The Drone Wars Are Already Here

The skies of Syria, Yemen, and Libya swarm with armed and dangerous unmanned aerial vehicles. And the technology is spreading farther and farther afield. Three decades ago, drones were available to only the most technologically developed state military organizations. Today they’re everywhere, being used by weaker states and small military forces, as well as many non-state actors, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda. “We’re seeing a cycle of technological innovation regarding the use of drones and associated systems, and that cycle of techno-tactical adaptation and counter-adaptation will only hasten going forward,” says Raphael Marcus, a research fellow in the department of war studies at King’s College London.

The diffusion of such technology is leveling the playing field, says Marcus, author of Israel’s Long War With Hezbollah: Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire. He says that because armies no longer have the monopoly on the use of drones, surveillance technology, precision capabilities, and long-range missiles, other actors in the region are able to impose their will on the international stage. “The parameters have changed,” he says. That’s already leading to greater instability. For example, Hezbollah’s thwarted drone strike in August and increasingly sophisticated and more frequent drone attacks by Hamas raise the risk of another war with Israel; meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthi rebels made an impact on the global price of oil with a strike on Saudi Arabia, using 25 drones and missiles.

The Institute for Strategic Research in Paris has already recommended that NATO and European militaries ready themselves for drone threats in future conflicts. The institute also urged countries to cooperate on a joint research and development strategy to defend against the threat in a report issued in September.

Does that mean that future wars will be automated? “Drones will definitely be taking more important roles in the next few years, but they aren’t about to replace soldiers,” says Ben Nassi, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. For that to happen, he says, drones will need longer battery life and the development of a centralized computer command-and-control server that will allow a single person to control a swarm of drones, similar to how individual players manage their militaries in a computer game.

Ex-Google Engineer Says That Robot Weapons May Cause Accidental Mass Killings

“A former Google engineer who worked on the company’s infamous military drone project has sounded a warning against the building of killer robots,” reports Business Insider.

Laura Nolan had been working at Google four years when she was recruited to its collaboration with the US Department of Defense, known as Project Maven, in 2017, according to the Guardian. Project Maven was focused on using AI to enhance military drones, building AI systems which would be able to single out enemy targets and distinguish between people and objects. Google canned Project Maven after employee outrage, with thousands of employees signing a petition against the project and about a dozen quitting in protest. Google allowed the contract to lapse in March this year. Nolan herself resigned after she became “increasingly ethically concerned” about the project, she said…

Nolan fears that the next step beyond AI-enabled weapons like drones could be fully autonomous AI weapons. “What you are looking at are possible atrocities and unlawful killings even under laws of warfare, especially if hundreds or thousands of these machines are deployed,” she said…. Although no country has yet come forward to say it’s working on fully autonomous robot weapons, many are building more and more sophisticated AI to integrate into their militaries. The US navy has a self-piloting warship, capable of spending months at sea with no crew, and Israel boasts of having drones capable of identifying and attacking targets autonomously — although at the moment they require a human middle-man to give the go-ahead.

Nolan is urging countries to declare an outright ban on autonomous killing robots, similar to conventions around the use of chemical weapons.

Mysterious drone swarm attacks

Moscow says the US supplied the technology behind the drone attack, but Washington denies involvement. In the most recent and unusual of the attacks, a swarm of armed drones descended from an unknown location in the early hours of Saturday morning onto Russia’s vast Khmeimim airbase in northwestern Latakia province, the headquarters of Russia’s military operations in Syria.

Researchers Create First Flying Wireless Robotic Insect

You might remember RoboBee, an insect-sized robot that flies by flapping its wings. Unfortunately, though, it has to be hard-wired to a power source. Well, one of RoboBee’s creators has now helped develop RoboFly, which flies without a tether. Slightly heavier than a toothpick, RoboFly was designed by a team at the University of Washington — one member of that team, assistant professor Sawyer Fuller, was also part of the Harvard University team that first created RoboBee. That flying robot receives its power via a wire attached to an external power source, as an onboard battery would simply be too heavy to allow the tiny craft to fly. Instead of a wire or a battery, RoboFly is powered by a laser. That laser shines on a photovoltaic cell, which is mounted on top of the robot. On its own, that cell converts the laser light to just seven volts of electricity, so a built-in circuit boosts that to the 240 volts needed to flap the wings. That circuit also contains a microcontroller, which tells the robot when and how to flap its wings — on RoboBee, that sort of “thinking” is handled via a tether-linked external controller.

Pentagon Seeks Laser-Powered Bat Drones

On Wednesday, the the Defense Enterprise Science Initiative, or DESI, announced a competition for basic science grants to build “new paradigms for autonomous flight, with a focus on highly-maneuverable platforms and algorithms for flight control and decision making.”

Biomimetic, or nature-imitating, designs for crawling, slinking and even swimming robots go back decades.

But getting flying machines to mimic nature is a good deal more difficult and more complicated than teaching robots to swim and crawl, which is why even the military’s smallest drones have followed conventional aerodynamic designs.

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“DragonflEye” project is turning insects into cyborg drones

“R&D company Draper is developing an insect control “backpack” with integrated energy, guidance, and navigation systems, shown here on a to-scale dragonfly model.

To steer the dragonflies, the engineers are developing a way of genetically modifying the nervous system of the insects so they can respond to pulses of light. Once they get it to work, this approach, known as optogenetic stimulation, could enable dragonflies to carry payloads or conduct surveillance…”

Pentagon successfully tests micro-drone swarm

“The Pentagon may soon be unleashing a 21st-century version of locusts on its adversaries after officials on Monday said it had successfully tested a swarm of 103 micro-drones.

The important step in the development of new autonomous weapon systems was made possible by improvements in artificial intelligence, holding open the possibility that groups of small robots could act together under human direction.

Military strategists have high hopes for such drone swarms that would be cheap to produce and able to overwhelm opponents’ defenses with their great numbers.

The test of the world’s largest micro-drone swarm in California in October included 103 Perdix micro-drones measuring around six inches (16 centimeters) launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, the Pentagon said in a statement.

“The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing,” it said.

“Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said William Roper, director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter—a technophile and former Harvard professor—created the SCO when he was deputy defense secretary in 2012.

The department is tasked with accelerating the integration of technological innovations into the US weaponry.

It particularly strives to marry already existing commercial technology—in this case micro-drones and artificial intelligence software—in the design of new weapons.

Originally created by engineering students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013 and continuously improved since, Perdix drones draw “inspiration from the commercial smartphone industry,” the Pentagon said.”

Baltimore Police took one million surveillance photos of city with secret plane

“Baltimore Police on Friday released data showing that a surveillance plane secretly flew over the city roughly 100 times, taking more than 1 million snapshots of the streets below.

Police held a news conference where they released logs tracking flights of the plane owned and operated by Persistent Surveillance Systems, which is promoting the aerial technology as a cutting-edge crime-fighting tool.

The logs show the plane spent about 314 hours over eight months creating the chronological visual record.

The program began in January and was not initially disclosed to Baltimore’s mayor, city council or other elected officials. Now that it’s public, police say the plane will fly over the city again as a terrorism prevention tool when Fleet Week gets underway on Monday, as well as during the Baltimore Marathon on Oct. 15.

The logs show that the plane made flights ranging between one and five hours long in January and February, June, July and August. The flights stopped on Aug. 7, shortly before the program’s existence was revealed in an article by Bloomberg Businessweek.

The program drew harsh criticism from Baltimore residents, activists and civil liberties groups, who said it violates the privacy rights of an entire city’s people. The city council is planning to hold a hearing on the matter; the ACLU and some state lawmakers are considering introducing legislation to limit the kinds of surveillance programs police can utilize, and mandate public disclosure and discussion beforehand.

Baltimore has been at the epicenter of an evolving conversation about 20th century policing. Last spring, its streets exploded in civil unrest after a young black man’s neck was broken inside a police van.

Freddie Gray’s death added fuel to the national Black Lives Matter movement and exposed more problems in a police department that has been dysfunctional for decades. The department’s shortcomings and tendencies toward discrimination and abuse were later laid bare in a 164-page patterns and practices report by the U.S. Justice Department.

This is not the first time Baltimore has served as a testing ground for surveillance technology. Cell site simulators, also known as Stingray devices, were deployed in the city for years without search warrants to track the movements of suspects in criminal cases. The technology was kept secret under a non-disclosure agreement between the FBI and the police department that barred officers from disclosing any details, even to judges and defense attorneys. The Supreme Court recently ruled that warrantless stingray use is unconstitutional.”

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New leaked files reveal more about NSA satellite eavesdropping

Newly published documents have shed more light on the dubious surveillance operations of the United States operating in the UK. The documents detail how the NSA and GCHQ used information gathered by Menwith Hill Station—a massive but tightly sealed facility that intercepts satellite data transmissions worldwide—for targeted killings with drones:

“The files reveal for the first time how the NSA has used the British base to aid “a significant number of capture-kill operations” across the Middle East and North Africa, fueled by powerful eavesdropping technology that can harvest data from more than 300 million emails and phone calls a day.

The NSA has pioneered groundbreaking new spying programs at Menwith Hill to pinpoint the locations of suspected terrorists accessing the internet in remote parts of the world. The programs — with names such as GHOSTHUNTER and GHOSTWOLF — have provided support for conventional British and American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they have also aided covert missions in countries where the U.S. has not declared war. NSA employees at Menwith Hill have collaborated on a project to help “eliminate” terrorism targets in Yemen, for example, where the U.S. has waged a controversial drone bombing campaign that has resulted in dozens of civilian deaths.

The disclosures about Menwith Hill raise new questions about the extent of British complicity in U.S. drone strikes and other so-called targeted killing missions, which may in some cases have violated international laws or constituted war crimes.

Successive U.K. governments have publicly stated that all activities at the base are carried out with the “full knowledge and consent” of British officials.”

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FOI request garners 18hrs of drone spy footage from FBI of Black Lives Matter protests

In a very COINTELPRO-esque context, the ACLU has received more than 18 hours of video from surveillance cameras installed on FBI aircraft that flew over Baltimore in the days after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. The footage offers a rare insight into the workings of a government surveillance operation targeting protests.

“The cache is likely the most comprehensive collection of aerial surveillance footage ever released by a US law enforcement agency… The footage shows the crowds of protesters captured in a combination of visible light and infrared spectrum video taken by the planes’ wing-mounted FLIR Talon cameras. While individual faces are not clearly visible in the videos, it’s frighteningly easy to imagine how cameras with a slightly improved zoom resolution and face recognition technology could be used to identify protesters in the future. ”

The collection of aerial surveillance footage of Baltimore protests from April 29, 2015 to May 3, 2015, from FBI archives is available on their website, or better yet, the Internet Archive.

“Records from the Federal Aviation Administration showed that the FBI’s aircraft, which were registered to front companies to conceal their ownership, carried sophisticated camera systems on board, complete with night-vision capabilities.”

The FBI says they’re only using the planes to track specific suspects in “serious crime investigations,” and that “the FBI flew their spy planes more than 3,500 times in the last six months of 2015, according to an analysis of data collected by the aircraft-tracking site FlightRadar24.”

“The FBI has been criticized in the recent past for its actions regarding domestic advocacy groups. A 2010 report by the Department of Justice Inspector General found the FBI opened investigations connected to organizations such as Greenpeace and the Catholic Worker movement that classified possible “trespassing or vandalism” as domestic terrorism cases. The report also found the FBI’s National Press Office “made false and misleading statements” when questioned by the media about documents obtained by public records requests.”

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Bird-like drone could symbolise new forms of covert surveillance to come

“A crashed metal drone disguised as a bird has been discovered in Mogadishu, the troubled capital of Somalia.

Both governments [Somalia and the United States] and drone companies are experimenting with different types of aircraft, including nanobots and swarm-style technology.”

China Debuts Anbot, the Police Robot

Surveillance drones routinely circle over most major cities in United States

Seeing Through Walls – Thermal Imaging Cameras

The use of technology that allows the police to “see” inside the homes of suspects has raised privacy questions.

At least 50 US police forces are believed to be equipped with radars that can send signals through walls.

The use of the radar device, known as Range-R, was made public in a Denver court late last year.

It was used by police entering a house to arrest a man who had violated the terms of his parole.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that police cannot use thermal cameras without a warrant, specifically noting that the rule would also apply to radar-based systems that were then being developed.

“The idea that government can send signals through the wall of your house to figure out what’s inside is problematic,” Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union told USA Today.

“Technologies that allow the police to look inside of a home are among the intrusive tools that police have.”