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National Security Experts Go Rogue For 'Drone Smackdown'

Sep 25, 2012
Originally published on September 25, 2012 7:39 pm

It started as trash talk between two contributors to a national security blog. They decided to host a drone smackdown to see if one guy's machine could take down another.

Unarmed drones, of course. The kind you can put together with a toy-store model and $200 in modifications. But the game turned out to have some serious undertones.

First, a word about the location. For a moment last week, the whole drone smackdown was up in the air.

A park in Washington had been ruled out after the Federal Aviation Administration warned that machines not much bigger than your kid's toy helicopter didn't belong in D.C.'s restricted airspace.

"Rather to my surprise, I got a phone call from the FAA informing me that they considered it improper and illegal to run drones in Washington," says Ben Wittes, an architect of the drone competition. That includes even little rinky-dink, unarmed drones like these Parrot AR models.

So the race was on to find a new location, only days before the event. They settled on a grassy area in Manassas, Va., bordered by a pond, leafy trees and a patch of poison ivy.

Five contestants — aviation buffs and national security experts — arrived Sunday afternoon and began to unwrap their machines.

Shane Harris, a national security writer at Washingtonian magazine and the judge of this contest, reminded the players about the rules of engagement. "Air attacks on ground targets, including your pilots and your judge, are prohibited," Harris said.

After a few minutes of fumbling, Round 1 began. "All right, let the battle begin," Harris declared.

The first contestant was a drone with interlocking black loops to protect the rotors, shaped like the burners on your stove top. The machine, nicknamed Stux2bu, belonged to Wittes, co-founder of Lawfare, the blog that sponsored the contest.

The loops on the opposing drone were draped with blue and white yarn resembling the tentacles of a jellyfish. But it couldn't get any lift, to the chagrin of Homeland Security consultant Paul Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig tried to rally his team, including his grandson Ryan.

"Ryan, lower it," Rosenzweig said.

"I'm trying," Ryan replied. "It's disconnected, and it's not letting me do anything."

"You disconnected it?" the grandfather asked.

Ryan said, "It disconnected."

Realization began to dawn. "Ah," Rosenzweig said. "So Ben is messing with it."

Messing with it all right, by jamming the wireless signal, so Rosenzweig couldn't direct his drone.

His machine dropped into the grass. And it didn't get up. Not much of a dogfight when one of the drones can't get off the ground. The remainder of the contest proved no contest at all because of the paralyzing cyberattack by Wittes' so-called accomplices, aged 11 and 14.

They pointed out the name of their drone derived from the word Stuxnet, the infamous real-world computer virus discovered in June 2010 that targeted Iran's nuclear enrichment efforts.

Cyberattacks are claiming increasing attention on the world stage. Just last week, the State Department's top lawyer declared they could be considered acts of war.

But on the field near Manassas, as the judge announced a victor, Wittes told a gently protesting Rosenzweig that he had played by the rules, as written.

"All right, as the judge I officially declare that Ben Wittes is the champion," Harris said to applause.

"A little bit of a cheater but ..." Rosenzweig interjected.

"Hey man, in any negotiation over the laws of war, it pays to be the draftsman," Wittes replied.

To a lot of people, drones are no laughing matter. U.S. machines equipped with deadly missiles have killed al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Yemen. They've also killed some innocent civilians.

Founders of the smackdown say they respect those arguments. But Wittes says he thought it was important for the event "just to highlight the degree to which very powerful, very inexpensive robotic technologies are becoming available to anybody who wants them."

And to highlight the importance of cybersecurity in an increasingly networked world.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It started as trash talk between two contributors to a national security blog. To settle their differences, they decided to host a drone smackdown. Not armed drones, of course, but model drones; the kind anyone can buy at a toy store or online.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports while the smackdown was all in the name of fun, it also had some serious undertones.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Let's be clear. This was just a game for national security experts and aviation buffs trying to knock each other's little rinky-dink unarmed drones out of the sky, on beautiful afternoon at the end of the summer.

SHANE HARRIS: We're somewhere in Virginia.

JOHNSON: Shane Harris, a national security writer and the judge of this contest, sounds merry. But for a moment last week, the whole drone smackdown was up in the air. A park in Washington had been ruled out after the Federal Aviation Administration warned that machines not much bigger than your kid's toy helicopter didn't belong in D.C.'s restricted air space.

Ben Wittes is an architect of the competition.

BEN WITTES: Rather to my surprise, I got a phone call from the FAA informing me that they considered it improper and illegal to run drones in Washington.

JOHNSON: Even toy store versions like these, he says. So the race was on to find a new location, only days before the event. They settled on a grassy area in Manassas, Virginia, bordered by a pond, leafy trees and a patch of poison ivy. Five contestants arrived Sunday afternoon and began to unwrap their machines.

Judge Shane Harris reminded the players about the rules of engagement.

HARRIS: Moreover, air attacks on ground targets, including your pilots and your judge, are prohibited.

JOHNSON: After a few more minutes of fumbling, round one.

HARRIS: All right, let the battle begin.

JOHNSON: The first contestant was a drone with interlocking black loops to protect the rotors, shaped like the burners on your stove top. The machine belonged to Wittes, founder of a national security blog called Lawfare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JOHNSON: The opposing drone was draped with blue and white yarn, resembling the tentacles of a jellyfish. But it couldn't get any lift. Homeland security consultant Paul Rosenzweig tried to rally his team, including his grandson Ryan.

PAUL ROSENZWEIG: Ryan, lower it.

RYAN: I'm trying. It's disconnected and it's not letting me do anything.

ROSENZWEIG: You disconnected it?

RYAN: It disconnected.

ROSENZWEIG: Ah. So, Ben is messing with it.

JOHNSON: Messing with it, all right. By jamming the wireless signal, so Rosenzweig couldn't talk to or direct his drone. His machine dropped to the grass and it didn't get up. Not much of a dogfight when one of the drones can't get off the ground. The remainder of the contest proved no contest at all because of the paralyzing cyber attack by Wittes's children, aged 11 and 14.

They pointed out the name of their drone derived from the word Stuxnet, the infamous real world computer virus discovered in June 2010 that targeted Iran's nuclear enrichment efforts. The State Department's top lawyer declared last week that cyber attacks could be acts of war.

But on the field near Manassas, as the judge announced a victor, Wittes told a protesting Rosenzweig that he had played by the rules, as written.

WITTES: All right as the judge, I officially declare that Ben Wittes is the champion.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right.

ROSENZWEIG: A little bit of a cheater but...

WITTES: Hey, man. In any negotiation over the laws of war, it pays to be the draftsman.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: To a lot of people, drones are no laughing matter. U.S. machines equipped with deadly missiles have killed al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Yemen. They've also killed some innocent civilians. Founders of the smackdown say they appreciate those concerns, but Wittes says he thought it was important for the event...

WITTES: To highlight the degree to which very powerful, very inexpensive robotic technologies are becoming available to anybody who wants them.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.