The Pirate Bay's plan to place servers on drones is probably an April Fools' joke.

Don’t Be Fooled by the Pirate Bay’s Ridiculous Plan To Place Its Servers on Drones

Don’t Be Fooled by the Pirate Bay’s Ridiculous Plan To Place Its Servers on Drones

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 21 2012 1:07 PM

Don’t Be Fooled by the Pirate Bay’s Ridiculous Plan To Place Its Servers on Drones

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Supporters of the Pirate Bay website demonstrate in Stockholm in 2009.

Photo by FREDRIK PERSSON/AFP/Getty Images

Online outlaw the Pirate Bay announced Sunday that it has hatched a plan to “build something extraordinary.” The elusive characters behind the BitTorrent website detailed an outlandish plot to launch airborne drone servers in order to make life more difficult for authorities who want to shut it down for facilitating copyright infringement.

In a short blog post published March 18, TPB wrote: “With the development of GPS controlled drones, far-reaching cheap radio equipment and tiny new computers like the Raspberry Pi, we're going to experiment with sending out some small drones that will float some kilometers up in the air. This way our machines will have to be shut down with aeroplanes in order to shut down the system. A real act of war. We're just starting so we haven't figured everything out yet. But we can't limit ourselves to hosting things just on land anymore.”

The announcement was applauded by the website’s fans and picked up by a host of media outlets. But at this stage, it looks like it is a pipe dream, a publicity stunt, a joke, or all of these things combined.

As Torrent Freak has reported, low-flying file-sharing drones are already in existence. However, what TPB is planning is more complex—principally because it wants to float its drones “kilometers up in the air."

This is where TPB’s plan hits a major hurdle. The website has its strongest support base in countries such as Germany and Sweden, so it is likely that the intention would be to launch the drones somewhere within Europe’s borders. Rigid guidelines across European airspace govern the use of unmanned drones. The aircraft can be flown only under strict conditions segregating them from airspace in which manned planes fly. In the long term, the rules are likely to be relaxed as drone technology advances. But in the immediate future, any plan to float what they term “Low Orbit Server Stations” high in the sky  would likely fail to get off the ground, quite literally, within the current regulatory framework.

The use of a server drone would also be inhibited by operational issues. Unmanned aircraft cannot fly indefinitely; the longest recorded time a drone has stayed aloft is 14 days, achieved by the solar-powered Zephyr in 2010. In addition, as has been pointed out in the Guardian, the “server stations” would have to beam back a signal to a ground terminal, ultimately tying them to some sort of land-based infrastructure. Though TPB suggests that “our machines will have to be shut down with aeroplanes in order to shut down the system,” in reality, to disconnect the drones, authorities would merely have to sever or jam the ground connection.

TPB is known for its far-fetched efforts to evade the long arm of the law and has previously considered buying the Principality of Sealand, an unrecognized micronation off the eastern coast of England. The authenticity of this latest fanciful scheme, however, is cast into doubt by the fact that even some of those who help run the website don’t believe it.

“Perhaps that blog entry is related to the excessive alcohol and cannabis consumption by the site admins,” a TPB volunteer told Slate. “In my opinion it's just an April Fools’ joke.”

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It would certainly not be beyond the realms of possibility for TPB to launch an April Fools’ prank, albeit two weeks early. In 2008, the website duped users by claiming it was relocating its servers to the remote Egyptian desert. In 2009, it put out a fake “Warner Bros Inc. acquires The Pirate Bay” press release. And then last year it claimed to have purchased the eBay.com domain name in an online auction.

At this point, ultimately, we cannot know for sure. If the elaborate drone plan is indeed legitimate, there is every possibility that the brains behind it just got impatient and published a blog before fully thinking it through. Either way, joke or pipe dream, the logistical reality takes the wind out of TPB’s sails.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.