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Boeing shows automated spying, flying drone

Robot spyplanes deliver on Cingular

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AW & ST reports that the process began with an email sent from the cellphone to a console of the type used aboard AWACS radar planes. Because the email was written in a NATO standard nine-line format, it was processed through the AWACS battle-management software and a time-critical target icon popped up on the AWACS display. That display was then forwarded to the Scan Eagle drone control system automatically.

"The system did a re-plan in real-time without operator intervention," Williams told AW & ST. "It created new routes for the [drones] within a second that included the time critical target. Video of the new target was sent back to the AWACS and they opened it in a normal browser to confirm it was important."

Sure enough, it was important. In true War-on-Terror style, the hammer would - in the real world - have fallen out of the sky with devastating force.

"We vectored in simulated F-18s to destroy the target," said Williams, meaning that manned jets would have blasted the vehicle to scrap with a salvo of bombs or missiles.

"Finally, that video was forwarded to the guy on the ground using a regular Cingular cell phone."

If Williams has the sequence right, it certainly seems odd that the eyeball man on the ground didn't get the video before the airstrike. All he'd be able to do after the event would be to say "aw man, the damn robots got the wrong car again", or something.

In this simulation the attack planes were human-piloted, rather as in the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - al-Qaeda's then leader in Iraq - who was eliminated last year using a half-tonne of explosives delivered by F-16 jets. But, in fact, the robots can handle this part of the job too.

Consider this extract from the book Killer Elite by Times journo and former army intelligence operator Mick Smith.

"November 2, 2002 in Yemen, Bin Laden's ancestral home.

"There was little doubt that a Toyota Land Cruiser that could be seen bumping along a rocky desert road on the screens at CIA headquarters contained Qa’ed Sunyan al-Harethi, Bin Laden’s personal representative in Yemen and one of the top dozen members of Al Qaeda ... Harethi’s mobile phone was being tracked by [US special-forces techs]. They had been waiting for the moment when they could remotely programme it to switch itself on, to provide a target for an attack. Bush’s authorisation of assassination meant that the CIA and special operations commanders could kill him the moment they got eyeball on him. Now a pilotless Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles moved into position above him. The Landcruiser and its occupants were reduced to little more than a few pieces of mangled metal..."

Since 2002, a Predator variant called Warrior has been designed, which will need no pilot even to land or take off. Add in a bit of the latest Boeing software magic to handle it on the job, and we can see that the day's coming when nothing more than a phone email - or even just the phone's presence, if it belongs to one of the unrighteous - could trigger a deadly robotic avalanche of death from the skies. More and more of the process is being automated.

It's almost not funny anymore; though it has to be said, not many of us wouldn't be interested in options to stalk people from above (or even in a few cases blow them up by email*) on our smartphones. What do we think? £30 a month?

The Boeing press release is here. ®

*Talk about your flame war. Etc.

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