Drone Wars: Bigger, Badder, and Deadlier

UAVsIn their quest to “unman the front the lines”, and maintain drone superiority over other states, the US armed forces have been working on a series of designs that will one day replace their air fleet of Raptors and Predators. Given that potential rivals, like Iran and China, are actively imitating aspects of these designs in an added incentive, forcing military planners to think bigger and bolder.

Consider the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), a jet-powered drone that is the size of a Boeing 757 passenger jet. Developed by Northrop Grumman and measuring some 40 meters (130 feet) from wingtip to wingtip, this “super drone” is intended to replace the US Navy’s fleet of RQ-4 Global Hawks, a series of unmanned aerial vehicles that have been in service since the late 90’s.

Triton_droneThanks to a sensor suite that supplies a 360-degree view at a radius of over 3700 kms (2,300 miles), the Triton can provide high-altitude, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) at heights and distances in excess of any of its competitors. In addition, the drone possess unique de-icing and lightning protection capabilities, allowing to plunge through the clouds to get a closer view at surface ships.

And although Triton has a higher degree of autonomy than the most autonomous drones, operators on the ground are still relied upon to obtain high-resolution imagery, use radar for target detection and provide information-sharing capabilities to other military units. Thus far, Triton has completed flights up to 9.4 hours at altitudes of 15,250 meters (50,000 feet) at the company’s manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California.

?????????????????????????????????Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman’s Triton UAS program director, had the following to say in a statement:

During surveillance missions using Triton, Navy operators may spot a target of interest and order the aircraft to a lower altitude to make positive identification. The wing’s strength allows the aircraft to safely descend, sometimes through weather patterns, to complete this maneuver.

Under an initial contract of $1.16 billion in 2008, the Navy has ordered 68 of the MQ-4C Triton drones with expected delivery in 2017. Check out the video of the Triton during its most recent test flight below:


But of course, this jetliner-sized customer is just one of many enhancements the US armed forces is planning on making to its drone army. Another is the jet-powered, long-range attack drone that is a planned replacement for the aging MQ-1 Predator system. It’s known as the Avenger (alternately the MQ-1 Predator C), a next-generation unmanned aerial vehicle that has a range of close to 3000 kms (1800 miles).

Designed by General Atomics, the Avenger is designed with Afghanistan in mind; or rather, the planned US withdrawal by the end 0f 2014. Given the ongoing CIA anti-terrorism operations in neighboring Pakistan are expected to continue, and airstrips in Afghanistan will no longer be available, the drones they use will need to have significant range.

(c) Kollected Pty Ltd.

The Avenger prototype made its first test flight in 2009, and after a new round of tests completed last month, is now operationally ready. Based on the company’s more well-known MQ-9 Reaper drone, Avenger is designed to perform high-speed, long-endurance surveillance or strike missions, flying up to 800 kms (500 mph) at a maximum of 15,250 meters (50,000 feet) for as long as 18 hours.

Compared to its earlier prototype, the Avenger’s fuselage has been increased by four feet to accommodate larger payloads and more fuel, allowing for extended missions. It can carry up to 1000 kilograms (3,500 pounds) internally, and its wingspan is capable of carrying weapons as large as a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and a full-compliment of Hellfire missiles.

Avenger_drone1Switching from propeller-driven drones to jets will allow the CIA to continue its Pakistan strikes from a more distant base if the U.S. is forced to withdraw entirely from neighboring Afghanistan. And according to a recent Los Angeles Times report, the Obama administration is actively making contingency plans to maintain surveillance and attacks in northwest Pakistan as part of its security agreement with Afghanistan.

The opportunity to close the gap between the need to act quickly and operating from a further distance with technology isn’t lost on the US military, or the company behind the Avenger. Frank Pace, president of the Aircraft Systems Group at General Atomics, said in a recent statement:

Avenger provides the right capabilities for the right cost at the right time and is operationally ready today. This aircraft offers unique advantages in terms of performance, cost, timescale, and adaptability that are unmatched by any other UAS in its class.

??????????????????????????????What’s more, one can tell by simply looking at the streamlined fuselage and softer contours that stealth is part of the package. By reducing the drone’s radar cross-section (RCS) and applying radar-absorbing materials, next-generation drone fleets will also be mimicking fifth-generation fighter craft. Perhaps we can expect aerial duels between remotely-controlled fighters to follow not long after…

And of course, there’s the General Atomic’s Avenger concept video to enjoy:


Sources:
wired.com, (2)

The Boston Manhunt: A Victory for Technology?

boston-marathon-bombing-suspects-2013It was announced yesterday that after an intense manhunt, a prolonged shootout, and the death of an MIT police officer, that the second and final suspect in the Boston bombing was finally captured. Identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, the eldest brother was killed during the shoot out in Watertown and the latter who was captured while in hiding under an overtunred boat in a nearby residence.

Naturally, there are still many questions about the two brothers when it comes to their motives and whether or not they had any help in the commission of this crime. But in the meantime, one can’t help but acknowledge the swiftness with which the suspects were identified and the case resolved. Considering the fact that the police had no leads and no one had come forward to take credit, the fact that the men responsible were captured and killed within four days is nothing short of astounding.

boston-marathon-bombing2So compared to past instances of terrorist acts – where the incident took place in a mass gathering and the perpetrators were mixed in with the crowd – what was different here? For one, the sheer amount of information that was provided by people who were on the scene. From torrents of photography to cell-tower information to locals’ memories, the police, FBI, and other investigators opened their investigation to spectator surveillance in a way like never before.

And in return, they received a mountain of data, which surprisingly proved quite helpful. Between the images submitted to the police from those who took pictures and video with their smartphones, PDAs and video cameras, and tips provided via Twitter and other social media, the police were quickly able to determine who the likely suspects were and how the bombing took place. After making their findings public, the suspects then fled, and committed the monumentally stupid mistake of drawing attention to themselves.

boston_bombing_manhuntAll this represented a modern twist on the age-old policy where law enforcement agencies consider the public’s eyes and ears as the crucial investigative asset. Just like with all cases, authorities opened their inquiry to account for what people saw and heard. The only real difference was that this time around, the Internet rapidly compressed the time it took for tips to arrive and get analyzed.

Mike Rolince, a retired FBI special agent who set up Boston’s first Joint Terrorism Task Force, recalls a time in the 90’s when the FBI was much more reticent about accepting information from the public and local police:

If law enforcement didn’t share any information — [as with bombers] Terry Nichols, Ted Kaczynski — if your intel is shared with no one, that is the consummate investigative challenge.

However, he acknowledges that things have since changed:

The great advantage here is the number of cameras out there. Without the cameras, I don’t know where we are.

boston-marathon-bombing-watertownBut of course, those cameras went way beyond the surveillance cameras that were in place downtown. They included every mobile camera in the hands of every person who happened to bring one. All of the information thus provided allowed the FBI and local police to turn a crime scene trampled by thousands and no leads into a solid case against two suspects and an active manhunt that led to their death and capture in four days time.

This was a victory for not only modern technology but the very democratic powers it is making possible. Much like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, DIY research and biohacking, public surveillance is something which could very well turn the tables on terrorism. It could also go a long way to undermining fears about a surveillance-based Big Brother state, ushering in instead an era of public-government cooperation that provides for the common good.

Might sound a bit utopian, but it is a first and represents a big victory for all those who were fighting on the side of good in the midst of a heinous act of evil.

Source: Wired.com

U.N. Launches Drone Investigation

Predator_drone_2In a move which will surely strike some as predictable and others overdue, the U.N. announced that it would begin an investigation into the legality of the US’s drone program. For years now, unmanned aerial vehicles have been the mainstay of the United States anti-terrorism efforts overseas, sparking controversy and leading to demands for more oversight and transparency. And as of this past Thursday, it will be the subject of a major international investigation.

Led by special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights Ben Emmerson, the investigation is expected to focus on the legal justification for America’s expansive drone program, which has largely remained secretive and unexamined. What’s more, Emmerson and his team are expected to examine exactly how much collateral damage and civilian deaths the use of drones has caused, which is a major point for those opposed to their use.

In a statement released from Emmerson’s office, he outlines the parameters of the issue and the investigation to be mounted as follows:

“The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law. It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law (or the law of war as it used to be called), and international refugee law.”

Other groups were quick to chime in on the decision to launch an investigation, not the least of which were Americans themselves. For example, Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama and the current chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, has urged the administration to make more of its drone policies public. “There’s been far too little debate [about the tactics of drone use] said Blair. “The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been waging a years-long effort to compel the Obama administration to release its internal legal considerations, also welcomed the U.N. investigation, and urged the U.S. to participate in it. Hina Shamsi, the director of the Union’s National Security Project, released a statement encompassing the ACLU’s position:

“Virtually no other country agrees with the U.S.’s claimed authority to secretly declare people enemies of the state and kill them and civilian bystanders far from any recognized battlefield. To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government’s ever-expanding targeted killing program.”

Naturally, the US is not the only nation under scrutiny in this investigation. And neither is the issue of civilian deaths the only focus. The use of drones has increased exponentially in recent years, thanks in no small part to extensive development of UAV technology in a number of countries. And with countries like China and Iran following suit, drone use is only expected to grow and expand. By Investigating the legality and implications of their use now, the potential exists to establish a framework before they become widespread.

Source: Huffingtonpost.com