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Autonomous file-sharing sky drones ahoy!

Those wacky pirates are reportedly at it again. Remember Raspberry Pi, the cheap, light Linux computer that we wrote about a few weeks back? Infamous filesharing activist group the Pirate Bay has announced that it plans to put computers like these onto autonomous flying vehicles that will hover kilometres up in the air. The idea is that they will be able to share files by communicating with numerous radio ground stations, making it even more difficult for the authorities to take out The Pirate Bay's server infrastructure.

This move, announced in a blog post on March 18, seems too early to be an April Fools gag. The Bay wants to 'float' vehicles autonomously in the sky that would serve as front-end proxy servers, routing file sharing traffic between its users and its collection of secret computers, hosted in well-concealed locations. The TPB's rationale is that by making its front-end computers hard to get at, the authorities won't be able to take them down.

There are lots of reasons why this would be very difficult to implement successfully, and the ever-sceptical Charles Arthur of the Guardian points some out here (as do some of the commentors on TPB's blog post, and a writer at Slate). Still, the blog post raises two very interesting concepts. The first are autonomous drones themselves, and the second is local metropolitan area darknets. Proxies to back-end file sharing networks are just a distraction. 

About 10 years ago, a very smart engineer friend of mine spent a solid year trying to build an autonomous flying helicopter with four separate sets of blades to maintain stability. He worked 15 hours a day hacking out code to directly control the servos and keep the whole thing aloft, and failed, due to the complexity of the technology, and the inadequacy of the materials available. But things have moved on in the last decade.

Now, scientists and hackers alike are at it, with impressive results. Not only is The Pirate Bay planning to launch its drones, but London, England-based think tank Tomorrow's Thoughts Today has already launched a bunch of autonomous flying drones that coordinate with each other using their own Wi-Fi network. And they glow, too! And if that isn't enough to stimulate the copter-jockey in you, then just check out this video of Vijay Kumar and his incredible autonomous flying vehicles at Ted. Impressive.

This is all fascinating stuff for anyone who likes engineering, or stuff that flies. For me, the biggest challenge for all of these things is the batteries. Even with high-density lithium ion batteries, and very low weight aluminium chassis, it still takes a lot to keep a craft up in the air, and they would have to recharge pretty frequently. Plus, you know, it gets cold and windy up there, which makes it hard to keep them positioned and functional.

I'm not so worried by naysayers' claims that the ground stations still represent a weak link that could be taken out by the authorities. There could be ways around that, including switching between multiple stations. Neither am I worried by the fact that the whole thing would be illegal under current aviation rules. After all, TPB has never worried too much about lawsuits. Whether it's safe or ethical to fly vehicles up there unauthorised is another matter. And this may be something that TPB hasn't yet thought through. After all, it says in the blog post that they're just getting started on the idea. 

Theoretically, one way around the battery problem could be to create solar-powered structures that float far enough up in the atmosphere to absorb energy and keep themselves aloft, while serving as radio communication hubs for file sharers. 

The second interesting concept behind this drones story is the idea of metropolitan area darknets, which has a timely political angle.

What's a darknet? Over the weekend, I was discussing with a friend the concept of private networks using Internet technologies, used by closed groups for private communications. If you've ever seen Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, you'll remember Dumbledore's Army - a group of kids that wanted to meet away from the prying eyes of Hogwart's new government-appointed management. They found a secret room, called the Room of Requirement, that you could only get into once you knew its location. It would close up after you, once you'd entered, so that snoops couldn't follow you.

A darknet is like that. It's an electronic Room of Requirement. The only difference is that unlike Harry and his chums, the participants operate anonymously on the darknet, and don't know each other.

With legislation such as Bill C-30 and the US SOPA being pushed aggressively by policymakers, it seems more likely that groups of people such as file sharers will be nudged in the direction of darknets, for fear of being regulated and monitored beyond their tolerance otherwise. They'll be looking at anything to help in that cause.

How do airbone radio-enabled drones relate to darknets? The really interesting part of all this has nothing to do with creating proxy servers that link back to TPB's network of file sharing computers. Rather, it has to do with simply making darknets available over relatively wide areas by letting people in the same city connect with each other. 

The advantage of putting servers up there in the sky is that you can cover very large areas with them, essentially creating a metropoltan darknet that isn't connected to the conventional Internet at all. If they'd had an independent metropolitan area darknet in Egypt, it would have been far harder for the government to pull the plug on the Internet during the uprising there last year. How can a despotic government pull the plug on a darknet that isn't running via a conventional ISP at all? You can do it, but it takes a lot more time and effort than simply calling the largest service provider and asking them politely to flick the 'off' switch. 

There are other more practical alternatives for darknets, though. Some have suggested that the Pirate Box - a low-cost, local file sharing box that is effectively a WiFi access point with a built-in fileserver - would be a more effective tool for file sharing, but the problem with that is that it operates over relatively short distances, constrained as it is by a Wi-Fi signal. 

The Freedom Box is a far more flexible and long-range concept for making communications anonymous and private. Tor is another. Frankly, good ol' fashioned BBS technology is still perfectly workable for people that don't want Vic Toews nosing around in their traffic.

The real debate here isn't technical, though; it's conceptual. It's ideological. The stakes are rising as policymakers try to clamp down on Internet freedoms in the West. 

So it may have its head in the clouds, and none of this may ever get off the ground, but it's not surprising that The Pirate Bay is loudly floating the idea of drones. If nothing else, it keeps it in the public eye and encourages conversation around subverting surveillance and maintaining free speech online.

At the end of the day, the drones may be little more than a publicity stunt, floated as an idea before any of the work is done, because TPB has little chance - or even intent - of ever actually doing it. But then, awareness is a key tool in information warfare. And information is, after all, what TPB's war is all about.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets




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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.