.”

Taking the ‘world wide’ out of World Wide Web

To the team at Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, file sharing doesn’t necessitate intercontinental sharing. “I am not sure if it is really about making all files available anywhere anytime,” Young told us. We’re used to sitting on our computer and having the data come to us through downloadable files, but what Young imagines is a world where data can be unique to communities.

electronic countermeasures around people

If you visit a new state, even within the United States, there are cultural differences and the uniqueness of the location identifies one state from another. “I like that new geographically specific data cultures may emerge,” Young added. To obtain data from a specific drone, you may have to trek to the predetermined location. “Just like particular areas or neighborhoods in cities have their own qualities and atmospheres, you could also imagine data suburbs, where people must travel to particular areas for specific sorts of data.”

Imagining a future with flying servers

The possibilities of a flying network without wires extend well beyond the possibility of unfettered file sharing. Its mobility could also be an invaluable asset during wars. In fact, it isn’t too far off of what the American government is already capable of. “We are operating in a time where the US military has developed aerial Internet network systems to force the Internet on dictators,” Young told us, while pointing us to an article on the subject by Wired. The American government has the capability to ‘beam’ the Internet to citizens whose connections have been shut down from a cargo plane or ship. When Twitter, Facebook, blogs and text messages are arguably more powerful armaments in recent times than grenade launchers and AK47s, it’s hardly surprising. “We think of this as a form of weaponized connectivity,” Young added.

One quintessential example is the Arab Spring. The common strategy shared among the dictators of the afflicted countries was to cut off the Internet and isolate their citizens from communicating among themselves and with the outside world. Had flying servers been deployed, intercepting information or cutting off the communication could end up being an impossible feat for any government. “Connectivity, or the lack of it, has huge social and political consequences. We are imagining a range of applications, from enabling coordinated protests within the city, community-controlled surveillance networks, to more modest applications of bringing virtual communities together in physical space,” Young said.

But the mobility of servers could be a cause for international debate. While Young predicts that these drones could hop between national borders, and “occupy international airspace so that it is more difficult for particular jurisdictions to legislate against them,” you have to wonder about its consequences. Could it spark an international war over the extradition of a captured server?

Who owns a flying server’s data and technology?

You might be wondering who would take ownership of the data or the device itself? Who would control its movement? After all, Young was in part inspired by what he believes to be a dangerous state of the Internet. Users will sell their privacy to corporations and increasingly so with the popularity of cloud storage. “The privatization of knowledge is the biggest danger. A cloud managed by private companies, is potentially a very dangerous direction that we are going in,” Young said.

There isn’t a definitive answer, and appears to be entirely up to the users. The network could be devoted entirely to the general public, or specific to a local neighborhood. On the other hand, the drones and data could be, like GPS satellite networks, “competitive commercial activities with their own politics of ownership.”

Setting the foundation for future drone technology

electronic countermeasures swarm

While Young and his team appear to have been the first developers of flying servers, they’re inviting others with creative ideas to explore the potential of autonomous drones. In fact, they’re more than welcoming of some friendly competition. You have to remember that the idea didn’t rise out of Young’s desire to build servers for file-sharing purposes. It began as simple curiosity, motivated by a music festival. Then it evolved into the hope that it would inspire others, while raising awareness about today’s confusion surrounding our rights to privacy.

How The Pirate Bay plans on approaching the construction of autonomous flying servers is still up for debate, but Young is cognizant of his project’s limitations. Even if his drones remain flying works of art, he’ll still be content. “If this drone network isn’t implemented as a practical solution, we would be just as interested if the work made us question what is happening and what alternatives there may be data distribution. Either way the project is about provoking action,” Young reiterated.

Electronic Countermeasures @ GLOW Festival NL 2011 from liam young on Vimeo.

Photographs by Claus Langer and courtesy of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today