General Atomics MQ-9
The Drone Wars
Scientific American, September 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
Over the past decade, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), also known as
unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, have redefined modern warfare.
The U.S. Army's drone armada alone has expanded from 54 drones in October
2001 to more than 4,000 drones performing surveillance, reconnaissance, and
attack missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. There are more than
6,000 of them throughout the U.S. military. The U.S. Air Force has now
logged well over a million hours of drone flight time.
of Defense 2012 plan calls for "purchasing more of the existing unmanned
aircraft systems for current operations, improving the systems already in
service, and designing more-capable unmanned aircraft systems for the
future." The Defense Department will spend an estimated $36.9 billion across
its different branches on 730 new medium-sized and large drones through
The U.S. military first developed modern drones in the last
century, but large-scale deployment began after 9/11. General Atomics
Predator drones were first used in Afghanistan in October 2001 to provide
intelligence and a strike capability to Operation Enduring Freedom. The Air
Force now operates at least four different models of medium-sized or large
unmanned aircraft. In addition to its 175 Predators, there are 14
jet-powered Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks. About 40 General Atomics
MQ-9 Reapers (blog 2010 March 14)
are planned to enter the fleet this year. The Air Force also uses the
Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel.
Last year, the Air Force trained
more RPA pilots than fixed-wing pilots. RPAs are often equipped with
full-motion cameras, infrared cameras to provide night vision, signals
intelligence sensors to eavesdrop on communications, and a variety of other
sensors. In addition to a pilot, each RPA has a sensor operator who directs
the cameras and signals sensors during a mission. All of this information is
fed to "exploiters" who analyze it and feed it as needed back to the pilot
and sensor operator.
The U.S. Army operates Northrop Grumman MQ-5B
Hunters, AAI Corp. RQ-7 Shadows, and two different types of Predators. The
Army will spend an estimated $5.9 billion in the next five years to add to
its drone fleet.
The Navy is testing the long-endurance Broad Area
Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) aircraft, based on the Global Hawk, and the
Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Firescout unmanned helicopter. Navy plans call for
purchasing 65 BAMS through 2026 and 168 Firescouts through 2028.
Troops on the ground can communicate with dronies via Remotely Operated
Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) ground stations that combine a ruggedized
laptop, software, a handset and a radio for live intelligence. Systems of
multiple cameras such as the Gorgon Stare video capture system (blog
2011 January 2) and the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous
Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) can let a ROVER dial into a
particular channel or tell a sensor operator to follow a particular vehicle
on a particular channel.
The Air Force Research Laboratory Air
Vehicles Directorate Micro Air Vehicle Integration & Application Research
Institute at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio is dedicated to the
development and testing of micro air vehicles (MAVs). Some MAVs are hand
launched while others are even smaller and resemble birds and insects.
Even smaller drones are in development. In February, AeroVironment
introduced its 16 cm Nano Hummingbird, capable of climbing and descending
vertically, flying sideways left and right, flying forward and backward, as
well as rotating clockwise and counter-clockwise under remote control and
carrying a small video camera.
Drones are promoted to the American
public as a way to strike against threats to the U.S. without putting airmen
or soldiers in harm's way. Another purported benefit of drones is precision.
But reports of civilian casualties indicate a limit to their precision. The
U.S. government claims that its drones have killed more than 2,000 militants
and about 50 noncombatants in Pakistan since 2001.
Future drones may
fire directed energy weapons, including lasers and microwave systems. Drones
will also be able to stay in the air for years at a time, powered in part by
lightweight solar cells. Remotely controlled aircraft are here to stay.
AR When bots learn to fly
Lightnings and Typhoons we'll
know GOD is nigh.
Predators and Robots at War
By Christian Caryl
New York Review of Books, September 29, 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
In his book
Predator, U.S. Air Force Colonel Matt Martin gives a unique first-person
account of the strange split consciousness of drone warfare. He sits in a
control room in Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, while his mind follows a
suspicious SUV down a desert road in Iraq or tails Taliban fighters along a
mountain ridge in Afghanistan. The acuity of vision afforded by the
Predator's multiple high-powered video cameras enables him to watch as the
objects of his interest light up cigarettes, take a dump, or shag a sheep on
the other side of the world, never suspecting that they are under
observation as they do.
Most of the bigger drones now operated by the
U.S. military can take off, land, and fly by themselves. The operators can
program a destination and then concentrate on the mission while the aircraft
does the rest. Packed with sensors and sophisticated video technology, UAVs
can see through clouds or in the dark. They can loiter for hours or even
days over a target. And they do not have pilots. In the unlikely event that
a UAV is shot down, its operator can get up from his or her console and walk
The U.S. aerospace industry has for all practical purposes
ceased research and development work on manned aircraft. All the projects
now on the drawing board revolve around pilotless vehicles. The Federal
Aviation Administration is considering rules that will allow police
departments to start using UAVs within the next few years. Soon your
speeding tickets will be issued electronically to your cell phone from a
drone hovering somewhere over the interstate.
The U.S. Army uses
robots to find and disarm roadside bombs, survey the battlefield, and shoot
down incoming artillery shells. The models in development include BigDog, a
zoomorphic quadruped designed to help soldiers carry heavy loads over
difficult terrain, and BEAR, a vaguely humanoid machine on caterpillar
tracks that can lift loads of up to 500 pounds. The army is experimenting
with SWORDS, a tracked vehicle equipped with a suite of powerful cameras
that can be armed with a 50-caliber machine gun or a variety of other
The U.S. Navy is experimenting with robots. It recently
unveiled a robot jet ski designed to sniff out underwater attackers. The
Navy has developed long-distance robot sailboats packed with high-tech
surveillance gear. Robot submersibles could spend months on underwater
patrol, parking at the bottom of enemy harbors and observing all the
Researchers are testing UAVs that mimic hummingbirds or
seagulls. One model under development can fit on a pencil eraser. There is
speculation about linking small drones or robots together into swarms of
machines that would share their intelligence to converge instantly on
Drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan
have probably been less successful than U.S. officials claim at killing
militant leaders. Polls show that Pakistanis overwhelmingly believe that
most of those who die in the attacks are civilians. The number of terrorist
attacks in Pakistan has risen sharply as the drone campaign has accelerated.
The broader political effects of the UAV campaign may well cancel out some
of its tactical benefits.
Wired for War, P. W. Singer discusses not only the technical specs and
astonishing capabilities of these new weapons systems but also the broader
questions raised by the rapid expansion of military robotics. Military
robots are developing considerable autonomy. As sensors become more powerful
and diverse, the amount of data gathered by the machines is increasing
exponentially, and soon the flood of information will far exceed the
controller's capacity to process it all in real time. More decision-making
will be left to the robot.
Soon our mechanical warriors will be
better at protecting the lives of our troops than any human soldier. Once
that happens, the pressure to let robots take the shot will be very hard to
resist. A fundamental premise of international law is that soldiers in the
field and the leaders who direct them must be held accountable for any
violations of the laws of war. Unmanned systems muddy the waters surrounding
war crimes. The U.S. Air Force currently operates on the principle that a
pilotless aircraft has the same rights as if a person were inside it. The
next generation of military robots is likely to have more operational
independence. Technology is on the verge of supplanting the human soldier
Nuke Spy Drones
Wired, December 2011
Stealthy drones like the RQ-170 Sentinel
that crashed in Iran are very good at loitering over a target of interest
for hours on end. That time in the air collecting intelligence helps peel
back the layers of a nuclear program. Lengthy video surveillance can reveal
much more than snapshots.
Drones can fly close to their targets to
capture better imagery of the ground below. The extra resolution can yield
important clues for intelligence analysts. Drones can also carry sensor
packages to sniff the air above clandestine facilities for telltale signs of
The development of small and sophisticated sensor
packages combined with the ability of drones to fly autonomously makes them
a reliable nuclear surveillance platform. Unnamed military sources confirmed
that the RQ-170 was conducting nuclear surveillance over Iran.
AR Anything that reduces home-side
casualties in war is to be welcomed.