Unmanned aerial vehicles aren't just raining missiles on Afghanistan and Pakistan—they're coming to the skies near you. UAV makers are eager to launch their wares in US airspace, and everyone from cops to scientists to hobbyists wants one. The FAA is still figuring out how drones and planes can play nice, but the first domestic UAVs are already taking to the air. Below, some current and anticipated flight plans.
Eyes in the Skies The Border Patrol has 7 unarmed Predators, which it says have helped bust 15,000 lbs. of pot and 4,000 undocumented border crossers. In 2003, the American Border Patrol, an Arizona anti-immigration group, launched its own UAV, the Border Hawk, to look for "invaders."
Hanging Around AeroVironment says its Global Observer's ability to "loiter" at 65,000 feet for a week makes it perfect for mapping, weather tracking, crop management...oh, and homeland security.
Air Spray Programmable unmanned choppers have been spraying Japanese crops since the early 1990s.
Seeing Green The makers of the $17,000 Draganflyer X6 helicopter say it's perfect for golf course owners who want "stunning pictures" of their fairways.
Drone Alone Private citizens can fly their own drones, so long as they stay below 400 feet. You can build your own for less than $500. Check out diydrones.com.
Hide and Seek In February, a British police UAV used thermal imaging to nab a suspected car thief—the UK's first drone-assisted arrest. The Houston PD and the LA Sheriff have test flown UAVs, and the FBI has tested a model designed to fly down alleyways, tunnels, and ventilation shafts.
Unfriendly Skies Defense analysts warn that inexpensive UAVs could be "the ideal attack platform" for terrorists. In 2004, Homeland Security said it was watching for "suspicious persons" with an interest in remote-controlled aircraft.
Special Delivery FedEx's founder says the company would like to fly UAVs in the near future.
A NASA researcher predicts that we could soon see what Air & Space calls an "unmanned pizza delivery pod."
Bombs Away At the White House Correspondents' Dinner in May, President Obama warned the Jonas Brothers: "Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones."
The New Yorker has a fascinating new profile of Julian Assange, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks. Raffi Khatchadourian's piece is full of revelations about the enigmatic hacker-turned-"open-government activist", from details of his peripatetic childhood to an exclusive glimpse of Assange at work on the "Collateral Murder" video of an American Army helicopter shooting journalists and civilians in Baghdad.
Check it out—but also check out MoJo's controversial profile of Assange by David Kushner, which has just been updated and expanded. Like Kushner, Khatchadourian concludes that Assange's attempts to shine light on evildoers while lurking in the shadows is deeply contradictory: "The thing that he seems to detest most—power with accountability—is encoded in the site's DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution."
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in the New Yorker story is its discussion of how WikiLeaks got its start. When WikiLeaks was in the planning stages in 2006, Assange said that he had more than 1 million documents; a claim that convinced Cryptome founder Jon Young that Assange was either exaggerating or up to no good. But now it seems that Assange did have his hands on a large, questionably obtained, cache of material. Khatchadourian reports that one WikiLeaks activist had access to a "tranche" of secret government documents obtained by Chinese hackers. The documents had been pulled off of Tor, the anonymizing network that WikiLeaks now encourages its leakers to use to stymie "internet spies." According to the New Yorker, WikiLeaks posted only a few of those swiped documents. If it's accurate, this anecdote raises some serious ethical and technical questions about how WikiLeaks operates. Does WikiLeaks condone this kind of online snooping? Has it relied upon it since its launch? Just how many of the senstive documents it's posted were genuinely leaked and how many were hacked?
Is Fort Knox secretly empty? Did Glenn Beck—or perhaps aliens—move the gold to an even more secure location? Yes, it's time for another installment of Conspiracy Watch, our ongoing collection of wonderfully weird (and totally whack) conspiracy theories.
THE THEORY: The federal government keeps more than half of its gold—some 5,050 tons—stashed inside the bullion depository in Ft. Knox, Kentucky. At least it says it does, since it won't let anyone in there to check. Why all the secrecy? Because much—or all—of the gold has disappeared.
THE CONSPIRACY THEORISTS: Fears that Ft. Knox is being emptied date back more than half a century (see "Gold Bug Variations"). Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) says his measure to audit the Federal Reserve, which passed the House last December, would force the first open audit of Ft. Knox in decades. The Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee, a nonprofit that promotes "the liberation of thee precious metals markets as a matter of international human rights," suspects that the gold has been raided to manipulate commodities markets in an effort to sink gold prices and bolster the dollar. Some gold bugs go even further, claiming that Ft. Knox's gold bars have been replaced with fakes filled with super-dense tungsten.
MEANWHILE, BACK ON EARTH: Mint spokesman Michael White says the Treasury conducts a "comprehensive audit" of Ft. Knox annually, and the gold's all there—you'll just have to take its word for it. And Ron Paul's plan to open the Fed's books might not penetrate the vault: The US Mint and the Federal Reserve say that Ft. Knox is not even part of the Fed.
Kookiness Rating: (1=maybe they're on to something, 5=break out the tinfoil hat!)
As hopes of a Hollywood ending to the BP oil disaster have all but faded, AP reports that Avatar director James Cameron has met with federal officials to offer his help in terminating the leak. No, he's not proposing a junk shot of useless Avatar merchandise. Rather, according to the UK Telegraph, Cameron has already offered BP use of some of his private submersibles, big toys inspired by his big-budget bathtub epics The Abyss and Titantic. Meanwhile, Waterworld survivor Kevin Costner has gotten a surge of positive buzz for his Ocean Therapy device, a centrifuge that cleanses oil-contaminated water; BP is reportedly testing the invention. Who's next, Sting?
Certainly, BP could use all the help it can get. Beyond the failed top kill and flimsy containment barriers, there have to be more ideas out there for a last-ditch effforts to stop, contain, or clean up the spill. BP says it's already received more than 7,800 ideas via its suggestions hotline and a special page on its disaster response website. InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing project linked with NASA and the Rockefeller Foundation, has issued a challenge to innovators to come up with bright ideas ASAP. Even if the vast majority are worthless or wacky (like the notion of nuking the leak into oblivion), there ought to be a couple solid ideas in there. Let's see what happens—and then figure out why these plans weren't on oil-industry and regulators' drawing boards years ago.