Boeing shows automated spying, flying drone
Robot spyplanes deliver on Cingular
US death-tech'n'airliners giant Boeing has carried out a spy-fi-esque demonstration of military surveillance technology.
During tests in Oregon, flying robot mini-planes stalked suspect vehicles from above without human input, took orders via a mobile phone, and sent video back to the mobile as well. Then they fingered the luckless driver for violent death at the hands of strike aircraft.
Several ritzy pieces of Boeing kit were employed in the trials. First up was the Distributed Information - Centralised Decision (DI-CD) autonomous mission control software, which can direct the activities of flying spy-bots.
Describing the DI-CD software, Boeing VP Ed Froese said "mission operators are freed from micro-managing the routes and other activities. Instead, they describe their high-level goals and objectives to the system, and the software manages the [drones] to achieve a coordinated effect".
You can't ask the software for really high-level goals like, for example, "achieve a US-friendly, democratic and secular Iraq with a flourishing economy", or "improve my sex life", but it can take a lot of the struggle out of handling aerial surveillance droids.
Marshall Williams, programme manager for Boeing, said DI-CD frees human operators from laying out waypoint routes for aircraft to follow and removes the need to tell them when and how to use their sensors.
Instead, one can effectively say: "I need pictures taken in these spaces. You figure out how to do it, and if you find something interesting cue me so I can look at it."
During the tests, DI-CD enabled a single human operator to handle three "Scan Eagle" surveillance drones simultaneously, with all three working at full effectiveness.
Another Boeing trick was the so-called "Stalker" software, which allows a Scan Eagle to follow a suspect vehicle without human input.
According to Boeing: "The software continually monitored the truck's movements even as it made several abrupt turns, stops and starts...The system automatically adjusted the ScanEagle's flight path to stay undetected and in an optimal position to image the vehicle."
The machines no longer need human traitors to monitor us; they can do it alone. In the spy-fi/counter-insurgency context, however, they still need to know which vehicles to follow. This is where humans on the ground can still come in handy.
The Boeing tests also included a pretend "observer" (read: special-forces type, local agent, James Bond, etc) equipped with "a regular Cingular cell phone", according to Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW & ST).
Boeing says "an 'observer' in the field sent the location of a time-critical target" (read: a car with Osama bin Laden or someone in it, that we'd like to wipe off the map pronto before he vanishes again) "via a cell phone".
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.
"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.