Drones: PR, Proliferation and Prangs in the Pacific

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) have continued their excellent work exposing US drone strikes in Pakistan by publishing extensive new research.  According to their research, more than 160 children are among at least 2,292 people reported killed in US attacks since 2004.  In addition they suggest that there are credible reports of at least 385 civilians among the dead.   Full details including a searchable database of  drone strikes is available on thebureauinvestigates.com.

Clearly rattled, US officials have gone on the PR offensive and challenged the figures (AFP reported an anonymous US official saying “The  numbers cited by this organization are way off the mark”)  and US officals have also attempted to discredit the report by suggesting that a source, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency on behalf of civilians has an “agenda” and has ‘possible links with Pakistani Intelligence agencies’.    However a New York Times editorial on the drone strikes this weekend challenged the CIA’s claims that no civilians have been killed saying “We find that hard to believe”.  So do a great many people.

As well as the US military going on a PR offensive,  the drone industry too is trying to challenge the ‘killer drones’ image.  According to National Defense Magazine

“the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International hosted a news conference at the National Press Club on August 10 to talk about the warm and fuzzy side of robotic machines [with] several executives on hand …to discuss the humanitarian roles of robotic equipment.”

As well as launching its PR offensive, AUVSI are trying to persuade the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to relax the rules on flying drones in civil airspace.  AUVSI are arguing that ‘limitations to UAV flight in U.S. airspace are hindering the industry’s growth and getting in the way of job creation.’  (We have previously reported on efforts to similarly persuade the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK.)  Privacy and safety it seems have no place to limit the ‘tremendous impact’ that lifting such “restrictions” would bring. By co-incidence It was announced this week that the FAA are investigating Rupert Murdoch’s  News Corps for using a drone in civilian airspace to film flooding in North Dakota.

Drone strikes andproliferation have continued over the past two weeks – notably a strike in Yemen on 1st August killed 15 people and a strike in North Waziristan killed over twenty people on 10th August. Press reports have also indicated that Italian Predator drones are also now flying missions over Libya.    Russia is about to show off its new combat drone, Lutch, at the Moscow airshow and the Welsh Government have been granted a certificate by the local planning authority to use the Llanbedr military airfield in Snowdonia to test and develop drones.   The Welsh government are freeholders of the site and are keen to lease it to Llanbedr Airfield Estates who wish to develop  the site.

There was much press coverage in the run-up to the test flight of DARPA’s new Hypersonic drone, the Falcon, last week, including this piece in the Guardian.  The Falcon drone, built by Lockheed Martin at a cost of about $320 million, is designed to fly at twenty times the speed of sound and undertake strikes anywhere in the world in less than one hour.  Red faces all around then when the test failed and the Falcon crashed into the Pacific.  Back to the drawing board!

Drones everywhere

Obama: Sending Drones to Bomb Libya

It’s been a busy week!  On Monday the Guardian highlighted the MoD’s  new document on the need for serious discussion on the ethics and legality of using drones (see post below), a story which was taken up by the Daily Mail, The Telegraph  and many others. 

On Wednesday evening  James Cameron tweeted that this was the week –  in his Terminator movies – that autonomous armed machines rose up against humanity.  This sparked a lot of interest in autonomous weapon systems, including an article on drones on the BBC website

And then on Thursday night Barack Obama approved the use of armed Predator drone in Libya. In between media interviews I’ve been watching this blog’s stats go through the roof!

Meanwhile drone strikes continue in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The MoD confirmed last week that UK drone have now conducted 167 armed drone strikes in Afghanistan.  US strikes continue intermittently in Pakistan with the latest strike killing 25 people, including  according to some reports five children.  This strike comes almost a month after a strike on March 17th killed 44 people including many civilians.   Relations between the US and Pakistan have reached crisis point over the drone strikes with many Pakistanis calling for the air force to shoot the drones down.   Coincidently, Col Grant Webb, Commander of the US Joint UAS Centre of Excellence announced that Operation Blue Knight, this year,  a regular drone training exercise, will this year feature F15’s and F16s trying to shoot down drones

UK Drone Strikes in Afghanistan

However, a story that has passed almost unnoticed in the mass of recent drones stories is the killing of two US servicemen by a US drone in Afghanistan in the first week of April.   A key argument of those who support drone strikes is that they do not make mistakes as the drone’s incredibly accurate cameras can show the target in great detail allowing strikes to be made with pin-point accuracy.  US spokespeople, when denying civilians have been killed, use this argument  time and again. The killing of two US soldiers by a US drone  in a so-called ‘friendly fire’ incident  shows that drones are far from infallible.

Talking of fallibility, another Reaper drone has crashed – this time on a training mission in New Mexico.  Time to update the drone crash database.

I’ll be back…..

Pause stopped!

Previous Protests at Parc Aberporth

Congratulations to Welsh anti-drone campaigners who are celebrating news of the cancellation of ‘Pause 11’ which was due to be held at Parc Aberporth in July. 

The event, an exhibition and flying display of UAV’s,was to be the focus of a number of protests by Welsh campaigners who have been meeting over the past few weeks to organise demonstrations.   Now however the organisers have announced that “due to circumstances beyond their control” the event is to be cancelled.   Although the organisers say they hope to put on an event in the future, let’s hope Pause has been put on hold for good.

P.S.   I have updated the the drone crash database today with news of yet more drone crashes in Pakistan, Yemen and Turkey.

Drones Wars 2010: Proliferation, Pushing Autonomy and Prangs

Northrop Grumman's X-47B Drone: first flight due before end of year

As the year draws to a close against a background of increasing drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan – between 50 and 60 people were killed in a number of separate drone strikes in Pakistan’s Khyber region this week  – the development of drone wars continues right around the world.   Three of the key themes that have emerged on this blog in the past six months –proliferation, the push to increased autonomy and drones crashes  –  are illustrated by developments this week.

Proliferation:  As was clear through the Wikileaks cables, every dictator and military leader has the latest drones on their Christmas wish list and many companies, are happy to oblige.    This week we learned that Israel are bidding to sell various drones to Chile  and India  while Peru has acquired micro drones from Israeli company Innocon.

The push to greater autonomy in drones has also been a regular theme this year and the year ends with Northrop Grumman announcing that its  X-47B combat drone is about to make its first flight.   The X-47B is designed to fly from an aircraft carrier and unlike current drones in service, the X-47b will fly mostly autonomously once aloft and, indeed its planned that it will be able to refuel in-flight autonomously. 

Prangs!  Finally the Drone Crash database illustrates how often drones, for all their supposed ‘smart technology’ sometimes simply fall out of the sky.  Two more examples have been added to the database.  Firstly two Australian drone crashes in Afghanistan have recently been revealed while a Mexican drone crashed in Texas last week.   The drone, an Israeli made Orbiter mini UAV, crossed the border into  the US and then crashed into the backyard of an El Paso resident.

And finally…  Channel Four has a very good report on 2010: – The Year of the Drone

Drones: Stressful for some, fatal for others

An Israeli drone launched an assassination strike in Gaza this week killing two people and injuring three more. The two fatalities, killed in their vehicle as it drove along al-Wihda Street in the centre of Gaza City, were named locally as brothers Islam Yassin and Mohammed Yassin, members of the Army of Islam. According to Al-Jazeerah an Israeli military spokesperson claimed responsibility for the assassination and stated that the attack was carried out after close collaboration between the army and the Israeli Security Agency Shabak, as the men were “plotting to attack Israeli citizens in the Sinai”. The dramatic photos in this report of the aftermath of the attack give some insight into the drone assassinations taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Meanwhile British MoD Minster Andrew Robathan, confirmed this week that a study into the psychological health of British drone operators based in the US is currently underway. Previous reports focusing on US drone operators have suggested that drone pilots operating at great distances from the battlefield, are suffering from stress.

On the other side of the world, the sudden appearance of many new Chinese drones at a Chinese air show are causing Western defence officials a fair amount of stress. According to the Wall Street Journal

Western defense officials and experts were surprised to see more than 25 different Chinese models of the unmanned aircraft, known as UAVs, on display at this week’s Zhuhai air show in this southern Chinese city. It was a record number for a country that unveiled its first concept UAVs at the same air show only four years ago…. China is investing considerable time and money to develop drone technology, and is actively promoting its products on the international market …. It is of particular concern to the U.S. and Israel, whose drones are unrivalled in the world today.

One of the Chinese drones, WJ600, will caused considerable anxiety as a video animation showed it helping “to attack what appeared to be a U.S. aircraft carrier steaming toward an island off China’s coast that many visitors assumed to be Taiwan”.  Another, dubbed ‘the Chinese Predator’ by the aviation magazines, has undergone a series of flight trials, including weapons launches.

This week – two more drones crashed in Afghanistan – one on Kharvar city on 12th November and another in the Kharwar district of Logar Province on Wednesday 17th November. So many drones are crashing that I plan to put up a separate list of drone crashes in the next few days.

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.