In the heart of San Francisco, thousands of spectators frequently pack themselves into Aerial Sports League events, eager to see what all the buzz is about. The buzz, in this case, comes from drone propellers, as pilots of all ages fly their tiny aircraft in a variety of settings.
“It’s kind of like a sci-fi carnival,” said Marque Cornblatt, co-founder and CEO of the Aerial Sports League, or ASL. “We just create this really fun, family-friendly environment where there’s something for everyone.”
Attendees can watch experienced pilots race their drones through neon gates at breakneck speeds. They can put on a pair of first-person-view goggles and see what it’s like from the drone’s perspective. They can even undergo training and fly a drone themselves. And, if that’s not exciting enough, they can watch a drone cage fight.
That’s right, spectators can witness two drones going head to head in a fight for aerial dominance. Think of it as a flying version of BattleBots or a Thunderdome with drones — two drones enter; one drone leaves. The goal of the game — commonly referred to as “drone combat” — is to knock the opponent’s drone to the ground three times in a five-minute timeframe. Competitors have 90 seconds to fix their drones when they get knocked down, and they can attack the other drone using brute force or by employing safe weaponry like net launchers or dangling fishing wire.
Drone combat has been a staple of ASL since its humble beginnings six years ago, and it has become one of the most popular aspects of the organization’s events. Largely thanks to drone combat, Cornblatt says ASL is nearing a million cumulative spectators. But just when drone combat was taking off, a series of bills in the California State Legislature threatened to kill the sport entirely.
The most recent of these bills was Senate Bill (SB) 347, which was introduced by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson in February. SB-347 — also known as the “State Remote Piloted Aircraft Act” — would have restricted drone usage in California with several regulations, including a weaponization ban.
As written, the bill stated, “A person shall not weaponize a remote piloted aircraft or operate a weaponized remote piloted aircraft.” Since the bill didn’t list exceptions and didn’t specify exactly what “weaponize” means, the types of aircraft used in drone combat could have become illegal. It’s likely that the bill was never meant to apply to those kinds of drones, but the ambiguity of the bill’s wording put the whole sport at risk.
“The problem is we can’t rely on the interpretation of local law enforcement or government agencies to interpret those laws accurately or correctly,” Cornblatt said. “So, when it comes to a bill like this, it’s a potential nightmare scenario for an industry like ours. We could literally have a whole event set up and some sheriff or local representative could come by, and even though we’re indoors and we’re totally legal, they could potentially shut us down, even erroneously.”
In addition, Cornblatt says ASL prides itself on creating safe environments for spectators. The league’s drone combat events typically have walls of netting all around the arena so that the drones can’t impact the audience. On top of that, there are strict restrictions on the types of weapons that can be used. In an arena with simple netting, weapons like flamethrowers, chemicals, EMP devices, and airsoft guns would all be prohibited.
Regardless of the weaponry, Cornblatt says it’s not really about violence, but rather education. Through ASL, he and his partners perform hands-on drone training at parties and corporate events. They also hold drone construction and flight training workshops at Hiller Aviation Museum, and they teach similar classes to kids in the San Francisco Unified School District. The ultimate goal is to use drone combat to spark people’s interest in aeronautics, engineering, 3D printing, computer programming, and a number of other disciplines. But if SB-347 would have passed, it could have stifled ASL’s educational programs.
“The legislator certainly may have good intentions in terms of wanting to make sure that unsafe, deadly drones are not just being deployed around the city and used as a means of killing or hurting people,” said Dave Maass, an investigative researcher and digital rights activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF. “That’s fine, it’s just that there should be room in there for these kinds of innovative activities. You shouldn’t make it cut off a pathway for kids to get into sciences, just because you weren’t specific enough in your bill.”
Maass first encountered ASL at the Bay Area Maker Faire, a giant festival that celebrates technology, invention, and creativity. As he witnessed crowds of people fighting to get close to the action and learn more about drones, he immediately recognized the educational benefits of drone combat and the negative effects that legislation could have. Some of the bills that were going through the state government reminded him of the 2015 Ahmed Mohamed clock incident, when a 14-year-old Texas student was arrested for building a clock that a teacher mistook for a bomb. The incident has been cited as an example of overzealous administrators discouraging innovation.
“I started to wonder, if an ingenious little kid attached a ping-pong ball launcher or a Nerf launcher to a drone, would this be something that he or she could get suspended or arrested for?” Maass said.
After deciding that vague drone weaponization bans could have a chilling effect on STEM education and the growing drone hobbyist community, Maass and the EFF reached out to ASL to help fight the California Legislature. At that time, one piece of legislation — Assembly Bill (AB) 56 from the 2015-16 session — had already attempted to ban the weaponization of drones.
Introduced on the second day of the session by Assemblymember Bill Quirk, AB-56 would have prohibited anyone from “equipping or arming an unmanned aircraft system with a weapon or other device…that is intended to cause incapacitation, bodily injury or death, or damage to, or the destruction of, real or personal property.” Considering that the entire point of drone combat is to destroy an opponent’s drone, the bill could have put the sport in serious jeopardy. Despite a passing vote in the Assembly, AB-56 never made it through the Senate.
In 2016, two more drone weaponization bans popped up — Assembly Bill (AB) 1820 and Senate Bill (SB) 868, both from the 2015-16 session. AB-1820, which was also authored by Quirk, used the same language as AB-56 when it came to “equipping or arming” drones. SB-868, which was authored by Jackson, was nearly identical to the most recent bill, including the line about weaponization: “A person shall not weaponize a remote piloted aircraft or operate a weaponized remote piloted aircraft.”
The EFF ran an activism campaign against AB-1820 and SB-868, reaching out to drone enthusiasts and asking them to email the legislature in opposition. With help from the EFF, ASL also sent a letter of opposition to both Quirk and Jackson.
“While we understand the intent of your proposed prohibition on weaponized drones, this legislation should not criminalize innocent hobbyist activities that promote positive innovation, education and an interest in technology and engineering,” Cornblatt wrote in both letters.
Facing strong resistance, AB-1820 and SB-868 both died before they could make it through the second chamber of the legislature. But it wasn’t the end, as Jackson introduced SB-347 in the 2017-18 session. This time, the EFF took a more measured approach. Instead of launching another full-scale campaign, members of the organization reached out to Jackson to see if she would be willing to clarify the language in the bill.
“All we asked was that the author just define what ‘weaponization’ is,” Maass said. “Leaving it vague doesn’t do anybody any favors. If they’re able to define it, then we can look at that definition and give feedback on it.”
Maass wouldn’t reveal the senator’s response to the EFF’s request, but Jackson cancelled a hearing for SB-347 at the end of June, and the bill stalled. Still, Cornblatt and Maass both acknowledge that it may not be over.
“I would not be surprised if it circles back again next year, maybe a little more properly worded,” Cornblatt said.
For now, Cornblatt is focused on improving and expanding ASL. The organization started out in 2011 as an underground “drone fight club” between a small group of friends in an Oakland warehouse, but it quickly became something much bigger. As hundreds of people, followed by thousands, started attending the fights, it became a phenomenon known as “Game of Drones.” The group changed its name to “Aerial Sports League” a few years later, and Cornblatt says the organization’s future is bright.
“ASL is always looking forward two, three, five years ahead,” he said. “Right now, the industry is all about traditional racing with drones, but we have a plan and a template to introduce the broader world of drone sports to include racing, combat, multiplayer games, and mixed reality with AR and VR elements.”
Cornblatt’s ultimate dream is to create a “drone sports destination,” almost like a Disney World for drone-related games and activities. He says ASL is looking at a number of potential locations, including the Bay Area, Las Vegas, New York, Orlando and China.
Cornblatt also eventually wants to improve the arena setup for drone combat. At this point, ASL’s budget only allows for net-based barriers between the audience and the drones, but he hopes that the organization will, at some point, have enough money to build impenetrable walls, which would allow for more creative weaponry.
“The only reason we don’t have the bulletproof plexiglass arena that you see in BattleBots is the expense of that arena,” he said. “It’s crazy expensive to build, but that’s basically what we’re aiming for so that our pilots won’t be restricted the way they currently are.”
Of course, to politicians, “more creative” weapons could also mean “more dangerous.” While few people would argue that drones with net launchers should be illegal, the issue is much murkier when the weapon in question is, say, a Glock pistol. In some ways, the debate over drone weaponization bans has actually evolved from the debate over gun control.
Because a firearm is perhaps the most dangerous thing that could be attached to a drone, many people equate the legality of drone weaponization with the legality of owning a gun. Some people argue that as long as a person owns, carries, and uses both the firearm and the drone legally, there should be no ban on attaching a gun to a drone, especially since there are other laws that prohibit most crimes that could be committed with a drone-gun hybrid. Others argue that the mere possibility of attaching a gun to a drone increases the likelihood of these crimes occurring, so the act of attaching a gun to a drone should itself be criminalized.
When taken in this context, the voting patterns on drone weaponization bans in the California Legislature are hardly surprising. Before getting shut down, SB-347 and SB-868 both received passing votes on the Senate floor along party lines. All of the passing votes came from Democrats, who generally advocate for more gun control and administrative oversight, while all of the “no” votes came from Republicans, who typically subscribe to the opposite ideology.
The Federal Aviation Administration has also weighed in on the issue, stating that drone weaponization bans do not fall within the agency’s purview. In a 2015 fact sheet, the FAA wrote, “Laws traditionally related to state and local police power – including land use, zoning, privacy, trespass, and law enforcement operations – generally are not subject to federal regulation.” The agency cited several examples of this, including “Prohibitions on attaching firearms or similar weapons to UAS.” That means only state and local governments can ban the attachment of firearms to drones, which at least gives California’s government strong legal ground to regulate the practice.
Cornblatt admits that he isn’t a political expert and doesn’t advocate for or against firearms, and he also acknowledges that drone weaponization is a complex issue with valid concerns. Still, he wants pilots to have the freedom to design creative weapons for drone combat, as long as those weapons meet the safety parameters of the arena.
“Within the drone combat-sports community, we always ensure that safety is the top priority for spectators and pilots,” he said. “However, we also encourage any or all types of engineering solutions that can be safely applied to offensive and defensive capabilities to drones within the gaming arena — we specifically try not to restrict the creativity or imagination of our teams.”
The real issue, Cornblatt says, is that the drone sports community wasn’t even consulted when the legislation was drawn up. He believes that he could have helped frame the legislation to allow for drone weaponization in a safe gaming context, similar to how shooting sports organizations have provided additional context to existing laws with respect to the use of firearms in sports. Beyond that, Cornblatt points out that the fear of drone weaponization may also be unfounded.
“I’m not quite sure what the incentive was to propose the bill in the first place,” he said. “I’m not aware of any crimes on the books that this spoke to.”
Although there are numerous examples of rogue drones accidentally crashing into people or planes, it’s true that there is little available data to suggest that drone weaponization itself has given rise to drone-based crime. When reached for comment regarding such data, Senator Jackson did not reply. However, Jackson does cite one example in her bills.
In the author’s statement for SB-347 and SB-868, Jackson stated, “Some individuals are reportedly modifying drones to carry weapons, and, in at least one instance, a drone was used to land radioactive material on the roof of a government building.”
She is most likely referencing a 2015 incident in Tokyo, when a 40-year-old man landed a drone on the roof of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office. The drone was carrying a clearly labelled container of radioactive soil, and the act was meant to be a protest of Abe’s policies on nuclear energy.
While the incident certainly demonstrated the sinister possibilities of a weaponized drone, there is still a big difference between a drone being used for a terrorist act and a drone being used in a safe gaming environment. Given ASL’s strong history of self-policing, Cornblatt is tired of getting lumped in the same group as all the irresponsible drone pilots out there. At this point, he just hopes that any future legislation will take drone combat and its educational benefits into consideration.
“Hopefully some of the contributions of our community helped to fill in the knowledge gaps of the people within the legislature,” he said.