Paparazzi drones (coffee delivery upgrade optional)

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2010

The Wall Street Journal reports on the inevitable migration of UAV drone technology into non-military spheres of life:

Personal drones aren’t yet plying U.S. flyways. But an arms race is building among people looking to track celebrities, unfaithful lovers or even wildlife. Some organizations would like them for emergency operations in areas hit by natural disasters. Several efforts to develop personal drones are scheduled for completion in the next year.

“If the Israelis can use them to find terrorists, certainly a husband is going to be able to track a wife who goes out at 11 o’clock at night and follow her,” said New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder.

Drones now are associated with the unmanned Predator craft the Central Intelligence Agency uses to fire Hellfire missiles at militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But the essential technology is increasingly available beyond military circles, and spreading fast. An unmanned aircraft that can fly a predetermined route costs a few hundred bucks to build and can be operated by iPhone.

That’s pretty cheap and accessible; club together with a few neighbours, sketch out a rota, pay the kids pocket-money for manning a few shifts a week. Top marks to Randall “FuturePundit” Parker for this bit of close-range speculation:

The ability of surveillance drones to record high-res images could be combined with a wireless link to a criminal face matching computer server. So convicted rapists and muggers could be identified. Crowd sourcing becomes a real possibility. Many different personally owned drones could (along with cameras mounted in cars and outside of stores and houses) all pass info to servers that could then track the movement of known dangerous people (why they are out on the street is another subject). Also, after a crime is committed as soon as, say, a victim of rape or robbery reports the crime all recent drone feed logs in the vicinity could be scoured to identify possible suspects and start tracking them. Neighborhood watches could signal people to all send out their drones to do a massive sweep of the area.

I can imagine flying drones being sent off to a drug store to land on the roof to be loaded with a drug prescription or other light item. The energy costs would probably be lower than the energy costs of driving a car to the store. Wouldn’t work for a large grocery load. But would work for trips to get smaller items.

A bigger flying drone operated by, say, Starbucks or 7/11 could deliver coffee to a number of houses on a route. Or how about drones that deliver newspapers? A delivery truck could drive along with a flat bed where the drones lift off and deliver newspapers down side streets. Reduced labor costs, faster delivery.

Lots of potential apps there… each of them with their own potential shortcomings, exploit opportunities and failure consequences. (The intimidatory power of police drones will be somewhat negated when the rough neighbourhoods they’re intended to patrol can field their own jerry-built squadron of flying camera platforms; who will watch the watchmen, indeed. Won’t be long before some geek firebrand starts mounting Gauss weapons and scramblers on them, either, so plenty of potential for an escalating robot turf war between governors and governed; the street finds its own use for yadda yadda yadda.)

Definitely a potential plank in David Brin’s “Transparent Society” platform, too; the participatory panopticon becomes a lot more powerful when your cameras can move in more than one or two dimensions. And a perfect excuse to dig up one of Anders Sandberg’s classic near-future hazard signs from 2006:

Ubiquitous surveillance hazard sign


The trouble with drones

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

When military hardware and software IP disputes meet: via Slashdot we hear of a pending lawsuit that may ground the CIA’s favourite toys, the Predator drones. In a nutshell, a small software firm called IISi alleges that some of their proprietary software was pirated by another firm, Netezza, who then sold it on to a government client which was revealed by further presentations of evidence to be none other than the Central Intelligence Agency. Plenty of grim irony in there, even before you factor in the allegations from IISi that the hacked software may render the drone targeting systems inaccurate to the tune of plus-or-minus forty feet. So it’s not all bad news for the CIA: at least they can start blaming collateral damage on shoddy outsourcing.

In other drone news, Chairman Bruce draws our attention to Taiwan, whose ministry of defense confirms that it is developing UAV designs of its own. We can assume that, in the grand tradition of Taiwanese electronics products, these will be cheap-and-cheerful alternatives to the more respectable brands of the Western military-industrial complex, ideal for tin-pot totalitarians and networked non-geographical political entities working to tight budgets. Hell only knows where they’ll get the software from, though.


Military drone pilots could be prosecuted as war criminals

Paul Raven @ 29-04-2010

A while ago, we were wondering whether killing a drone or UAV pilot counted as a legitimate act of war. Still no word on that one, but there’s more bad news for the CIA drone pilots in the form of a professor of national security law who suggests that the drone pilots – and their superiors – could be prosecuted for war crimes in the countries where their attacks take place:

Loyola Law School professor David Glazier, a former Navy surface warfare officer, said the pilots operating the drones from afar could — in theory — be hauled into court in the countries where the attacks occur. That’s because the CIA’s drone pilots aren’t combatants in a legal sense. “It is my opinion, as well as that of most other law-of-war scholars I know, that those who participate in hostilities without the combatant’s privilege do not violate the law of war by doing so, they simply gain no immunity from domestic laws,” he said.

“Under this view CIA drone pilots are liable to prosecution under the law of any jurisdiction where attacks occur for any injuries, deaths or property damage they cause,” Glazier continued. “But under the legal theories adopted by our government in prosecuting Guantánamo detainees, these CIA officers as well as any higher-level government officials who have authorized or directed their attacks are committing war crimes.”

Somehow I can’t see that stopping the AfPak drone war any time soon, especially given how popular UAVs are with the US military nowadays – it’s gotta be easier to sign people up for battlefield wetwork when they can do it with no risk of being shot in return, I’m guessing. And hey, laws can always be superceded (or just plain ignored), especially if you end up winning.

Then again, they thought Nam would be a cakewalk, didn’t they?


UK police to deploy military UAV drones, snoop more effectively

Paul Raven @ 28-01-2010

US Air Force UAV droneFuturismic readers resident outside the UK may wonder why exactly it is that I keep battering on about the omnipresent surveillance systems that are saturating this silly little island. After all, if I’m not doing anything wrong, I should have nothing to fear, right?

Well, if believing that helps you sleep at night, then you carry on. In the meantime, I hope you’ll not object to me becoming steadily more nervous about such systems being put into the hands of a clueless, corrupt bureaucracy of a government. Am I overstating the case here? I don’t know – but how would you feel if you heard your police force were investing in the same sort of UAV surveillance drones that have proven so popular with the “peacekeeping” forces currently stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Better yet, wait until you hear exactly what they want them for:

… for the ­”routine” monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

I suppose we should at least be grateful that the ubiquitous yet hollow catch-all of “terrorism” doesn’t turn up in that list. But there’s more:

… the partnership intends to begin using the drones in time for the 2012 Olympics. They also indicate that police claims that the technology will be used for maritime surveillance fall well short of their intended use – which could span a range of police activity – and that officers have talked about selling the surveillance data to private companies. A prototype drone equipped with high-powered cameras and sensors is set to take to the skies for test flights later this year.

The Civil Aviation Authority, which regulates UK airspace, has been told by BAE and Kent police that civilian UAVs would “greatly extend” the government’s surveillance capacity and “revolutionise policing”. The CAA is currently reluctant to license UAVs in normal airspace because of the risk of collisions with other aircraft, but adequate “sense and avoid” systems for drones are only a few years away.

I try very hard to keep Futurismic free of my soap-boxing these days, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies if this post has bored, baffled or offended you. But Futurismic‘s also the biggest soap-box I have access to, and I honestly believe this sort of creeping totalitarianism must be called out in public at every available opportunity. Governments that profess to be democracies should remember that respect is a two-way street. [image by ebrkut]


Eyes in the sky: ubiquitous real-time aerial surveillance

Paul Raven @ 24-08-2009

Watchkeeper - British unmanned aerial vehicleThe United States Army has seen a lot of success with airborne surveillance systems in recent years, and it’s given them the taste for more. Wired’s Danger Room blog takes a look at the current state of the art as well as the latest ground surveillance specifications DARPA is bandying around to potential contractors:

In February we reported on Darpa’s Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System (ARGUS-IS ), a 1.8 gigapixel flying eye which will be mounted in a 500-pound pod carried by a Predator or A160 Hummingbird robocopter. The ARGUS-IS makes for an impressive camera, with the resolution and processing power to track a large number of separate items including “dismounts” — people on foot — over a wide area, as well as “a real-time moving target indicator for vehicles throughout the entire field of view in real-time.”

But ARGUS-IS is already looking old. Now the Army is asking for something even more powerful. In a new request for solicitations, it outlined the concept for a novel visible/infrared sensor that will cover a much larger area on the ground — with much higher resolution.

The sensor is required to be lightweight with low power consumption and to have significantly lower operating costs compared to existing systems, and must be able to operate from small aircraft, either manned or unmanned. In terms of specifics, the Army is looking for 2.3 gigapixels running at two frames per second. By my reckoning, this suggests continuous coverage of area of around sixty-two square miles at 0.3m resolution with a single sensor. That’s quite a step up from Angel Fire, which covers a tenth of the area at much lower resolution.

That’s a lot of detail, for sure. And we can probably assume that the bulk of the aircraft carrying the hardware will in fact be unmanned; The Guardian reports that the US is now training more drone operators than bomber and fighter pilots combined.

Three years ago, the service was able to fly just 12 drones at a time; now it can fly more than 50. At a trade conference outside Washington last week, military contractors presented a future vision in which pilotless drones serve as fighters, bombers and transports, even automatic mini-drones which attack in swarms.

Five thousand robotic vehicles and drones are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2015, the Pentagon’s $230bn (£140bn) arms procurement programme Future Combat Systems expects 15% of America’s armed forces to be robotic. A recent study ‘The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan 2020-2047’ predicted a boom in drone funding to $55bn by 2020 with the greatest changes coming in the 2040s.

“The capability provided by the unmanned aircraft is game-changing,” said General Norton Schwartz, the air force chief of staff. “We can have eyes 24/7 on our adversaries.”

The article has a jaw-dropping closer, too:

In Wired for War, author Pete Singer speculates the machines are harbingers of a new era of “cost-free war”.

“It’s an historic change,” said Singer. “Going to war has meant the same thing for 5,000 years. Now going to war means sitting in front of a computer screen for 12 hours. Then you go home and talk to your kids about their homework.”

Yeah, cost-free war! Awesome! Well, it’s not cost-free for the brown people caught in the crossfire, but hey, it’s hard to care about them so much when they’re just pixels on a screen, AMIRITE? [main story via NextBigFuture; image by skuds]