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.


Dead Careers Beat: airline pilots

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2010

I’m kinda surprised this hasn’t started sooner, really… although 9/11 has made it difficult for a number of influential people to think rationally about air travel (or, in some cases, anything at all). But the logic is economically obvious: if we can remotely pilot UAVs over warzones, why the hell are we still using pilots in regular aircraft?

There are technological hurdles to overcome (as well as some legislative ones, no doubt), but they’re far from insurmountable:

Today’s airliners use a cooperative system called the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), whereby radio transmitters on each plane announce its position, height and heading. The system constructs a picture of what’s in a plane’s airspace and calculates collision risks. If a risk is detected, a loud, synthesised voice tells the crew to climb or dive to avoid the danger.

“UAVs will have to respond to these TCAS alerts,” says Dopping-Hepenstal. But when planes without TCAS venture close, things get tricky. Some of these “may be radio silent or have low electromagnetic signatures, making them difficult to detect”, he says. This is where the non-cooperative elements kick in. Astraea is developing a battery of sensors, including infrared heat sensors, millimetre-wave radars and optical cameras, to ensure UAVs know if a plane is nearby.

While infrared sensors and cameras should spot a plane in open air, they may lose it in cloud. That’s when millimetre-wave radar, which easily pierces fog, takes over.

Do bear in mind that the pilot of a large commercial aircraft leaves the autopilot to do its thing for around 99% of the journey in 99% of cases*; they’ve been glorified (and sharply-dressed) fail-safe fall-backs for decades now. I suppose the biggest question is whether air travel will remain economically viable for long enough to allow the reshaping of public opinion that would be needed to roll this out… though I fully expect RyanAir to start adding a Pilot Surcharge to all travel costs by the end of the week.

Don’t be scared, it’s a logical progression: if we can trust UAVs to kill people (so long as we’re not too picky about who exactly does the dying), it’s a short step to trusting them to not kill people.

[ * These percentages totally made up on the spot, but based on conversations with commercial pilots. Contrary figures welcomed – nay, encouraged. ]


UAV drones for the Texas/Mexico border

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2010

When you’ve got a nice new hammer, everything looks like a nail: Statesman.com reports that the US government is about to cave in to pressure from Texan politicos and agree to supply UAV drones for surveillance duties along the border with Mexico:

If approved, the unmanned aircraft in Texas would add to the federal government’s existing border effort, which includes a handful of other unmanned aircraft, 20,000 Border Patrol agents, about 650 miles of border fence and 41 mobile surveillance systems, according to Customs and Border Protection.

The plane, which is made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and officially called a Predator B, is able to spot illegal border activity and send images in real time to border officials.

At that point, Border Patrol agents could be dispatched, according to Customs and Border Protection.

This story via Chairman Bruce, who remarks:

The fun part will come when these unmanned aerial vehicles are copied by narcotrafficantes and loaded with cocaine.

I think there’ll be a few other “fun parts”, though not quite so headline-worthy. Lot of kids along that border are going to get real proficient with low-tech ballistics and backyard camouflage, for instance. I wonder how good at differentiating between “illegal border activity” and “activity near a border” the hardware and operators will be? And how long it’ll be before those drones have some sort of payload, pour discourager les autres?


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?


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