Google may be developing driverless robot cars, but Boeing already has a small fleet a fighter jets that do not require a human pilot. These retired and refurbished QF-16s were turned into special drone craft for use by the US Air Force. But before anyone gets nervous, it should be noted that these specialized drones are strictly flying targets that are meant to assist with aerial combat training.
The test flight of one of the QF-16s took place last week and included an auto-take off and landing as well as an array of aerial maneuvers. The highlights of this test flight were a barrel roll while pulling 7 G’s, climbing to an altitude of 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) and accelerating to a speed of Mach 1.47. All the while, the plane was controlled by two Air Force test pilots on the ground.
Incorporating the latest in unmanned controls, these fighter jets will act as more realistic targets than the older generation of QF-4 unmanned aircraft – which are refurbished F-4 Phantoms. Whereas these Vietnam-era fighter craft are incapable of keeping up with modern designs, F-16s are capable of supersonic speeds and 9-G performance, which should help hone pilots for real-world combat missions.
While this is in many ways is just an upgrade on existing methods, it also represents a big step forward in terms of automation and drone warfare. With greater refinements in the technology and a more effective range, it may be possible to remotely pilot any and all combat aircraft in the not-too-distant future. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) may come to mean all aircraft, and not just Reapers and Predators (pictured above).
And of course, Boeing has produced a video of the QF-16s test flight. Enjoy!
In a world increasingly permeated by surveillance systems, especially ones that are airborne and remotely operated, it was only a matter of time before some struck back. Much like Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance – using camera devices and wearable computers to help people spy back against “Big Brother” – it seems that there are individuals out there looking for ways to help the common people avoid UAV detection.
In this case, the individual is Tim Faucett, CEO of APlus Mobile. When his company is not manufacturing mobile computer units that manage robots and UAVs for clients like the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin, they are contemplating ways to shield us from the technology they help create. Might seem a bit ironic, but looking to the future, Faucett and his colleagues are concerned about people other than government and military having access to the technology.
Alongside the FAA, which estimates that there could be tens of thousands of unmanned aircrafts circling overhead by the end of this decade, Faucett believes the future will be permeated by privately-owned unmanned aerial vehicles:
There are going to be private drones, there’s going to be commercial drones. Everybody’s going to have access to a drone. And people are going to have good intentions with them, and people are going to have bad intentions with them.
An interesting idea, and not one the public has fully considered yet. Most concerns vis a vis UAVs and their unlawful use are targeted at the governments who use them, mainly with the intention of “combating terrorism” overseas. But to Faucett, the real threat comes from our neighbors and private groups, people who are harder to discern, identify and fight than a monolithic organization.
In keeping with this mindset, a few weeks ago, his startup Domestic Drone Countermeasures filed its first of what he said would be nine patents for a system that will detect and disable drones before they have the chance to film their targets. Few details have been made available yet as to what these systems involve, mainly because it’s new and Faucett hopes to keep the cat in the bag until its time to unveil.
Still, some details have managed to trickle out, such as Faucett’s own reference to a system that includes software and sensors that will be able to identify nearby UAVs based on their electromagnetic signature, alert the owner of the system, and then “neutralize the drone’s capability to see you with its camera.” But Faucett was also sure to emphasize the non-military nature of all this, responding to rumors that his company is developing some sort of weaponry:
We don’t interfere with the drones navigation in any way. We don’t jam anything. We don’t intercept anything … This is non-combative. That’s really important. We’ve taken great pains to design systems that aren’t going to get shut down or be outlawed or become illegal. … We’ve taken the combat elements out so [the former military technology] can’t be viewed as unlawful.
In fact, the new system may actually be capable of doing something creative and comical, should anyone attempt to spy on you. And all without causing harm to the camera that’s attempting to see you :
The camera just won’t be able to look at you. Actually, at some point, we can show the operator at the other end a little movie or something.
So try to misuse a UAV, and you may end with an eye full of porn bombs, or several hours of Desperate Housewives, playing on a loop. Take that, nosy neighbor! You too, Big Brother!
Faucett says his team of three full-time engineers and several part-time staffers should be able to bring the system to market in a matter of months. It’ll be scalable to suit the needs of someone who just wants their home protected, ranging from a home owner who some added security, to larger property owners or institutional clients. You might say, spying will become the new type of Cold War, with government, security and surveillance companies all engaged in a game of one-upmanship.
And as usual, I sense an idea for a novel… Patent Pending!
There’s been quite a bit of talk and controversy lately with regard to a new piece of military technology. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV’s, have been taking to the air in the last few years and assisting with military operations in a number of theaters. As a result, people have been both condemning and hailing the new technology, citing the details of its limited service record to make their point. To some, its all part of the larger effort to “unman the front lines” as a way to save lives. To others, its an attempt to impose military force on others without having to risk the lives of our own soldiers.
I thought it was high time I weigh in on this issue since I’ve been doing some research on it lately. In order to write decent fiction about high-tech surveillance, and to understand the paranoia (justified or not) surrounding these vehicles, some not-so-light reading seemed in order.
To break it down succinctly, the Predator UAV (or drone), the one which has been generating all the headlines, is a turboprop aircraft (not a jet) that is unmanned and controlled remotely.This can be done from a military base several kilometers away, or in the field by a controller using a remote box similar to a large laptop. Pretty sci-fi!
A typical MQ-9 is capable of monitoring a 360 area beneath it using its Lynx synthetic aperture radar and mobile Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera. Using these, operators are able to spot enemy troops and vehicles and then deploy the drones’ ordinance, which usually consists of up to 14 Hellfire missiles. These missiles made their big debut in the Gulf War where they popularized for their use in destroy Iraqi tanks, usually by Apache attack choppers.
But of course, there are UAV’s beyond the MQ-9 Predator that are rarely talked about. For instance, there are unarmed military craft that are used strictly for surveillance and aerial reconnaissance.
Within the private sector, there are aerial drones who’s job it is to explore for deposits of oil, gas and minerals over large areas of terrain. Government and private agencies also used them to monitor livestock, keep track of wildfires, conduct scientific research, as well as for road surveillance and anti-piracy coastal patrols.
In these cases, smaller and less intimidating craft are used, most of which are about the size of a full-grown terrier. In other cases, they can be about the size of a remote controlled helicopter, and often involve the exact same technology!
Love it or hate it, UAV technology appears to be the way of the future for the modern armed forces, as intrinsic to the air force as Future Soldier is to the infantry. Designed to tackle missions that fall into the category of the 3D’s – dirty, dull, or dangerous – and provide close air support, the militarized version is really no different than any other piece of military hardware. It’s purpose is to give its side an edge and prevent the loss of friendly lives. Anything else is just window dressing!
Some people naturally fear this, because if history has taught us anything it’s that the Pentagon means business when it comes to public support. The experiences of Vietnam and the Gulf War were both instructive experiences which taught them much about the role of the media. By the time of Afghanistan and the Iraq War, they had their strategy worked out with embedded reporters.
However, this did not prevent Iraq – and slowly, Afghanistan – from becoming unpopular when the hoped-for results didn’t come, mistakes piled up and the crisis kept deepening. As a result, the same tactics that were taken in Vietnam – stepped-up recruitment, glossing over civilian deaths, and scare campaigns – were used to try to keep people on side.
Seen in this light, these attempts to “unman” the front lines are merely more of the same from an institution that wants to make war palatable to the masses so they can go on fighting them. On the one hand, this might seem like an obvious goal since no military can do its job without popular support. On the other, it can be seen as an agenda by the US military-industrial complex to ensure it can keep protecting its interests without being hampered by conscientious objections or outrage.
I guess in the end we all have to decide for ourselves what we think of all this. In the meantime, I urge everyone to learn more about UAV technology and its various uses. And while you’re at it, check out this video clip form a few years back. It’s quite good.