Robot Planes!!!
May 10, 2006 3:28 AM   Subscribe

Flying Robot Planes? The analysts seem to think there is no good way to stop these things. Why isn't the government interested in using the wisdom of crowds to prevent terrorist attacks?

I know about the futures market being used to predict terrorist attacks.... but what about the wisdom of crowds to come up with technology and creative solutions to these problems? Why don't we have a huge suggestion box for the public to throw ideas at the wall and see if any stick? It seems like the only things military and political leaders are interested in is expensive laser-based technology or flashy gadgets that cost millions or billions and years in R&D. Ironically, there are clear low-tech threats that seem effective, and the bureaucratic monoculture doesn't seem interested in unsexy solutions that don't help out their friends the contractors (who are often just retired civil servants).

AskMetaFilter is, after all, the concept of the wisdom of crowds applied in a practical and often very successful manner. So aside from my question about military stupidity and corporate culture, please consider the following: How would you prevent pre-programmed UAV attacks? The first thing I thought of was to hire illegal immigrants to literally watch the skies (and let them earn their citizenship for six months of part-time service). It would certainly be cheaper than paying billions for tech that can knock out a cruise missile but can't hit a UAV simply because it doesn't fucking show up on radar. This vexes me. What would you do?
posted by tweak to Technology (13 answers total)
Huh. If they actually had any of these with the required range, radar can be easily reconfigured to spot them, unfortunately it would require visual verification to be sure you're not using those billion dollar weapons on a few birds in formation. IE - Don't give the Veep access.
posted by IronLizard at 4:00 AM on May 10, 2006

Response by poster: IronLizard: wouldn't that sort of just double the problem though? I mean, there are a lot of freaking birds, and if you have to have someone go visually confirm it's not birds, might as well just have them sit out there all day anyhow. Radar is too stupid. What about radar for small objects, and when detected, they are then scanned by infrared or heat sensors? Would it be possible for tools like that to distinguish between birds and UAVs or at least be close enough to filter out most birds? I guess then step three would be visual verification(I don't know about this stuff on a very technical level, so I'm thinking out loud).
posted by tweak at 4:13 AM on May 10, 2006

Manned aircraft are regulated and monitored -- they have to file flight plans, craft and operators are licensed, there are established flyways and no-fly areas, and they have to respond to radio contacts from flight controllers. Fail to respond, or fly in the wrong place, and you're likely to find a fighter jet next to you.

Something similar has to happen with UAVs, or we'll never distinguish benign UAVs from terrorist UAVs. Some form of licensing, perhaps coupled with a required identification signal constantly broadcast by any licensed UAV. Along with this, allowable flying patterns and no-fly areas. Monitoring might be done via the cell phone network. Licensing allows an opportunity to screen and register owners and operators. Monitoring allows interception of unauthorized flights. All this would be reasonable even if terrorism wasn't in the picture, because these things can crash into houses, interfere with highway traffic, etc.

The same kind of thing needs to happen in other areas. Virtually none of the cargo containers entering the country are inspected in any way -- any of them could be carrying nuclear material or what have you. We need a system where containers that have been licensed to trusted shippers (those with shipping facilities that meet rigorous security standards), or that have been inspected by customs in their port of origin, carry tamper-proof electronic signals so that any non-complying containers can be challenged. (Much more on this here (PDF) and elsewhere.)
posted by beagle at 5:04 AM on May 10, 2006

What kind of payload can these things carry? What can they hit and how accurately can they hit it?

Making remote controlled planes large enough to carry a bomb and having a guidance system is not that easy.

To date, the most effective terrorist attack ever was carried out with a few knives wheras high tech terrorism tends has not been that effective. Suicide bombing has proved to be incredibly effective. The guidance system has more brains than any UAV, let alone one built on the cheap. The payload is also pretty large.

The threat posed by low cost UAVs isn't that great. The cost to defend against them would be astronomical.
posted by sien at 5:04 AM on May 10, 2006

Best answer: radar can be easily reconfigured to spot them

Not true. If they fly low and slow near cities, they'll be lost in ground clutter. GC is even worse with the "few, big" radar station approach (see your local weather radar.) Worse, properly built, there's going to be very little to reflect radar -- the engine and controller, both of which would be very small.

The big thing -- these are going to be short-to-medium range attacks, tops. You're not building an IFMA1 with a 5M wingspan that's going to carry anything. Some of the really smart guys -- NASA, LM, Scaled Composites, might pull it off, but it would cost millions in development, and still not carry a useful payload.

Now, the joker flying five or six of these into a stadium with a handgrenade inside from five miles away -- that's a real attack. The panic would be the real cause of harm, but there's a reason it's called "terrorism."

Just watching the skies isn't a win -- heck, wait for a day with low clouds and fly in them. With the proper paint job, it can be very hard to see a small plane even 500' up. You're more likely to hear it, unless you take measure to quiet it (once again, slow is your friend here.) Note the popularity of the "white top, dark bottom" paint scheme in civilian aircraft, and the flat-grey to black in the military. The civvie plane wants to be seen, the military doesn't.

Now, the thing to remember is that even a very large -- and 5M wingspan quailfies -- model airplane still will have a very light payload, unless it has a very powerful engine (and if it does, it'll need fuel to feed it.) You're not knocking down buildings with one of these. Even 50Kg of Sarin would be hard pressed to do any massive damage, unless it hit just right.

The other factor -- the parts you need are now cheap. You basically only need a GPS module and a microcontroller, though it would be much easier if you had a barometric altimeter, a 3 axis accellerometer, position sensors on the servos, and tilt sensors to get a fast take on what attitude the craft has at the moment .

How cheap? I have much of it lying around here, and betwen Digikey and Sparkfun Electronics, the rest is easy to order. $500 would buy everything new easily, and if you could buy in quantity, that number would drop quickly (per copy, that is.) Programming is a bit harder (and beyond me, I don't know flying) but is by no means impossible. Indeed, I suspect that most of that code is already out there in bits and pieces.

1) IFMA: Intercontinental Flying Model Airplane
posted by eriko at 5:06 AM on May 10, 2006

they have to file flight plans,

Not true under VFR, and through large parts of the country, you don't need to contact a controller at all, you don't need a transponder, etc. Look up Class E and G Airspace (which is basically the vast majority of the airpspace below 18,000 feet and not near an airport and/or prohibited area.)
posted by eriko at 5:12 AM on May 10, 2006

I suppose they could just do some thing like this, but the cost/benefit ratio is absurd. Seriously. Absurd. The noise level and short range of these things wouldn't make it very practical, you might as well suicide. I can certainly see flying one of these in to a full stadium but you'd have to be right in the parking lot. Since we're on the topic, how would you cheaply boost the signal from remote to aircraft without climbing up a tower?
posted by IronLizard at 5:26 AM on May 10, 2006

Really though, who hasn't dreamed of something like this when they were a kid? I always liked the idea of a little L shaped bracket for simple divebombing. That is, I did until I learned about newton and the bowling ball/feather bit. I then dreamed up some nice solenoids.....
posted by IronLizard at 5:34 AM on May 10, 2006

You might want to attend a few events of model aircraft flying clubs in your area, to get a real world view of just how difficult it is to construct and fly scale planes that are truly robotic. Even for remotely controlled, visually observed aircraft, keeping the shiny side up can be problematic.

Generally speaking, the key problem for scale aircraft is that atmospheric dynamics don't scale; by comparison to even lightweight piloted aircraft, scale aircraft are constantly at risk from normal wind variability and atmospheric turbulence. Truly autonomous robotic aircraft with high enough stability and power to weight ratios to stay aloft, and on mission, through a normal range of weather events are not tiny, and typically fly much faster than birds, because they have far higher wing loadings.

So, to get a proper perspective on the likelihood such devices will represent real trouble in the near future, you've got to come up with a mission where the range, maneuverability, and payload of a scale aircraft can be matched to its controllability and survivability as an aircraft in actual flight conditions. Remarkable things are possible, but not easy, and if you add the complications of getting a significant payload to a defended target in such a way as to do real damage, I think you'll conclude that for the time being, other vehicles offer greater opportunity.
posted by paulsc at 5:35 AM on May 10, 2006

Why are most successful bombings suicide bombings? Because doing stuff remotely is hard. Too many variables and too many things to go wrong.

Also, are these things supposed to be carrying explosives? If they are, there are a lot easier ways to terrorize then putting them in a remote control airplane. And this is why most prevention is directed to preventing terrorists from getting explosives in the first place, so you don't have to worry about the infinite number of ways they could use them.
posted by smackfu at 7:20 AM on May 10, 2006

Best answer: The real question is what one considers effective terrorizing. In terms of death and injury caused by such a system, it is guaranteed to be far less cost effective and far less reliable than the backpack bombs used in London and Madrid. However, somebody might decide that the scare created by 'death from above' is worth the increased cost per wound..

Any organized effort to build a large number of such systems would be easily detected and stopped. You might get away with building a few, but once used your supply channel would dry up immediately, and your identity would be revealed to authorities by the suppliers. Just like the flight schools that trained the 9/11 hijackers, the hobby stores that sell RC parts would not hesitate to cooperate with investigations.

In terms of guerilla warfare, rather than terrorism.. Remember that these would be costly use once systems! Most of the weapons being used in Iraq cost the insurgents nothing - most were looted at the beginning of the war, some are probably created by unexploded American weapons. Insurgents probably do buy certain items. Perhaps a rifle which is expensive but can be used repeatedly, or bullets for the rifle which are extraordinarily inexpensive compared to the damage they cause.

So, back to the question.. I would try to address the intelligence and policing side, so that if a large organized effort existed I could discover it. Specific countermeasures designed for this particular threat are not worth considering at all. This approach is well justified by comparing the thwarted millennium bombings to the September 11 attacks.

Further, as with all terrorist attacks so far or foreseeable, I would be confident in the fact that they are not a significant threat to myself or my friends and neighbours, both in the personal and the national sense.

Finally, I would address the root causes of terrorism. As demonstrated in Northern Ireland, that is truly the most effective countermeasure of all.

I have some knowledge in the area of autonomous vehicle systems, and I considered doing some back of the envelope design to show the abilities and limitations of such a system applied to terrorist goals. I decided that I don't want a call from the American government, so I deleted it. That is an interesting answer to this question itself, I think..
posted by Chuckles at 8:41 AM on May 10, 2006

Best answer: DARPA is funding quite a bit of research into low-cost solutions, like intelligent autonomous swarms, for instance. Imagine if one or more of the flocks of birds wheeling over your city were actually a bunch of sentinels - still real birds, but with microchips implanted at birth so that they are able to inform authorities if unusual air activity is noticed.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:03 AM on May 10, 2006

Generally speaking, the key problem for scale aircraft is that atmospheric dynamics don't scale.

Very true -- but you don't want to build a scale model of an aircraft. You're not out to emulate a P-51 or an MD-80. You're out to fly in pretty much a straight line to a point and then power dive. I think, right now, building a stable free-flight plane with GPS control and 2KG of payload is more that plausible for one mile range, and possible for 10 mile range, and if you push the size up a bit, 100 miles is possible.

Is it useful to a terrorist? Doubt it -- the big problem is useful payload, and to get that, you need to be much bigger. The USN/USAR UAVs are much more complicated, because they need much longer ranges, and need active remote control, rather than built in control, and have to send back load of data in realtime (and, apparently, carry remotely targetable weapons.)

The obvious analogy is that this isn't remote flying tech, this is missle guidance. The hobby community hasn't worked this problem, because building a plane to fly 1-5 miles and crash on a given spot isn't a problem they want to deal with. They want the plane to come back and land nicely.
posted by eriko at 9:42 AM on May 10, 2006

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