Sunday, March 11, 2012

Please welcome our special guest Mike Cooper

Drone Tech: Wicked Powerful

Mike Cooper

Today's guest is author Mike Cooper, whose novel Clawback has just been released by Viking. He's incredibly tall, super talented and the older brother of the lovely Sophie Littlefield. Please make him feel at home here at DSD and go read his book! You'll thank me when you do. Take it away Mike!


I write thrillers, among other genres -- the fast-paced sort, with cutting edge technology. Keeping up with new gear can be a problem, given publishing cycles: describe a fancy new iPhone in your draft, say, and by the time the book comes out, it's three versions old.

That's why there aren't any quadcopter drones in my current novel ... but there sure will be in the next! Private UAVs are astonishingly capable, more so every day, and interesting not just to thriller writers. If you're at all concerned about your every move being monitored by a crowd-sourced panopticon, you ought to pay attention to these remarkable devices.

For one thing, they're agile. Look at these two, playing autonomous ping-pong:

For another, they're smart. Or they can be programmed to appear so, which is maybe good enough. The next video shows a swarm of quadcopters flying in formation:

Or this set, playing the James Bond theme.

The point is, these little drones are incredibly capable and fairly cheap. If you don't want to build one yourself, a few hundred bucks buys one right off the internet.

The next obvious step is to attach a video camera, which most of these do. Now you've got a surveillance drone of your very own! Curious about your neighbors? The local police station? Your competitor's factory, behind its razor-wire fence? With your micro eye-in-the-sky, anything can now be seen. The following Nightline clip shows just what you can do. Starting at about 0:48, you can see video shot by a realtor, showing million-dollar estates he's trying to sell:

Sure, he had permission to fly his tri-rotor through the mansion -- but it would be easy enough to get almost as close without permission. Illegal, probably, but that's not a big deterrent. Certainly not to a typical thriller protagonist, who's always ignoring bureaucratic pettifoggery anyway.

Hobbyists are also building larger UAVs, including a repurposed Army drone (they replaced the gas engines with electric motors) that can hack wifi and cellular networks from the sky.

Don't count on the government to continue restricting unmanned aerial vehicles in the US. The FAA, which has strict regulation on the use of public airspace, has issued hundreds of waivers allowing government agencies to fly drones over US soil. And Congress recently ordered that drones be allowed more freely into civilian airspace by 2015.

Backyard nude sunbathers, beware.

Apart from the privacy issues, are these drones safe? Even skilled operators can lose control -- like in Texas recently, when a sheriff's deputy crashed a police UAV right into a SWAT truck. Amateurs and DIY-ers might or might not be more competent, but if nothing else, short battery life (15-20 minutes is typical flight time) will surely lead to unexpected hard landings.

Devices like these are only going to get smaller and quieter, with longer battery life and better optics. Combined with facial recognition technology -- also improving by leaps and bounds -- "Big Data" analytics, and ubiquituous computing, physical anonymity is very nearly a relic of the dead past.

But quadcopters definitely do belong in the next novel.

Mike Cooper is the pseudonym of a former jack-of-all-trades. Under a different name his work has received wide recognition, including a Shamus Award, a Thriller nomination, and inclusion in BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010. His next novel CLAWBACK will be published by Viking in 2012. Mike lives outside Boston with his family. More at


Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Mike! Thanks so much for taking over DSD today:) After your post I'm really glad I don't do backyard nude sunbathing... And I can't wait to see CLAWBACK climb the bestseller charts!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Wow, I'd love to give these to a bunch of eleven-year-olds and see what they could accomplish. They'd probably be a lot more adept than the sheriff's deputy and creative about what they invaded!