Tag Archives: drones
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.

Read full story Comments { 0 }
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?
Read full story Comments { 0 }
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 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/lt.html 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…

Read full story Comments { 1 }
Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Drones, reactors, floods, and Usama bin Laden’s Google Earth debut–and you don’t have to work for a covert agency to see (most of) them…

The official US position on drone strikes in Pakistan is that they are “cross-border”, i.e. launched from bases in Afghanistan. However, Google Earth images obtained in 2009 by Pakistan’s The News and The London Times clearly showed Predator drones at Shamsi airfield North of Quetta. Denials were more pointed after an unwitting “outing”/mistake by Senator Feinstein when she said at a hearing (also in 2009), “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base”. Her office attempted to walk the utterance back as well.

The aircraft are of course no longer visible on Google Earth, though new structures have since appeared. Ogleearth has a fairly enjoyable speculation and wonderment-rich post on the provenance of the images.

New America Foundation maintains a marvelous visualization/Google Maps mashup of drone strikes on Pakistani territory, with all available supplemental data on location/combatant vs. civilian casualties, etc. 2004-present.

Our study shows that the 244 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 31 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,493 and 2,379 individuals, of whom around 1,200 to 1,908 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 20 percent. In 2010, it was more like five percent. [As of May 27, 2011]

The Nuclear Program
Newsweek recently reported on discoveries made by examining commercially-obtained imagery of the Khushab site. The images show construction (circa April 2011) of a fourth reactor for plutonium production (via reprocessing).

Not only does this represent expansion of the program itself, but also points to yet another track for the production of nuclear material. Heretofore (really, circa 10-15 years ago) the putatively prodigious output of Pakistan’s production had been based on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) created in the enrichment process stolen, mastered, refined and in addition sold (sometimes in “turnkey” fashion including not just plans and the like but access to networks of businessmen who could illicitly provide the makings of similar programs)–thanks to the strikingly James Bond-bad guy-like A.Q. Khan–to a rogue’s gallery of countries including North Korea, Iran (where the P-1 became the Ir-1), and Libya (which, fortunately, “came clean” and sent its centrifuges to Tennessee, where good use is apparently being made of them–I imagine at more than one point in the last month or so the Colonel has been wondering if his short-lived return from pariah status was worth it).

Now, Pakistan’s diversification from just HEU into plutonium isn’t news, but again, the high points here are the pace of expansion and, the ostensibly public nature of the imagery and discovery (though seriously, one has to wonder how closely they were led to acquire imagery at this particular time from this particular site, and by whom).

I’m not going to belabor the plausibility and nuances of the “nightmare scenario” of loose (or acquisition-abetted) nukes at this point, but I will link to Sanger/Broad’s NYT article about US efforts to assist Pakistan in securing their arsenal, going so far as to offer assistance in developing PALs (Permissive Action Links–basically, as close as you will get to the real-life version of what are colloquially referred to as “launch codes” in popular culture). One interesting International Law nuance here is the question of whether giving PALs (or even assisting in the development of the technology) to a NPT non-signatory is a violation of our obligations under article 1 of said treaty.

Darn it, I was looking to some more canonical source, but the Wikipedia entry on PALs is pretty good.

Courtesy of NASA we have some astonishing imagery which brings home the scope of destruction of the 2010 flooding in the districts around the Indus River. Despite being a “show, don’t tell” advocate, the stats are hard to resist.

  • Approximately 1800 killed, BUT ~20 MILLION impacted
  • 1.5M displaced
  • 1.89M homes destroyed
  • An estimated $500 million crop damage (and of course let’s remember that you needn’t be anywhere near the vicinity of the flooding to be impacted by the absence of the food derived from those crops)
  • 5.3M jobs lost or attenuated, total economic impact estimated $43B; Pakistan’s GDP dropped or will bottom out 6-9% lower (obviously, taking us well into negative growth)

One unfortunately strategic beneficiary might be the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, AKA “The Pakistani Taliban”), as they were able to provide assistance where the government couldn’t; this affords them a source of legitimacy they don’t normally pursue, more in the manner of Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon (which provides civil services there in absence–sometimes ensuring it–of the government; this is why you may sometimes hear Southern Lebanon referred to as “a state within a state”). As a result we have “inverse counterinsurgency” and a can count a strengthened TTP as one result of the floods. Also, government forces were distracted from their counter-TTP efforts by the floods.

Usama bin Laden Makes the Google Earth Scene
Some will remember a prior Contours of Catastrophe post musing about the familiarity of the outline of bin Laden’s compound. Well, the entrenchment of the shape and relevance of Google Earth continues apace–per geography.pk:

A milestone, all thanks to Bin Laden’s death perhaps that Google has “pre-announced” satellite imagery update for first time ever. This imagery update as expected includes the updated imagery for Abbottabad town of Pakistan that has gained attentions in recent days.

Read full story Comments { 0 }
Forever Overhead: Panopticon 2.0

Forever Overhead: Panopticon 2.0

Seeing is knowledge is power…


Panopticon, USA
Simplistic to be sure, but one could do worse if pressed for Foucault in five words. Knowledge and power are inextricably entwined, and seeing confers knowledge. Foucault made a trope of Jeremy Bentham’s architectural model, the Panopticon, to embody the role of observation in power relations. The Panopticon centralizes and privileges seeing; because everyone is a potential subject, they become an object of passive cohersion. In a prison designed on this model, the warden, situated in a central tower, could see every prisoner; since no one could be certain whether they were the focus of his gaze, they would regulate their own behavior, almost constantly, without active cohersion (discipline)–in fact, no one need be watching at all (the shelf life of this would, of course, be limited!): the mere threat of being observed would suffice.

Bentham's Panopticon (Wikimedia Commons)

…it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. (Foucault, page 201 in the Vintage edition of Discipline & Punish)

The Threat of Visibility
But far more than just the person, the body, can be seen and confer power–all the traces of our lives have this capacity. For example, the immense trove of knowledge (films, photos, wiretaps, recovered mail, even gossip) that J. Edgar Hoover hoarded furthers the possibilities of passive cohersion, and couples control with reconnaisance. The fact that this hoard existed was an open secret, and no one, not even–especially not–the president was immune; any aspect of anyone’s “private” life might be exploited by Hoover or those he deigned to share scraps of this power with. Anyone who knew this might moderate their own behavior lest traces be sucked up by Hoover’s “Hoover”. Failing that, their only recourse would be to carefully manage their relationship with the FBI Director (not the office, but the Director himself).

Information Wants To Be Free
But, in the words of Stewart Brand, “Information wants to be free” (though originally he meant this in terms of expense, not liberation), and apparently it also seeks to liberate itself. And so, with for instance Google Maps/Earth/Street View, we become our own warden. Increasingly there is no single, centralized warden: less and less information is the exclusive property of state-operated agencies (to some degree–what’s worthy of exposé may not be sufficient to locate and destroy Usama bin Laden, for instance). Now anyone, given sufficient means, can acquire commercial satellite imagery (there was a time when the idea of commoditizing these images was contentious–indeed, how much longer will drones remain the sole province of state-run agencies?), or just find it on Google Earth and gain some knowledge worthy of exposure.

Google Street View

Panopticon Now
The contemporary Panopticon is not merely a penal device; not only is it a ubiquitous source of institutional intrusion, it’s also a framework for entertainment:

  • Workplace email
  • A Supreme Court nominee’s video rentals
  • Non-cash transaction records
  • Facebook (where we all can watch each other, for fun!)
  • Location check-in apps (wave to the Panopticon!)
  • Google dependency
  • iPhone GPS data storage.

Google Street View

But in popular culture it’s a trope all its own: reality TV (indeed, one of the progenitors of the genre was called “Big Brother”), protagonist/antagonist relationships throughout drama (think Klute, or the classic Lifetime drama, the Eye of Sauron, Rear Window–or just about anything, really).

However, for the purposes of this series, I’ll just focusing on the overhead manifestations, particularly the “democratizing” ones. Satellites, drones, and other forms of aerial sensing might be considered a sort of vertical Panopticon.

Read full story Comments { 0 }