Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Not to Sell on eBay: Drones

What Not to Sell on eBay: Drones: "

Take detailed notes before your next auction. If you try to put a drone up for sale on eBay, you’d better include your legal expenses in the asking price.

Henson Chua of the Philippines is looking at 20 years in prison for starting an auction on parts for a RQ-11B Raven, which is a no-no under the Arms Control Export Act. As seller celltron8, Chua allegedly asked for $13,000 for the handheld, unarmed spy drone. Unfortunately for him, his bidder was an undercover investigator for the Department of Homeland Security.

According to an indictment issued for Chua and released on Monday, Chua put the Raven up for sale around May of last year. Now, you can’t sell military technology without a specific waver from the State Department. And eBay took the sale off its site on May 18, since it violated internal policies against selling military items. Perhaps people initially thought it was a really expensive model airplane: the Raven, manufactured by AeroVironment, has a wingspan of under five feet and weighs barely four pounds.

But the legal hurdles associated with selling a drone apparently didn’t stop Chua from emailing his undercover purchaser that “shipping it out should not be a problem here.”

When the agent told Chua that wasn’t exactly legal, he allegedly emailed, “We got paper work for the items so i have no problem selling to you whether you’re a license broker or not.” [sic] Celltron8’s attention to customer satisfaction is reflected in his feedback. “Good seller – easy to work with would deal with again, anytime,” vouched hobbyvintage in May 2009.

He was also sufficiently conscientious to alert his buyer that “there is a chance US custom might confiscate the item with out proper documentation,” the indictment reads. But as it turns out, you can send a Raven’s nose cone through the plain old U.S. Postal Service and its stabilizer tail through FedEx without any problem, as Chua proved after getting debited $6,500 through PayPal in July.

Chua was arrested in LA on February 10. (The Department of Homeland Security didn’t disclose how Chua came to the U.S., but the indictment discloses that he held a U.S. visa.) The indictment refers to a “co-conspirator” inside the U.S. who relayed the drone parts to Chua’s undercover purchaser.

There’s no indication from the indictment how Chua got ahold of AeroVironment’s tiny drone. Efforts by the DHS agent to get Chua to give up his supplier during the sale were evidently unsuccessful. Maybe he’ll make a deal in jail. But if Chua is part of some broader drone black market, relying on eBay to unload ill-gotten merchandise is hardly the stuff of Viktor “Merchant of Death” Bout.

Comments drone enthusiast and WIRED editor-in-chief — who, yes, beat me to this story — “Full waypoint-capable UAVs are illegal to sell in the US with Export Control documentation and other safeguards. Don’t be this guy.”

Photo: DoD


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