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)

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

Drone Wars: X-47B Makes First Carrier Landing!

X47B_arrested_landing_610x407In any developmental milestone, the X-47B made its first arrested landing aboard an aircraft carrier yesterday. This latest test, which comes after a successful arrested landing on an airstrip and a successful deployment from an aircraft carrier, may help signal a new era for the use of unmanned aircraft in military operations.

For months now, the US Navy has been testing the Unmanned Aerial Combat Air System – the first drone aircraft that requires only minimal human intervention – pushing the boundaries in the hopes of determining how far the new autonomous air system can go. And with this latest landing, they just proved that the X-47B is capable of being deployed and landing at sea.

nimitz-class-carrier-640x424Aircraft landings on a carrier are a tricky endeavor even for experienced pilots, as the ship’s flight deck is hardly spacious, and rises, falls, and sways with the ocean waves. To stop their forward momentum in the shortest distance possible, carrier aircraft have a hook on the underside of the fuselage that latches onto cables stretched across the flight deck. This means that pilots need to land precisely to grab the hook and come to a complete stop in time.

The test flight began when the drone took off from the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md. and then flew to meet the USS George H.W. Bush at sea, a flight which took 35 minutes. Upon reaching the carrier, the same which it took off from this past May, it touched down and caught the 3 wire with its tailhook at a speed of 145 knots, coming to a dead stop in less than 350 feet. After the first landing, it was launched from the Bush’s catapult and then made a second arrested landing.

X-47BThe Navy tweeted about the success shortly after it happened, and Ray Mabus – Secretary of the Navy – followed that up with a press statement:

The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers.

Naturally, there is still plenty of testing likely to be done before such drones can be considered ready to go into combat zones. For example, perhaps, automated drone-to-drone refueling is scheduled for some time in 2014, another aspect of the UCAS the Navy is determined to try before deploying them in actual operations. Still, for fans and critics alike, this was a major step.

Which brings us to the darker side of this latest news. For many, a fleet of semi or fully-automated drones is a specter that induces serious terror. Earlier this year, the Obama administration sought to allay fears about the development of the X-47 and the ongoing use of UAVs in combat operations by claiming that steps would be taken to ensure that when it came to life and death decisions, a human would always be at the helm.

drone_mapBut of course, promises have been broken when it comes to the use of drones, which doesn’t inspire confidence here. Just eight days after the Obama Administration promised to cease clandestine operations where drones were used by the CIA to conduct operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, one such drone was used to kill Wali ur-Rehman – the second in command of the Pakistani Taliban. This was a direct violation of Obama’s promise that UAVs would be used solely against Al-Qaeda and other known anti-US terrorist groups outside of Afghanistan.

What’s more, the development of unmanned drones that are able to function with even less in the way of human oversight has only added to many people’s fear about how, where, and against whom these drones will be used. Much has gone on that the public is now aware of thanks to the fact that only a handful of people are needed to control them from remote locations. If human agency is further removed, what will this mean for oversight, transparency, and ensuring they are not turned on their own citizens?

UAVsBut of course, it is important to point out that the X-47B is but an experimental precursor to actual production models of a design that’s yet to be determined. At this point, it is not farfetched to assume that preventative measures will be taken to ensure that no autonomous drone will ever be capable of firing its weapons without permission from someone in the chain of command, or that human control will still be needed during combat phases of an operation. Considering the potential for harm and the controversy involved, it simply makes sense.

But of course, when it comes to issues like these the words “trust us” and “don’t worry” are too often applied by those spearheading the development. Much like domestic surveillance and national security matters, concerned citizens are simply unwilling to accept the explanation that “this will never be used for evil” anymore. At this juncture, the public must stay involved and apprised, and measures instituted from the very beginning.

And be sure to check out this video of the X-47B making its first arrested landing. Regardless of the implications of this latest flight, you have to admit that it was pretty impressive:


Source:
news.cnet.com

3D Printing to Turn Aircraft Carriers Into Mobile Factories

nimitz-class-carrier-640x424It’s no secret that NASA has turned to 3D printing as a way of opening up new frontiers of space exploration and resolving potential problems – like building moon bases or feeding astronauts. And now, it seems that the only other organization that can rival the space agency in terms of funding and scale – the US Navy- has something similar in mind.

The US Navy already boasts most of the world’s largest moveable structures – the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier taking the cake. Whats more, modern aircraft carriers are basically floating cities already, complete with conventional manufacturing facilities to provide a good portion of what the crew might need while at sea. It therefore makes perfect sense to incorporate a high-quality 3D printer into the mix.

F_35_navyWhile the ultimate goal may be the ability to print actual replacement fighters and ordinance, the current plan is to incorporate printers that can print off replacement parts and possibly even small drones. With the technology already in place, it is not difficult to imagine a carrier, or perhaps even a large land vehicle, outfitted with a high-quality 3D printer, several tons of raw materials, and a few pre-fabricated cameras and circuit boards.

What’s more, this could also make transport of basic supplies more efficient, holding powder and casing materials separately and combining them to make bullets and munitions as needed, rather than storing them in a way that takes up vast amounts of space. Researchers at Virginia Tech even told the Armed Forces Journal that they believe 3D printing could produce high-quality propellants themselves – meaning an aircraft carrier could produce its own supplies of fuel and missiles.

cyber-war-1024x843This idea drives home a number of things that are likely to become the mainstay with military technology. One is the increasing gap between the military haves and have-nots, and the increasing importance of cyber warfare in the modern world. No army or insurgent militia is likely to be able to withstand a mobile drone factory, nor is a nation that does not possess the technology be able to compete with one that does.

At the same time, simple defects, caused by cybernetic intrusion, could render such a mobile factory useless and counterproductive. In any future arms race between nations where 3D manufacturing is part of the arsenal, hacking will certainly be a factor. And last, but certainly not least, the ability to independently produce components, weapons and tools also opens up the possibility to create fully-autonomous ships and bases, complete with recycling programs that can turn waste into reusable raw material.

Cuban-Missile-CrisisSuch are the concerns of today’s military and all those who need to plan for the future. And as always, the prospects are frightening for all – not only because they make the nature of future conflicts uncertain, but because any serious advancement on one side is likely to cause others to scramble to get their hands on it as well. As any student of history knows, arms races lead to escalation and increased tension, and those rarely end well!

Source: extremetech.com

The Future is Here: The Autonomous Robotic Jellyfish!

Matt Russiello submerges the RoboJelly. Remember the Medusoid, that creepy robot jellyfish creature that debuted in July of 2012? Well, it seems that Virginia Tech was working on their own, with help from the military. Yes, whereas the medusoid was a project in organic-synthetic interfacing, a collaborative effort between Harvard University and Caltech researchers, this one is the result of ongoing work by the United States Navy.

After years of working on their own model for a robot jellyfish, they unveiled the fruits of that labor earlier this month. Named Cyro – a contraction of robot and Cyanea capillata (the species name for the lion’s mane jellyfish) – this 170 pound biomimetic machine looks and act like a jellyfish, but is in fact an autonomous robot.

cyro1And much the Medusoid and Robojelly – Cyro’s hand-sized predecessor – this second-generation model utilizes what is called “Bio-Inspired Shape memory Alloy Composites (BISMAC)” in order to mimic the motions of the real thing. This consists of a
layer of smart materials (aka. shape memory alloy) that is soft and shaped in such a way to maximize deformation and propulsion.

Underneath this layer of composite material are a number of actuators (i.e. robotic arms) that control the movements of the Cyro. These in turn are mounted on a central body that contains enough hardware to allow the robot to communicate, gather information, and make decisions. What’s more, the developers envisage a fleet of networked Cyros, conducting surveillance and research and sharing the results with each other.

cyro2And as the video below explains, this robot jellyfish is likely to have numerous applications. These included environmental monitoring, cleaning up oil spills, or conducting military surveillance. Of course, it seems pretty obvious what the primary use of the Cyro is going to be, given that the ONR and the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center are responsible for funding it!

No telling how Human Right Watch will react to this, though. How safe would you feel, knowing that the next time you’re snorkeling, swimming or ocean kayaking that a perfectly innocent looking Man-of-War could be spying on you? Check out the video of the Cyro being tested below:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, emdl.mse.vt.edu

US Navy’s Killer Drones! Dolphins Get a Repreive

knifefish-drone-640x353Yes, it seems the once heralded killer-dolphins of the US Navy are finally getting the pink slips, and not a moment too soon! With the Cold War now behind us, the use of water mammals as hunter-seekers – a controversial practice at the best of times – finally seems to be coming to an end. In the new age, an age of robots and unmanned vehicles, it seems the Navy will be taking a page from the US Air Force and replacing them with drone like the Knifefish (pictured above).

Designed by the Navy not only as a fiscally responsible and humane replacement for Dolphins, this new drone was also inspired by recent demands from the Pentagon to deal with the problems arising from tensions overseas.  Earlier this year, when Iran threatened to close down the Straight of Hormuz – the waterway between Oman and Iran where 17 million barrels of oil pass through every day – the Pentagon became worried. If such a channel were to be mined, clearing it would be dangerous, time consuming and costly work.

seafoxAlready, they had considered using the the German-made Seafox, a 1.2 meter (4 foot), 45 kilogram (100-pound) semiautonomous drone that is controlled using fiber optic cable. Unfortunately, the limits of this model and the cost ($100,000 per drone) led many to conclude that a more cost-effective option was necessary. Hence, the Knifefish, a 5.8 meter (19 foot) 770 kilogram (1700 pound) robot that has an extended range and improved capabilities.

For starters, it is powered by lithium-ion batteries that give it an operational life of up to 16 hours. It also uses a low-frequency synthetic aperture sonar that can penetrate beneath a soft sea floor, giving it the ability to distinguish mines mines from submerged debris with better accuracy. Mines will be able to be fingerprinted in real time by using resonance patterns obtained during imaging and comparing them to known signatures.

Granted, this is not exactly a cheaper option than importing Seafoxes, but given the benefits to mine sweeping in the Persian Gulf and other potential areas of conflict, the Pentagon considers it a worthy investment. Eight units have been ordered and will be built jointly by General Dynamics and Bluefin Robotics, at a total cost of $20 million. Naval divers are still expected to carry out many mine clearing operations themselves, but drones will reduce dive frequency and associated risk.

The key here is that the Knifefish drones will be responsible for identifying and mapping underwater mines, not destroying them. Responsibility for performing such acts will no doubt be a matter for international bodies and courts to negotiate, applying martime law and international treaties to the mix. Also, the Knifefish is also being proposed as a means for private companies to monitor underwater pipelines and offshore oil rigs. So in addition to aiding in the protection against terrorism or naval blockages, the Knifefish could be used to ensure environmental safety.

Source: Extremetech.com

Drone Wars!

X-47BThat’s the crux of Timothy Chung’s research, an assistant professor in the Systems Engineering department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. For the most part, he and the Advanced Robotics Systems Engineering Lab (ARSENL) have been working on a way to construct a series of low-cost, lightweight autonomous flying vehicles known as Aerial Battle Bots that will give the US and the western allies an advantage should a full-scale conflict involving UAV’s happen.

The aspect of cost is especially important, seeing as how drones cost on the order of several million dollars apiece. By supplementing reconnaissance and hunter-killers with dogfighting drones, the army and navy of the future will have a lost cost-option for keeping their big-budget fliers safe. What’s more, it’s extremely important that the drones work in tandem, since it’s highly likely other nations will be developing similar swarms of drones in the future too.

Chung_droneWith the help of a DARPA research grant, Chung and his associates have completed a small fleet of about a dozen drones. Each is a essentially a commodity radio-controlled flying machine, called Unicorn, that has been retrofitted with an onboard computer and other gear in order to take their places in the larger group. He hopes that by this August, he and his team will be able to get the vehicles flying and be able to start experimenting with getting them working together, as well as facing off!

In other news, questions relating to drone dogfights and the issue of autonomous drones were raised once again at the White House. Back around Thanksgiving, the mounting concerns from the human rights community led Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to sign a series of instructions that were designed to ensure that human oversight would always be a factor where drone strikes and UAV’s were concerned.

john-brennanThese concerns have since mounted with the recent announcement that John Brennan, the White House’s counter-terrorism adviser and the man known as the “Drone Godfather”, was nominated to become the next head of the CIA. For years now, he has been the man in charge of the US antiterrorism efforts in Central Asia, many of which have involved the controversial use of Predator and Reaper strikes.

These concerns were voiced in a recent letter from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore), a member of the Senate intelligence committee. In it, he asked Brennan pointedly when and under what conditions the president would be able to target American citizens using drones:

“How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed? Does the President have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?”

Naturally, the questions were quite specific when it came to the authorization of lethal force and when such authorization would be given to target people within the US’s borders. But there were also many questions that highlighted concerns over how this same process of authorization has taken place in other countries, and how little oversight has taken place.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)(Released)In short, Wyden used the occasion to express “surprise and dismay” that the intelligence agencies haven’t provided the Senate intelligence committee with a complete list of countries in which they’ve killed people in the war on terrorism, a move which he says “reflects poorly on the Obama administration’s commitment to cooperation with congressional oversight.” And given the mounting criticism at home that using killer drones against unspecified targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan has earned, not to mention the blowback happening overseas, he is not alone in thinking this.

Like it or not, it’s a new age where “umanning” the front lines is having an effect, albeit not the desired one. At one time, the predominant thinking in military and intelligence communities was that using automated aerial, land and sea vehicles, war could be fought cleanly, effectively, and without the loss of life – at least on OUR side. However, this thinking is coming under increasing scrutiny as it comes closer and closer to realization. And at the center of it all, the philosophical and existential questions are numerous and impossible to ignore.

For starters, war is and always will be a human endeavor. Just because you are not risking the lives of your own people doesn’t mean the fight is any more sanitary or bloodless. Second, even though none of your own citizens will be mourning the death of their loved ones doesn’t mean there won’t be mounting civilian opposition as conflicts go on. In a global community, people are able to witness and empathize with the plight of others. And finally, the increased use of machinery, be it autonomous or remote controlled, will inevitably lead to fears of what will happen if that same technology would ever be turned against its own people. No weapon is so safe and no government so trustworthy that people won’t fear the possibility of it being turned on them as well.

Source: news.cnet.com, wired.com