Quadcopter drone group held in London airport on suspicion of terrorism

22 Jun 2012

Electronic Countermeasures robotic ballet in action in Eindhoven

Fresh from performing at Science Gallery in Dublin last night during the opening of Hack the City, an English group of urbanists, technologists and architects who created GPS-enabled quadcopter drones, were held at London Southend Airport on suspicion of terrorism and recorded under the UK’s Terrorism Act.

The group, known as Tomorrows Thoughts Today, had been performing their Electronic Countermeasures robotic ballet in the sky show at Science Gallery for the opening of the three-month Hack the City exhibition in Dublin City.

The trio, headed up by Liam Young, had created the robotic drones from components that were originally intended for police surveillance.

The drones had been swarming around Science Gallery last night to show how they can broadcast their own Wi-Fi network as a flying pirate file-sharing formation.

As they swarm, people in the audience can log onto the drone network with their phones and laptops and use the drones as a local network to upload files and share data with one another.

Drones at Science Gallery

The drones in action at Dublin Science Gallery’s Hack the City last night

Swarmed in upon by customs officers

It was just as the three performers were disembarking from their Dublin flight in London that their suitcases were swarmed in upon by customs officers at the new London Southend Airport.

“We were returning to London with our suitcases full of drones, batteries and wiring equipment. Customs scanned through the suitcases and their eyes widened,” said Young.

He said the officers then decided to call in the special branch, whose officers began questioning the three performers about their projects and asked them to describe what the electronic drones were all about in layman’s terms.

“They asked us what electronic countermeasures we were trying to achieve! They took all of our materials and asked us for weblinks and references. Then they went away and Googled the project.”

After that, Young said each team member was taken away for individual questioning. “They were also quite interested to know if we had cars.”

Robotic ballet in the sky

Young said they told the special branch that their performance was a robotic ballet in the sky to show how communities in cities can use technology to gather and share information.

“My concern was they might have thought we were going to incite terrorism with the upcoming Olympic Games,” he said.

But, after two hours of repeated questioning, the performers were eventually allowed to continue on their way. That wasn’t before their conversations were recorded under the UK’s Terrorism Act.

“Our stop and search is now on their file. We’re now in the system, so they told us they would be checking us against our case file if we pass though the airport again,” added Young.

Electronic Countermeasures

The flying drones

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic