Drones: as military use expands, civil use being developed

Just a few days after a senior US counter-terrorism expert warned  that US drone strikes were turning Yemen into the “Arabian equivalent of Waziristan”, US drone strikes yesterday aped the tactic of ‘follow up’ strikes used by the US in Pakistan.

According to CNN, a strike in which seven  suspected Al-Qaeda militants were killed was followed by a strike on local residents rushing to the scene to help the injured.  Local sources said that between eight and twelve civilians were killed in the second, follow-up strike.  A Yemeni security officials expressed regret for the civilian casualties and injuries. “The targets of the raids were not the civilians, and we give our condolences to the families of those who lost a loved one.”

Over the past few weeks US drone strikes and other military activity has been ratcheted up in Yemen as the White House has given ‘greater leeway’ to the CIA and JSOC to launch attacks.  Micah Zenko at the US Council on Foreign Relations estimates there will be more US strikes this month in Yemen than there has ever been in a single month in Pakistan.  For details see the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s excellent database of US covert activity in Yemen.

Drone strikes continue in Pakistan of course and no doubt in Afghanistan although almost no details of these are released.  Last week the US apologised after a strike killed a mother and her five children in Afghanistan but it was not revealed if the strikes was from a drone or a manned aircraft.

Drone fatalities continue to spread around the globe.  As we reported last year, US drones from Iraq were moved to Turkey to help the Turkish military “monitor” Kurdish separatists.  Today (16 May) it was revealed by the Wall Street Journal that information from one of these drones led directly to a Turkish military attack in which 38 civilians were killed last December.   Last week an engineer  working for an Austrian company was killed and two others injured when a drone they were demonstrating to the South Korean military crashed.

Meanwhile preparations aimed at  enabling the use of unmanned drones to fly  in civil airspace continues at a brisk pace both in the US and the UK.

Yesterday the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it had met the deadline for the first changes demanded by the new FAA Act aimed at allowing drones to fly in US civil airspace by September 2015.  The Act mandated that the FAA must streamline the process for government agencies to gain Certificates of Authorization (COA) to fly drones  within US civil airspace within 90 days.

Meanwhile in the UK BAE Systems has begun a series of flight tests over the Irish Sea as part of a programme aimed at allowing  unmanned drones to fly within UK civil airspace. BAE Systems is one of a number of military aerospace companies funding the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme.  According to the  ASTRAEA website it is “a UK industry-led consortium focusing on the technologies, systems, facilities, procedures and regulations that will allow autonomous vehicles to operate safely and routinely in civil airspace over the United Kingdom.”

According to The Engineer, BAE has fitted an “autonomous navigation system” on a Jetstream 31 passenger aircraft to enable it to fly without a pilot – although a pilot was on board in case of problems.

A BAE spokesperson told the Guardian that the tests “will demonstrate to regulators such as the Civil Aviation Authority and air traffic control service providers the progress made towards achieving safe routine use of UAVs [unmanned air vehicle] in UK airspace.”  Further flights  will take place over the next three months  testing infra-red systems as well as ‘sense-and-avoid’ systems.

BAE salivating at prospect of £2bn drone contract as USAF recruits kids to the drone wars

At a pre-Paris Air Show briefing this week, BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation could hardly contain their excitement at the prospect of being awarded a contract to develop a new armed drone.   The companies say they expect a government decision on the new joint UK/France drone programme in the very near future.  The MoD have estimated the new programme to total around £2 billion.

Development of a new armed drone is one of the ‘first fruits’ of a military co-operation treaty signed by France and the UK in November 2010.  BAE and Dassault signed an agreement to work together on the proposed programme in February, with BAE’s Mantis drone expected to be the basis of the new development.

Ian Fairclough, BAE’s Director of Strategic UAV’s stated: ‘We believe we are ready to begin the programme now. We have got some fairly mature plans in place for BAE Systems and Dassault to go ahead with this and we have also mobilised a joint team to work on this.’

Meanwhile, the USAF has just released a new video  game on its recruitment website aimed at teenagers  that enables young people to play at being a drone pilot and carry out drone strikes.   Many have already pointed out the similarity between video games and the operation of drones, and indeed how drones can blur the distinct between the reality of warfare and gaming.

Drone Strikes: Just Kids Play?

Although supporters of drones technology refute any such connections, their denials  are undermined by reports showing that gaming software and hardware are being used  to control UAVs.   Wired.com quotes Mark Bigham, business development director for Raytheon’s tactical intelligence systems as saying: “Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]?”

What cannot be denied, is that the rapid increase in the use of drones has led to a shortage of drone pilots and hence the need to boost recruitment.

Enticing young people to join the military with video games – with the idea of then moving them on  from playing at drone wars to actually undertaking drone strikes  – is, disturbing to say the least.   When CIA Director Leon Panetta called drone strikes “the only game in town” little did he know how prescient his words would be.

BAE ties up with Dassault not EADS on joint drone

BAE Systems have announced this morning that they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with French aircraft manufacturer, Dassault, to work together on a new armed drone.   The new drone will be one of the first products of the new Anglo-French defence treaty signed last November,  and will be based on BAE’s Mantis drone.

There had been speculation that BAE would tie up with European arms conglomerate, EADS, and combine Mantis with EADS Talerion drone, but this is obviously not to be.  

More on this story soon.

Death TV: Overwhelmed and bored analysts recommending drone strikes

The Washington Post reported this week that vast amount of video footage from drones are overwhelming analysts

According to Marine Corps General James Cartwright, Vice Chair of the Military Joint Chiefs of Staff, the video is “boring intelligence analysts to tears.”

Forced to watch what Gen. Cartwright called “Death TV,” bleary-eyed analysts at ground stations and other outposts spend hours wading through useless data until they spot signs of a target and recommend that the drone fire its missile.

Cartwright wants (yes, you’ve guessed it) more autonomy and technology to solve the problem and companies are lining up to provide the technology to process the video feed.  “Within three years, it will be technically feasible to run these sophisticated algorithms and extract relevant essence data from the content” according to John Delay of Harris Corp which has, according to the article, several defense contracts, but also has also made transmitters for broadcast television since 1969. (Death TV indeed!)

Unfortunately for the analysts, and without doubt Afghans too, Aviation Week says that Gorgon Stare will enter service aboard US Reaper drones in Afghanistan  next month   Gorgon Stare is a new surveillance capability that allows a wide area of ground to be videoed  while also enabling individuals to be tracked within that wide area. As Aviation Week explains:

‘The five EO cameras each shoot two 16-megapixel frames/sec., which are stitched together by the computer to create an 80-megapixel image…. The result is a system that offers a “many orders of magnitude” leap beyond the “soda straw” view provided by the single EO/IR camera carried by an MQ-1 Predator or a conventional Reaper UAV…. The video taken by Gorgon Stare’s cameras can be “chipped out” into 10 individual views and streamed to that many recipients or more… At the same time, Gorgon Stare will process the images from all its cameras in flight, quilting them into a mosaic for a single wide-area view.’

Four sets of Gorgons will enter service next month as part of the initial deployment.  A further developed version, involving BAE Systems’ ARGUS system [see ‘our Outstaring the Gorgon: BAE, Drones and ARGUS] is already being developed and tested.

Meanwhile the US Army has announced plans to conduct the largest ever demonstration of interoperability between manned and unmanned systems next year with the aim of proving that MUSIC (Manned Unmanned Systems Integration Concept) can work. As previously mentioned there is enormous pressure on political and civil authorities to allow unmanned aerial vehicles to operate within civil airspace and MUSIC is another step in that direction.   However Drone Wars UK can’t help but point out, as yet another drone crashes, that unmanned systems continue to regularly fall out of the sky.

BAE’s Demon Drone Flies With Help of Ten British Universities

Demon's First Flight - September 2010

Ten British universities have been working with BAE Systems on a new unmanned experimental drone system called Demon.  Demon, which uses small air jets to manuever rather than conventual mechanical flaps, has been developed under the £6.2m FLAVIIR programme.   Demon, had its  first flight in mid September  from Walney Island Airport, a small airport owned by BAE Systems on an island off the Cumbrian coast.  Demon has been built by BAE Systems in association with the following universities:  Cranfield, Imperial College, Warwick, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Southampton, Swansea, and York.  Demon will now undergo a two-years test and development programme.

Meanwhile BAE Systems has been awarded a $4m contract from the USAF for ‘engineering, training, and other services’ for the company’s Silver Fox UAV.   Silver Fox is a small drone used for intnellegence and surveillance purposes.   This contract is vital to supporting the warfighter,” said Gordon Eldridge, acting vice president and general manager of aerospace solutions at BAE Systems.

In March 2009, BAE bought Advanced Ceramic Systems, the company that US company that developed the Silver Fox and Coyote drones, for $15m.

Out Staring The Gorgon: BAE, Drones and ARGUS

ARGUS -IS sensor (BAE Systems)

Last week,  BAE Systems quietly announced that it had won a $50m contract to further develop the ARGUS  system in conjunction with U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA ).   ARGUS (or Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance) provides real-time, high-resolution, video surveillance capability for U.S. combat forces for detecting, locating, tracking and monitoring events on battlefields.  It is being designed to be used with drones or small manned aircraft.

This latest contract, to develop an infrared capability for ARGUS so that it can be used at nightime, come a few months after few months after BAE Systems admitted that ARGUS had been successfully tested by DARPA in Autumn 2009.

In a helpful article, ARES explains that ARGUS

“is designed to overcome the narrow “soda-straw” field of view of conventional surveillance sensors by providing multiple real-time video streams ….   DARPA says ARGUS can provide up to 65 “Predator-class” steerable video streams.  The 1.8-gigapixel sensor has four optical telescopes, each with 92 5-megapixel focal-plane arrays – cellphone camera chips, says BAE. The airborne processor combines the video output from all 368 arrays together to create a single mosaic image, with an update rate of 12-15 frames a second.

On the ground, the operator can create windows around stationary or moving targets within the image and ARGUS will down-link the video for these windows in real time. The system provides up to 65 640 x 480-pixel video streams simultaneously, limited only by data link capacity. Also a “global motion detector” mode looks at the entire image and tags potential targets with low-res image “chips”.

ARGUS in Operation (image Wired.com)

In other words, one drone will be able to track, in real time, up to 65 targets and as Wired.com suggests, monitor them over and area of 65 miles.

With up to 65 simultaneous video streams ARGUS easily beats the famously named ‘Gorgon Stare’ which was being developed to have 12 video streams.

ARES has also posted some fascinating images of what ARGUS is capable of doing.

The old adage “you can run, but you can’t hide” is becoming more true than ever, and real-time surveillance of huge swathes of territory using drones seems to be just over the horizon.