Flying Swarm Of Robots Gives Protesters And Activists Free Wi-Fi, On The Go

Electronic Countermeasures was inspired by the communications blackouts that stalled the Egyptian protests of 2011.

During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the government unplugged the Internet. Protesters were left without Internet, and thereby the ability to communicate even locally, instantly.

Electronic Countermeasures is a project by Liam Young of think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today and Unknown Fields Division, with assistance from Eleanor Saitta, Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, and Superflux. The project is essentially an autonomous, roaming Internet swarm, constructed from repurposed UAVs.


“These drones would fly off and hover above the city, and create ad hoc connections and networks in a new form of nomadic territorial infrastructure,” Young tells Co.Design, “a flock of interactive autonomous drones that form their own place specific, temporary, local, Wi-Fi community—a pirate Internet.”

Rather than carry satellites to uplink to the greater Internet, Young imagines his swarm as a highly site-specific means to create peer-to-peer communication (think text messaging or the old Napster file sharing model). And in this regard, Young actually views Electronic Countermeasures as a form of nomadic architecture—a roaming infrastructure built from digital beams rather than steel—like a drifting island of information.

“Architecture is typically such a slow medium and we wanted to develop alternative strategies for how an architect may operate and alternative forms of projects that could play out with much more immediacy,” he writes.

There’s no reason the idea couldn’t scale. Rather than a team of five robots, you could have a team of 5,000, casting a much wider net. Or you could always add peer-to-peer sharing across our existing devices, from cell phones to televisions to even the next wave of refrigerators. The next revolution could be a shockingly domestic affair.

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15 Comments

  • Jordi Panzram

    Misleading title. These little birds are not giving any activists any WiFi in any  known protest. This is a hypothetical project that very likely is still in the drawing board.

    It is a cool little concept, I like it a lot, but even though I am not an engineer I think I see a few problems. It has already been noticed the issue pertaining battery life span. I like the idea someone proposed about some kind of airport. This could be just a recharging unit fixed at some low building's rooftop.

    However I don't know how many of these little guys you'd need to have in the air for proper WiFi. I don't think three or four would cut it.

    Also the bright, hipster lights... cut that crap out, a police sniper will have no problems shooting the sucker down.

    The way this is at the moment, it would make a beautiful art installation users could interact with, but I don't see it as a successful tool in "revolutions" (people love to throw that word around these days). If the cops or the army wants to take them down, THEY WILL, and in ways people aren't probably even thinking. The armed forces have a lot of nifty little dirty tricks under their sleeves almost no one knows anything about.

  • Jace 'Lion' Repshire

    Great idea, until you realize the flashing colorful lights make them an easy mark for anyone who wants to destroy them, including police and military.

  • haruchai

    Nifty idea, but good luck developing it. :-/ Nothing gets undermined more purposefully than technologies that threaten to make 'infrastructure' obsolete.

  • JetCityOrange

    Yes, one can setup an ad hoc mesh network using drones *but* don't mistake this for an "internet connection". You can talk amongst yourselves but not to the outside world. Useful but not the internet.

  • Hannah de los Santos

    Amazing idea! Did it work in Egypt? For how long? Details, please. And, echoing the last comment, why couldn't this scale?

  • Rick

    So, how are they powered?
    This isn't a video game where things hover endlessly like magic.
    If these things are battery-powered, what is the battery life?
    Do they land anywhere but continue to connect or, after their batteries die they 
    all drop out of the sky...becoming souvenirs of an almost revolution or do they scurry home to recharge?

  • Transientstatic

    Cool idea, but only worth development if equipped with means to avoid jamming of control systems.  Otherwise too obvious and destined to be quickly defeated. 

  • Marc Holmes

    I dont get why this needs robots? Couldn't you just stick battery powered wifi units to the undersides of bridges and under fire escapes? Cheaper than robots innit?

  • Booyaa Engineer

    Good question.  My dad taught me that with radio signals, it's generally better for them to be up higher, and away from metal.  So, up on top of a building, for example, is good.  Plus these are mobile, so a protest is less constrained to a single location.  Still, for these copters, the challenge will be power.  Flying and wifi are not cheap, battery-power-wise.  It might be smart to design a mini-airport for them that they can land at, recharge, and the re-deploy.  Shit gets complicated fast :)

  • jordan

    absolutely, not to mention harder for someone who wants to destroy your network to take down

  • Alex

    Yes, there is a reason why it might not scale - mesh network routing protocols don't scale well. ISTR the biggest stable ones are a few thousand nodes,  which is impressive and would let you blanket a big city but that's with extensive tuning and fiddling and without the special problems of mobility. In the use case he suggests, there obviously won't be time to radio-plan or tune the system.

    With these little fellas whizzing around, they'll interfere with each other and the hidden node problem (where one of the two parties to a link is being interfered with by a third, but the other party is unaware of it and therefore they can't change their behaviour) will be awful.

    It's a cool idea, but there are reasons why mobile ad-hoc mesh networks are rare.