Imagine a robot flying with a gun, chasing an elderly woman into an alley, and ordering her to drop her purse. Terrified, she complies and runs away. The robot then swoops down, scoops up the purse, and takes off in flight.
Science fiction? Maybe not.
In debates about the proliferation of drones—the informal name for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—there is much concern about privacy rights but much less discussion about how criminals might use them. According to Victor Weedn, an accomplished forensic pathologist and chair of the Department of Forensic Sciences, drones could soon become a major tool in the arsenal of criminals everywhere.
And he fears the forensics community is not prepared to investigate crimes committed with the flying robots.
“We anticipate proliferation of UAVs in the civilian community, and it seems to us that we’re not ready for that,”said Weedn, who is coauthoring a paper on the subject with public safety technologies expert Anthony Hallett. “We in the forensic sciences community need to discuss the implications for what we do and figure out how to prepare.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has limited the use of drones in public airspace; however, those tight restrictions will expire in 2015. The result could be a huge increase in the use of unmanned flying robots by hobbyists, businesses, government agencies…and perhaps those harboring criminal intent.
UAVs are also becoming easier to acquire because electronics and communications equipment are relatively inexpensive, further fueling the increased presence of drones across the globe. “The sky is going to be dark with these things,” alumnus Chris Anderson, BS ’81, the former editor-in-chief of Wired, recently predicted in a story for The New York Times.
In the United States, most UAVs are used for search-and-rescue operations or to meticulously photograph disaster areas from above. However, there are already documented cases of smuggling and terrorism operations using drones.
“UAVs enable small groups with modest sums of money to do great harm,” noted Weedn. “Crimes that can be facilitated using drones include theft, arson, vandalism, dropping explosives or biological weapons, secretly videotaping closed events, disabling security equipment, and launching cyber-attacks.”
To thwart criminals, Weedn recommends that forensic investigators acquire specialized skills involving radio communications, digital evidence, and engineering. He also encourages the development of databases to help track types of robots and the tools—such as remote controls and electronic control systems—used to operate UAVs.
“But, as much as you do that, there will always be people using different trigger mechanisms or control systems,” he said, “and the varying types become endless.”