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Drones: A Few Practical Items

Drones: A Few Practical Items

For this post, we’ll move to some “practical” topics from the drone taxonomy. Namely, we’ll cover four main topics:

  • What “loitering” means and why it matters
  • Who has them?
  • Swarms
  • Types and applications


We get so distracted by the idea of the pilot and the aircraft decoupled from one another that we forget one of the other strengths of drones (at least of UAVs, the airborne variety): loitering time. This is the ability for a drone to circle above target individuals or places for extended periods of time. And by “extended”, I mean days. The Israeli “Heron” can stay airborne for 52 hours. Boeing’s latest effort boasts a loiter time of 10 days! More here.

That’s a far cry from what the military wants the drone to eventually do. Phantom Eye is supposed to reach a maximum altitude of 65,000 feet and stay aloft for up to 96 hours — that is, four whole days — at speeds reaching 150 knots. That would make the flying spy the biggest and longest-loitering drone the United States has. (Don’t worry, it’s not armed.)

The Phantom Eye’s size means the drone can be loaded up with a whopping 450 lbs. of sensors and cameras — which will come in handy for toting the military’s forthcoming spy gear, like Gorgon Stare, designed to spy on “city-size” areas, or the Army’s ARGUS sensor, which collects the equivalent of 79.8 years of video footage each day. Combine that capacity with a lengthy loiter time, and you’ve got a high-flying spy system that can peek on entire cities for days at a time.

Among other things, this means a UAV can sit above a target for X length of time and determine:

  • Pattern of life, i.e., what normally happens at this site? Maybe some “bad guys” meet there during the night, but it turns into a school during the day. This is actually a key plot point in Richard Clarke’s “Sting of the Drone”: a group of bad guys step up the propaganda value of collateral damage; they go conspicuously into a structure and exit elsewhere unseen. Unfortunately, the building is filled with a group of kids who’ve been duped into occupying the building (also unseen), which is demolished by a drone strike and subsequently deemed an “orphanage” and presented on video.
  • What else happens here?
  • Are all the bad guys here, or are more coming? Or are the ones here already going to leave?
  • Will good guys show up before the bad guys leave?

At any rate, the ability of a drone to loiter over an area or potential target is one of the key values of drone use, and that ability is continually being extended. The StratoBus dirigible promises to be able to do so for ONE YEAR (at 60000 feet).

Speaking of blimps, this one can “only” loiter for a month, but it’s early days as far as counter-drones are concerned. As far as the label is concerned, this is mainly about watching for civilian drones, but it could end up being a Proof of Concept for more elaborate surveillance in potentially less-friendly environments.

Civilian drones are more vulnerable to hacking and spoofing than those military of the variety since they operate on much more open networks. In June of 2012, Humphreys and several other researchers demonstrated that it was possible to spoof the GPS on a Hornet rotocraft UAV with little effort. As Humphreys told The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, drones with easily hackable navigation represent a “a huge vulnerability.”

This was a much easier question to answer a few years ago when I’d begun capturing notes for this topic; before the proliferation of the technology and growth of the group of players (creators and buyers). As of a year ago, P.W. Singer estimated that 87 countries have UAVs. Defense One claims that within 10 years, “every” country (a bit hyperbolic, but perhaps not by much) will have armed drones.

The Washington Times summarizes the variety of applications thusly:
” China uses them to spy on Japan near disputed islands in Asia. Turkey uses them to eyeball Kurdish activity in northern Iraq. Bolivia uses them to spot coca fields in the Andes. Iran reportedly has given them to Syria to monitor opposition rebels.

So, possibly short of 100 countries might have unarmed drones. To date, the following countries have used armed UAVs:

  • The US (also a manufacturer and distributor)
  • Britain
  • Israel (also a manufacturer and distributor)

But as for unarmed UAVs, there are already too many users and applications to enumerate; This article and the maps from Defense One will have to do.

This is critically important; years from now, it could be viewed as one of the top features of (not all, but some) drones versus conventional aircraft, along with the decoupling of pilot/aircraft and loiter time (although in the case of swarming drones, the latter may for the most part not be one of those features).

Imagine conventional methods for rapid target aquisition and destruction (for instance, the Phalanx gun). While these are very effective against a single moving target, but what would happen if a cloud of targets attacked (especially considering that individual elements of that cloud could be destroyed while leaving the whole swarm intact, or that the cloud itself could disperse and take on different “shapes”)? It is possible that the development of swarming technology has to date outstripped methods for defeating it.

Take a look at this University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP lab movie (from nearly THREE years ago). :30 and on:

This TED talk (also featuring a speaker from GRASP) is almost as old:

Another one I’m a late sharing speaks to the military’s pursuit of swarming technology.

It was when I saw the World War Z trailer (haven’t seen the movie and not interested, but highly recommend the book, particularly in audio) that I realized how mainstream swarms could be.

Clearly, their behavior (as an emergent mass, where the survival of individuals matters less than the survival of the whole—admittedly, possibly decreased in number) is much like (and possibly inspired by) the behavior of many ants:

This “ant bridge” is particularly instructive:

John Robb spoke to these advantages back around the time I should’ve posted this (he also linked to the GRASP lab movie):

  • It cuts the enemy target off from supply and communications.
  • It adversely impacts the morale of the target.
  • It makes a coordinated defense extremely difficult (resource allocation is intensely difficult).
  • It radically increases the potential of surprise.
(On second thought, I’ll talk about “Types and Applications” in a future post)
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Drones: The Man in the Loop

Drones: The Man in the Loop

See the intro to this series for a quasi-taxonomy of drones. This post would fall under the philosophical category mainly, with a hint of theoretical and practical.

The fallacy of the “man in the loop”
This concept is basically a sop to any concerns about the takeover of robots, and the autonomy of killing machines. It promises that a “man” (human) will always be there to “supervise” the use of lethal force by a “robot”. But one issue here is that the machine can handle things/decisions so much more rapidly, based on so much more information, that to involve a human would only slow things down, and possibly dilute the strength of that machine. What about “swarms” of many drones (a major practical/theoretical topic for future posts)? And the fact is, there are already a number of places where the use of force is not man-mediated.




Joshua Foust articulated this nicely last year.

The basic conceit behind a LAR is that it can outperform and outthink a human operator. “If a drone’s system is sophisticated enough, it could be less emotional, more selective and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tactical objective with the least harm,” said Purdue University Professor Samuel Liles. “A lethal autonomous robot can aim better, target better, select better, and in general be a better asset with the linked ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] packages it can run.”

The MQ-4C / Northrop Grumman

The MQ-4C / Northrop Grumman


This proposal for a drone fighter would almost explicitly remove that man from the loop by design.

“In Byrnes’ conception, machines have the edge in making the lightning-fast decisions necessary to win a close-quarters aerial battle. “Humans average 200 to 300 milliseconds to react to simple stimuli, but machines can select or synthesize and execute maneuvers, making millions of corrections in that same quarter of a second,” he writes.


“With FQ-X, autonomy for the conduct of the engagement would return to the air vehicle to take advantage of its superior processing speed and reaction times,” Byrnes proposes.

There’s much more here on the Byrnes proposal for lethal autonomy.

US Air Force

US Air Force


In their unmanned systems roadmap for 2013 (out to 2038, mind you), DoD itself debunks the fallacy, going so far as to use scare quotes:

Take the “man” out of unmanned. Currently personnel costs are the greatest single
cost in DoD, and unmanned systems must strive to reduce the number of personnel required to operate and maintain the systems. Great strides in autonomy, teaming, multi-platform control, tipping, and cueing have reduced the number of personnel required, but much more work needs to occur.

Department of Defense

Department of Defense


Shane Harris on same in an essay titled, in fact, “Out of the Loop”. I’m especially fond of this quote:

Listening to Prosek, one hears that gradual shift towards the inevitable. “When I was a kid and you got onto an elevator, there was a guy sitting on the stool who asked you what floor to go to,” he says. “Now most people are not aware there ever was an elevator operator out there.”

The Economist works to cement the death of the concept with an exhortation to “drop the pilot”. Now, the article isn’t about autonomy, but in summarizing the feelings of Pakistani quasi-targets they aren’t thinking of a “pilot” sitting in an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada.

And, one of those “pilots” or “men in the loop” speaks.




I was going to link to a GAO report no one would read, but this is an article meant to be read, after all:

The idea behind UCLASS — of which the X-47B is merely the demonstration model — involves doing away with the joysticks and computer banks that most remote operators use to control their drones. Instead, Northrop’s proprietary software lets drone pilots program where they want the drone to fly. Then they can go get a sandwich. “It’s smart enough for you to put really interesting contingencies” in the X-47B’s way, says Capt. Jaime Engdahl, the Navy’s program manager for its flying drones. “It has the smarts to react to that condition.”

(Alan Radecki / U.S. Navy)

(Alan Radecki / U.S. Navy)


How about “drone on drone” dogfights? A guy sitting in a trailer in Nevada, with all the latency that entails, is going to have problems insinuating himself into that loop.

“We pilots are the decision makers … and the claim to fame of fighter pilots are dogfights. So in the future, part of the process of replacing jet fighters with UAVs will be the ability to start dogfights between drones,” he added.

We’ll get more into the issue of practice and “loitering” time in a future post, but in advance, consider a missile sans drone that can loiter (i.e., not be “shot” directly onto a target, but rather, sit in the air for hours or days before landing) like a drone.

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Drones: Mapping the Drone-scape

Drones: Mapping the Drone-scape

(This is the introduction to a series.) 

I’ve got 2 1/2 years worth of notes on the topic of “drones” and yet, have posted nothing, even as the pace and events that should spark commentary proceeds exponentially. In 2011, this might’ve made for more eye-opening content (for the layman); now, it’s just channeling firehose-output so (hopefully) more substance can emerge. But this isn’t just excuse-making; it’s an opportunity to observe the rapid (and progressively escalating, like a Moore’s Law for drones. Unfortunately, you can’t see these notes so you’ll just have to take my word for it and consider the escalation from your own perspective.

U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt

U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt


Mapping the Drone-scape
Here I’ll introduce a taxonomy of drone-relevant categories for categorization of future posts, topics, or links. Given that I limit posts to ~1000 words, I trust it’ll get some mileage. Taxonomy isn’t actually just an academic exercise—categories and content co-evolve. So we get more of a “folksonomy” these are more tags than exclusive categories (or, as the New York Times puts it, “idiosyncratic rather than systematic”). But thats’s a topic unto itself, and may have to wait another two years.

As said above, the items below are just facets, rather than discrete categories (there is often—or normally—overlap); by no means are they exhaustive. I’ll use these:

  • Philosophical; i.e., potential future issues; ethics; what is “force” in “the use of force”?
  • Legal; i.e., domestic and international law, justifications within those frameworks, adaptation of existing legal frameworks or creation of new ones, etc.
  • Political; i.e., aspects such as who is targeting who, where, and why–substantially overlapping with the legal aspects
  • Theoretical; i.e., “what if?” issues such as, “what if ‘they’ get this technology?”, or what if/how it is deployed by X actor, including within the US itself by “the government”, private citizens, or non-US actors
  • Practical (or technological); i.e., how are drones being used today? What qualifies as a “drone”? What are the various technical advancements and what are their implications?
  • Geographic (or geopolitical); i.e., where? How does the deployment of drones change the power dynamic between state actors? How about non-state actors – or even citizens?
  • Cultural; i.e., how are drones depicted in mass media (fictional or otherwise), or how does it inspire aspects of others ? What does the cultural legacy of drones look like?
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Cartoons, Meet Combat. Combat, Cartoons.

Cartoons, Meet Combat. Combat, Cartoons.


Cars 2 starts with not only cars but boats. Minutes in, we’re introduced to Tony Trihull, who’s guarding a platform swarming with Bad Guys (or Bad Cars). I didn’t find out his name until later, and at that moment thought, “what an odd boat, it looks almost like a submarine”. It turns out it was a boat (the name being a bit of a giveaway), and like any vehicle in the Cars franchise, it’s got a liberal grounding in The Real.

Tony Trihull and the USS Independence


It’s the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and, as its name implies, is a vessel intended for close to shore, or sea-to-shore operations. As is implied by Tony’s name, it’s a trihull and has no forward decks to speak of. As you’ll see in the diagrams (or even by just watching Cars 2 as Tony turns around), there is a substantial  rear deck for most configurations.

Segueing into configurations, it’s modular and can be fitted with a number of these modules depending on its intended application. So much hardware is in the modules and tied with vessel systems that it almost becomes a different ship depending on which module it’s fitted with, as the some of the names imply: Mine Hunter, Surface Warfare, Anti-submarine Warfare, etc. One carries a number of new-ish helicopter drones (the MQ-8B UAV), making for quite a sexy package.

MQ-8B heli-drone

Israel had initially expressed an interest in the LCS, but opted to build its own. Other potential customers include Saudi Arabia and China.

While we’re at it, a trivia question (prize TBD): how many countries have no Littoral (coast, i.e. “landlocked”), ocean or even large lake? BONUS: how many countries have no coast but still have a navy?

Incidentally, I’d come up with a moniker for a country completely enclosed by another (only one, with only one border): “statelocked”. Lesotho is my personal favorite; the Holy See (Vatican City) is perhaps more obvious, but it’s not so much a “state” and certainly isn’t in the UN pantheon (though it is an observer, as is the Palestinian Authority). There are more of these than you might think…

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