Can open source be giving comfort to the enemy?

2005543901635491116_rs I'm posting this because I feel honestly conflicted about something that's come up. As readers of this blog know, one of my side projects is making Unmanned Aerial Vehicles ("drones") and the technology that goes into them. Everything I do is open source, and I share much of it here. There are also loads of other open source UAV projects, led by amateurs from Germany to Australia.

People often think of UAVs as military tools, whether as spy planes or Hellfire-launching robot weapons. We're hoping to change that perception by showing how useful UAVs can be for everything from commercial geomapping to scientific sensing. But the UAV-as-weapon concern is persistent, and many people have asked whether we, by making the technology available and easy to use, might be inadvertently be helping our enemies.

My usual response is that the technology is out there anyway, and by doing things in public we're just making it easier for authorities to know what's possible and who's working on it. Hezbollah already has UAVs, after all, and the technologies we use (which range from cellphones to Lego) are hardly export-controlled.

But all that came to a head today when I read the main UAV newsgroup, and saw that Amir Aalipour, an Iranian in Tehran, had posted some pictures of his swing-wing UAV (shown), proudly bedecked with the colors of the Iranian flag. He's been following the discussion in these forums for some time and now wanted to come forward with his own impressive work.

Part of me says "Bravo Amir! Excellent work on the airframe, and thanks for posting." And part of me says "Yikes. We're helping Iranians make UAVs draped in nationalistic colors. This isn't going to help us in our efforts to destigmitize drones."

Obviously Iranian != terrorist/bad guy/anti-Israeli zealot. And needless to say, most of the terrorist/bad guy/anti-Israeli zealots out there who are building UAVs aren't posting on RC Groups. But what should I do if Amir or someone like him from a country associated with Bad Stuff posts on our own forums looking for technical advice? My instinct is to treat everyone alike and help anybody who asks, regardless of where they're from (odds are Amir is just a geek like the rest of us, no matter where he lives). But how does this look to someone in Washington? We're just a pen stroke away from being regulated out of existence, and in this climate it's politically unwise to discount the Homeland Security card (my own feelings about that notwithstanding).

I know, that's an ignorant, xenophobic and paranoid reaction. And my first instinct is to pay nationality no mind. But as I say, I'm conflicted on this. What would you do?

[UPDATE: Amir himself responds in the comments of my other blog. He's 17 years old. Which makes what he's done all the more impressive.]

Views: 584

Comment by justinfe on August 25, 2007 at 2:03am
In regards to this question you really should consult a lawyer, however to get an idea for yourself whether you may be in violation or not- you should read the ITAR Munitions List, there are several areas you potentially fall into. I *think* you're in the clear on a lot of things because you don't appear to be selling hardware, but the software is just as bad. It specifically lists drones that have a 'military purpose', but then defines a military purpose as also including aerial mapping and recon, it also talks about gyro's and so on and a lot of things of this general nature, then says software that does any of this. Seriously though, read the ITAR list yourself, and if you think you may be in a gray area seek legal counsel.
Comment by Wulffy on August 25, 2007 at 3:18pm
Comment by paul hubner on August 26, 2007 at 8:44pm
While I am concerned that a reactionary could rail for US amateur UAVs to be legislated out of existence (because as a rule, reactionaries are stupid) I refuse to worry about it.

Do I think some baddies are using open source sites for nefarious purposes? May be - but they're also using cars as weapons so should cars be outlawed? It really is that simple - balance the pros and cons. The F14s we sold them are a bit more dangerous than an EasyStar.

I DO think that Good Guys are using these sites to build their knowledge and realize some of their potential in science, engineering, and math. This is more important and carries more weight in my mind than any potential downside. As one man, I can only hope that legislators agree.

If governments decide to regulate these endeavors and limit creativity, then we are in a worse place than we thought. Trying to regulate information is a very BAD thing. Keep information free on the internet or we turn into China.
Comment by Michael A. Banks on August 29, 2007 at 7:10pm
Amir's design appears to be well-suited to a boost-glider configuration, and I would not be surprised if that's how he gets it into the air. With the wings folded back, it's one-half of a ballistically stable body, with the folded wings and tail surfaces acting as stabilizing "fins."

If the wings fold back to a 90-degree angle with reference to the fuselage, there are two fins. Hang the UAV an appropriately-sized rocket that has either two or three fins that each approximate the drag of the UAV, and you have a launch vehicle with a "fin" that becames an aircraft.

The wings automatically deploy at the rocket's apogee. Lots of ways to do that: timer, fuse, gravity, drag, or a dumb mechanism actuated by the rocket's recovery device, if any.
Of course, you risk the whole thing to a CATO or other malfunction during launch and boost, but the odds of that are in favor of the UAV. Great for STOL fields.
Comment by Patrick Egan on August 30, 2007 at 8:38am
I know this debate seems ridiculous to some but the reality is that we have a troop of 800 Lbs gorilla’s with 80 technology IQ keeping their watchful eye’s upon us. Regulation is on the horizon and most of this activity will be outside of the scope of the AMA’s safety rules. I’ll go one step further in venturing a guess that the Lego Mindstorm scenario will prove to be beyond the scope of what the FAA wants to comprehend.

Some of member’s of the troop-

Homeland Security who’s chief enjoys watching his favorite show 24 and in turn the show likes to delve into Mr. Chertoff’s worst fears. (Coincidence, who knows?)

Commerce classification 9A012 (lifted out of ITAR) and distilled down,

I’ve been told to be aware that posting anything on a website, relating to a controlled item (UAV parts) is considered to be an export by CUSTOMS. That means that any forum posting on concerning any electronic device (including TV equipment) can be considered an illegal export of a controlled product. I really find that one hard to swallow as most of these electronics come from overseas.
Comment by paul hubner on September 3, 2007 at 5:33pm

80 Tech IQs - lol!

"I’ve been told...considered an illegal export"

Told by who? I appreciate the concern, but I'm a skeptic who can't give any credence with coroboration.

Comment by Patrick Egan on September 9, 2007 at 8:51am
Manufactures who have been directly told by the Commerce Dept., also included in this definition is software…

9A120 Complete Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Not Specified in 9A012, Having
All of the Following

* * * * *

List of Items Controlled

Unit: * * *
Related Controls: * * *
Related Definitions: * * *
a. Having any of the following:
a.1. An autonomous flight control and navigation capability; or
a.2. Capability of controlled-flight out of the direct vision range
involving a human operator; and
b. Having any of the following:
b.1. Incorporating an aerosol dispensing system/mechanism with a
capacity greater than 20 liters; or
b.2. Designed or modified to incorporate an aerosol dispensing
system/mechanism with a capacity of greater than 20 liters.

Note: 9A120 does not control model aircraft, specially designed
for recreational or competition purposes.
Comment by Zigmond Floyed on September 14, 2007 at 4:28pm
Just to put things in perspective. Iran is still flying F14s that were sold to them by our government, including the Phoenix missiles that can hit a target from 120 miles away, using 30 year old technology. It is not clear to me how we endanger the safety of this country, by putting a few components together, or publishing software that solves relatively simple Newtonian physics to fly a VERY SLOW (compared to a supersonic missile) AUV.

It is the ideology that makes things dangerous and not the technology. Proliferating peaceful cooperation and promoting freedom and openness will yield better safety than coming up with restrictive and unenforceable laws. The Open Source movement is part of the general trend of empowering individuals through knowledge sharing. If people in governments see this trend as threatening, they are on the wrong side of the fence. I would be more worried about our own governments (central and local) picking up on affordable UAV technology to spy on law abiding citizens like us, for promoting the interests of the people in power.

BTW--I am betting that by making the above statements, I earned myself a pretty high ranking on the FBI's CARNIVORE database...:)


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