When the technology behind two popular technical hobbies — building unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and playing first-person shooter games such as Doom, Wolfenstein and Counter Strike — are brought together, the result is not a fun-filled endorsement. Instead, this combination has the potential to turn into a new intimidating war force. Drone warfare, increasingly carried out by the U.S. Air Force, stands as testimony to this. UAVs loaded with weaponry, electronic vision and remote control can be used as pilotless war planes for uninterrupted and detailed surveillance or to bomb and fire missiles at targets. Based on technology available to hobbyists, the ushering in of drones in warfare has the potential to become the 21st century equivalent of war aircraft of the 20th century.
The role they play
War drones are mini-airplanes, hovering at few thousands of feet with electronic eyes and onboard silicon intelligence, with the ability of autonomous flying. Drones are all ears (electronically, of course) to the commanding station to trigger the weapons mounted on them. Drones can be looked upon as flying ‘robots’, with the ability to sense their surroundings using radars and cameras. They can be mounted with different payloads — starting from surveillance cameras, thermal sensors, radars, weather probing equipments, and any payload that can be of use when at a height. Drones are in continuous communication with the remote control station, where pilots are remotely controlling the flight, when necessary, by manoeuvring computer joysticks, as one would do in a flight simulator game. The control signals from remote commanding stations are then received and interpreted by the computers onboard, to modulate flight parameters by actuating corrections in the power delivered to the motors powering the propellers and rudders for steering. The advantage with drones is that because there are no humans on board, the resources spent on cockpits and human safety equipment is eliminated. Hence, they are more compact in terms of size, and consequently reduce the fuel and power consumption.
Further, domestic drones do not necessarily require sophisticated industrial set-up to design and build them. The structural design, electronics schematics, software code are comprehensively made available on the Internet. Building these drones using off-the-shelf components such as accelerometers, motors and batteries have been, for long, the favourite projects for various research and hobby purposes. The Open Source hardware platform, Arduino, has dedicated projects such as Arducopter and Arduplane, bundling the hardware and software necessary to build one of these drones. The flight software, which to a great extent makes these drones autonomous, is open source too.
The latest drone developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — ARGUS-IS — houses imaging sensors with the ability to capture 1.8 billion pixels. ARGUS-IS uses the highest resolution imaging sensor available today, which is equivalent to a mosaic of about 360 sensor chips found in common smart phone cameras. So, what does it mean to put this 1.8 gig pixel, on one of these drones? Even at 17,000 feet when a drone is hovering for surveillance, it can yield details up to 6 inches clarity on the ground such as number plate recognition over a 50-sq km area.
Installing lethal power
When hobbyist drones are scaled up structurally and powered with payloads such as laser designators used to mark targets, Hellfire missiles, bombers and other firing munitions, the drones turn into killing machines, ready to strike. Equipped with telescopic cameras, radars and thermal sensors seeking the enemy target from control room, it is the closest to experiencing first-person shooter game for pilots with joysticks. If one has played any of first-person shooter game, the experience will not be any different, except for the real damage that is caused with drones.
The drone epoch
By replacing humans on the war front with drones, a major shift in war ethics is to be expected. If the trend of endorsing drones beyond wars for domestic applications such as surveillance, crop monitoring and emergency help during calamities are to be considered, this might be the first big step into the Asimov future of human and robot societies.
Source: The Hindu