Is killing a drone operator a legitimate act of war?

Paul Raven @ 08-02-2010

Here’s a tricky modern conundrum for you, via Cheryl Morgan. Over at Crooked Timber, people are discussing a recent BBC radio program about the increasing use of remote-controlled drones and UAVs by Western military forces, specifically in theatres of the “War on Terror”; I’ve not had the chance to sit down and listen to the re-run of the program, but the post at CT raises the titular question:

Some of the people controlling drones are in the military. Some of them are civilian contractors, perhaps based in a different country to the army they’re fighting for (such as British commercial operators based in Surrey, flying surveillance drones for the Dutch in Afghanistan.) The programme raised the issue of whether software engineers might one day be tried for war crimes. Looking at things the other way, if the Taliban contrived a way to blow up one of these operators on their daily commute in Nevada or Surrey, would it be a terrorist murder of a non-combatant or a legitimate act of war?

Leaving aside the fact that I’ve always found the notion of “legal warfare” to be more than a little ludicrous (as surely the laws of war are set by whoever won the last one, designed to maintain the geopolitical status quo, and hence inherently partisan), it’s an interesting question. The line between combatant and non-combatant has become increasingly blurred over the course of the last century, and the remote operations afforded by drone technology (not to mention guided missiles, and arguably any technology superior in accurate range to that of the opposition) are firmly planted in a sort of moral no-man’s-land. Is there a quantifiable difference between pulling a trigger to kill a man who you can see through your rifle sight, and pressing a button that kills a man who you can see on your computer monitor, thousands of miles away in a country you’ve never even been to?

It seems perfectly clear to me that there’s no moral difference whatsoever: to kill is to kill, no matter how it is accomplished or mediated. So the final question stands – is the drone operator a legitimate military target for the faction or nation he is deployed against? If not, why not? And where does that legitimacy spring from? Is it a genuine ethical construct, or is it a sort of retrospective justification after the fact? “Kill ’em all – let God the lawyers sort ’em out.”


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]


Cyborg bugs and locust flight simulators

Paul Raven @ 28-09-2009

We seem to be on an insect tip here at the moment, so entomophobes may want to click away until tomorrow. This stuff’s even creepier than software ants, too – via grinding.be (and many other places) comes video footage of the Pentagon’s latest experiments toward remote-controlling the flight of beetles with embedded hardware:

That’s more than a little unsettling, and I’m not usually bothered by insects. More details over at Wired‘s Danger Room blog.

But why build hardware into fragile real bugs when you could just build fully robotic critters? Obviously you’ll need to suss out the mechanics of their ability to fly, first… so you’re going to need a locust flight simulator like the one developed by a fellow called Adrian Thomas.

The simulator could be a big step forward for the many teams around the world who are designing robotic insects, mainly for military purposes, though Thomas expects them to have a massive role as toys, too. “Imagine sitting in your living room doing aerial combat with radio-controlled dragonflies. Everybody would love that,” he says.

Hmm. I think most folk would far prefer to have all insect combat confined to entirely virtual spaces, at least within the home. And by the time these proposed toy insects make it to the marketplace, you probably won’t need to actually pilot them yourself – after all, you can already build your own self-piloting and fully autonomous GPS-enabled UAV without needing access to a Pentagon-sized budget.


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]


Smallest ever free-flying device

Tom James @ 17-08-2009

smallest-uavThe world’s smallest free-flying device has successfully flown. The DARPA-commissioned nano-air-vehicle flew TK without external support:

Aeronvironment has released a video that shows its “nano air vehicle” (NAV), which is the size of a small bird or large insect, hovering indoors without such crutches and under radio control. “It is capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, as well as forward and backward, under remote control,” says the company….
Their ultimate ask is a ten-gram aircraft with a 7.5cm wingspan, which can carry a camera and explore caves and other potential hiding places. “It will need to fly at 10 metres per second and withstand 2.5-metre-per-second gusts of wind”

The micro-ornithopter/robot-insect concept has plenty of precedants in science fiction, and is another example of engineers borrowing from nature to solve engineering problems.

[from New Scientist, via Wired UK][image from ubergizmo]


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