by: Wes Ishmael
It was the shadow that Hooter noticed first—a roundish dark blob shimmering on the water of the tank he was checking. Then he could make out a rhythmic noise—not quite mechanical but not natural—coming from above.
Rather than look up or turn his head, Hooter knelt in place, surveying the banks as if contemplating maintenance. He stood up and walked far enough in both directions to know that the shadow moved with him, almost imperceptibly.
Hooter suspected what it was and his blood boiled. He walked back to the pickup at a natural clip. He reached inside and got his thermos, pulling his 30.06 from the rack at the same time, leaving it lay on the seat.
Hooter poured himself a cup of coffee, stared straight ahead at the shadow, listened to the unnatural whirr. He set his cup on the dashboard. He looked up and saw what he knew he would: the sun glinting off the white skin of a drone. It just hovered there. Hooter raised a single defiant finger. The drone zigged and zagged from side to side and up and down, as if laughing at him.
Hooter whipped out the rifle and emptied the magazine in the general direction of the fleeing drone, though the chances of hitting it were akin to plugging a firefly with a squirt gun in a high wind. He tried to follow the drone's direction through his scope, but it was too fast and erratic. He had no idea which direction it went.
“Of all the nerve,” Hooter seethed as he blasted toward Apache Flats. “A man can't even go about his business on his own property without someone spying on him.”
The problem with other people's fun
“You sure it wasn't just somebody's drone out on legitimate business that happened to be flying by?” Cousin Charlie asked.
Hooter had driven to the feed store to see if anyone else had encountered the flying maggot. He just stared at Charlie.
“O.K.” said Charlie. “Then any idea of who might be behind it?”
“Might be a shorter list trying to figure out who might not be behind it,” Izzy laughed.
There was an element of truth in Izzy's suggestion, of course. Hooter was never reluctant to cross horns where he thought they needed crossed. Far as he could tell, though, he'd neither ruffled feathers nor had his ruffled in quite a spell, at least not enough for someone to go the trouble of unleashing a drone.
Lonnie Johnson spied a grizzled gray fly that had so far escaped the clutches of winter, summer fly strips and all manner of sprays. He drowned him in a stream of tobacco juice. “Aside from your particular trouble, this is a problem that ain't going away. I just read about that man in Kentucky who shot one down over his place, he's being taken to court and sued?”
“Yeah, and there's another one I read about in New Jersey—ogling someone's daughter tanning in her own backyard. The daddy shot it down and he's in legal trouble,” Charlie said.
Peetie Womack had been uncharacteristically quiet, siting on a stack of starter pellets and thumbing through a newspaper.
“Ain't you going to weigh in?” Hooter asked.
“I don't know that I have much to add,” Peetie said. “Assuming it's not your paranoia running amok, I'd say we have to be careful about tossing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Everyone looked at him.
“We've talked about it before, boys. It looks like those drones could save lots of time and money doing stuff like checking fence, looking for strays and whatnot. We don't want to give up our privacy, but we also don't want Uncle Sam making it so tough that folks like us can't use them.”
Hooter refueled the Copenhagen in his lip. “If I want to use one on my property, that's my business. If you want to use one on your property, that's your business. But if someone else wants to use one on my property, that's my business, too.”
“Amen,” said Cousin Charlie and Lonnie at about the same time.
“I know, I know,” Peetie said. “You're preaching to the choir. You sure it wasn't somebody just trying to have a little fun with you?”
Hooter had entertained that notion, but he didn't care. There were some things you didn't do in the name of fun.
Bring in the Defense
That's the last Hooter mentioned the offending drone to anyone, though everyday like clockwork, it would appear from nowhere when he checked cake in a particular spot, which was about the same time each day. Mad as it made him, Hooter paid it only enough attention to assure that it would return. He had a plan.
Delmar Jacobs had a nephew whom Hooter had met only a few times. He only knew him by the name of Sparky.
“Nick…nick…named him myself,” Delmar had slurred between sips of his latest distilled concoction. “Short for spark gap transmitter. You (hiccup), you know what those are.” And he giggled.
Hooter had no idea what they were, much less how the nickname would be some kind of inside joke.
Sparky was a rare combination of genius-level smarts and practical aptitude. Far as Hooter knew, Sparky made a healthy living as an independent consultant for all manner of folks with high-tech needs. He'd helped Hooter a few years earlier.
Hooter went to Sparky's shop a couple of counties over to ask for ideas on how he might get rid of the trespassing drone.
“If they don't just try to pulverize it with a shotgun, so far, lots of folks have tried jamming the radio signals, even with things as old as spark gap transmitters,” Sparky explained.
There was that term again.
“What exactly is a spark gap transmitter?”
“Huh? Oh, it's a fairly simple way to produce radio frequency electromagnetic waves,” Sparky explained. “That's what fueled the early days of commercial radio as we know it.”
“Oh,” said Hooter. He still didn't see what there was about it to make Delmar giggle.
“Theoretically, a spark gap transmitter could be used in some instances to jam other types of radio signals, like those used by commercial drones,” Sparky explained. “But there's a fair bit of error associated with them. And, jamming signals is illegal in this nation.” Then he looked around, as if making sure that anyone there would have heard the conviction of his last statement.
Hooter had a pretty good notion that Sparky's observations were more than theoretical, and that he views such laws more like suggestions.
“More recently, others have tried to down them by spoofing GPS signals,” Sparky continued.
“Basically, you give the drone a false track to follow, meaning you can direct it to crash itself,” Sparky said. “But there's a whole lot of hocus pocus involved, and you have to start by identifying the drone and its operational signals.”
“Personally, I've found it most effective to fight fire with fire,” Sparky said. He lifted the cloth from what was sitting on his workbench.
“I call it The Equalizer,” Sparky beamed. “The name is unoriginal, as is the motive force, but it melds the old and new differently than I've seen before. And, so far, it has proven quite effective.”
The contraption was as impressive as it was difficult to describe. Think of the commercial drones you've seen: a central pod attached to four propellers. Sparky's version had those, but was encased within a frame of barbed wire, with what appeared to be a slow turning saw blade revolving below the contraption and above it.
In the world of drones, Hooter suspected The Equalizer was akin to a beater silage truck—heavy and indestructible. But, Hooter guessed, in this case one that was also fast and maneuverable.
There were seven skull and crossbones decals along one rail of the frame. Sparky saw Hooter giving them more than a cursory glance.
“Those are for the kills,” Sparky said proudly.
“So, it's more than field tested,” Sparky said. “With the proper preparation, the Equalizer can have the perpetrating unmanned aerial vehicle on the ground in less than a minute. Watch.”
For demonstration purposes, Sparky pointed to a large, wooden frame at the side of the shop. Sticking up from the bottom was a line of tin propellers horizontal to the ground, configured like those on a drone. He flipped a switch that started the propellers spinning.
Sparky grabbed a small control box. The propellers on The Equalizer came to life. Even standing so close, Hooter heard nothing. Sparky flew his drone over the top of the propellers. He revved up the once slow-spinning lower saw blade to cut, mangle and mutilate the tin target propellers.
“No propeller, no flight,” Sparky said with a smile. “That's as basic and sure as it gets. Plus, you can immobilize the invading device in an area of safety. I always feel like I should mention that last part.”
“Even if the Equalizer is a little slower than the opposition, unless the person piloting the other one is better than me, I own them,” Sparky said, without a smile or any trace of ego. “And the chance of them being more capable than me is doubtful.”
Hooter was grinning from ear to ear. “And, what do you charge?”
Sparky was grinning, too. “Nothing. I just like to hunt.”
Turning the propellers and tables
It turned out the only preparation Sparky needed was hauling The Equalizer to a hill near the cake feeder Hooter visited each day—where the drone had taken to appearing—camouflaging his four-wheeler and equipment and then waiting.
Sure enough, the drone arrived right on schedule, just as Hooter did every morning. Hooter waved at it, then leaned against his pickup, just watching.
The Equalizer was already hovering above and just behind the invader. It chopped off two of the propellers before the drone seemed to just stall and hang in the air before crashing to the ground.
Hooter drove to crash site, meeting Sparky there.
“Outstanding!” Hooter said.
“Way too easy,” Sparky replied. He was already sifting through the wreckage. “If you want, I bet I can trace this back and see where the signal was coming from.”
“Unless I miss my guess, I don't believe that will be necessary,” Hooter said. He jerked his chin to the South where clouds of dust were already billowing from a fast-approaching vehicle.
“Hooter McCormick, you bone head, what did you do to my drone?” screamed Peetie, shaking his fist from the open window. “I was just having a little fun with you. Do you know how much…”
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