NOVA's 'Rise Of The Drones' Opens The Shutters On Lethal Airborne Robotics Technology

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Rise Of The Drones

 Rise Of The Drones
PBS's NOVA episode “Rise of the Drones”, provides a fascinating look at the technology behind unmanned aircraft and the impact it will have on the future of warfare. Drones are about to become much more sophisticated (and probably more deadly) through the use of robotics and artificial intelligence.
The unmanned flying robots known as drones are already doing things straight out of science fiction. Much of what it takes to get these robotic airplanes to fly, sense, and kill has remained secret. But now, with rare access to drone engineers and those who fly them for the U.S. military, PBS's NOVA reveals the amazing technologies that make drones so powerful as we see how a remotely-piloted drone strike looks and feels from inside the command center.

From cameras that can capture every detail of an entire city at a glance to swarming robots that can make decisions on their own to giant air frames that can stay aloft for days on end, drones are changing our relationship to war, surveillance, and each other.

And it's just the beginning.

In a documentary featuring the technical side of a controversial subject, there is always going to be  difficult questions, and military drone aircraft are one of the most controversial subjects around.

Predator Drone

Although “Rise Of The Drones” at times plays like US Military propaganda, what the program is able to show is impressive. (There are some great shots of blue plastic tarps too).

NOVA describes what makes drones so appealing to the military. They use 300 times less fuel than planes (the ejection seat mechanics alone weigh as much as some of the drones in use).  Drones are also much safer for pilots, who also require much less training to operate them.

Former Air Force general David Deptula makes a convincing argument that, in the wars of the past, it would take months to gather the information required to find the proper target, then months more to plan a strike, then thousands of bombs to ensure success as in World War II and Vietnam. Contrasting that, with drone use all of those are done with one missile in a matter of “single-digit minutes.”

The Brookings Institute's fascinating Peter Singer, whose concise analysis shows the less-obvious political effects of the shifts toward drone warfare. By not putting American soldiers in direct danger, it allows the government to describe the attacks as something other than war. “When you're conducting more than 300 strikes into a country you're conducting what would have been called an air war campaign, but we don't call it that now.”

Singer also describes how that lack of risk allows the frequency and style of mission to change: “It's meant that we've conducted a lot more strikes that would have been more problematic than if we'd been using manned systems.”

In the documentary  the drone pilots interviewed seem a quite ill at ease describing what they do. One makes it very clear that “It's not like a video game, there's no reset button” while also describing how pilots have to observe the aftermath of a strike. “You have to stay there, stay plugged in, and focus on the destruction that you caused from your, uh, aircraft.”

“Rise Of The Drones” concludes with a focus on the potential future uses of drones and drone technology. DARPA's Paul Eremenko hints at some the possibilities including more and more autonomy for the flying robots.

One researcher improving drone cameras for the military combined 368 cell phone camera chips into an intensely powerful surveillance camera, called “Argus.” that is used to photograph an entire "medium-sized city".  The demonstration of the images and video on the large interactive display, including the motion tracking of vehicles, people and even birds is astonishing.

Researcher Vijay Kumar's quadrotors are also featured, displaying their autonomous operation and incredible acrobatics and swarm potential—a clip of a guy tossing a hula hoop in the air as a drone swoops through it makes that point astoundingly clear.

Watch Rise of the Drones on PBS. See more from NOVA.


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