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Archive for March, 2005


Thursday, March 31st, 2005

Protector.jpgIn the not-too-distant future, the U.S. Navy could be hunting subs and protecting ships using robotic, inflatable boats. That’s the plan, at least, from a team of American and Israeli defense contractors.
The Navy and Coast Guard already use a bunch of rigid-hull inflatable boats to zip across choppy waters and brings SEALs to shore. The services have “high hopes” that unmanned inflatables could handle even more jobs, C4ISR Journal says. Like spotting mines and subs, for example.

The advantage of using an unmanned surface vehicle in these roles, Rear Adm. William Landay III noted, is that it will be able to operate autonomously for an extended period of time perhaps 24 hours and at night, when the Navy normally doesnt do towing [sonar arrays] with helicopters. We may not even find an enemy submarine [but] it may keep him out of where you want, and in the littorals [coastal waters] that in many cases is just as good as finding him.

United Defense Industries and Haifa-based Rafael Armament Development Authority are trying to convince the Navy that their Protector unmanned surface vehicle is the right robo-boat for the job. The 30 to 35 foot-long Protector can skip across the seas at speeds of up to 40 knots. Day and night cameras, a laser range finder, and a 12.7 mm machine gun all come standard. “A light projector, public address system and a microphone,” are optional, according to Defense Daily. The Israeli Navy is already trying one out, a Rafael spokesperson tells DD.


Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

“Many say people power brought down the regime in Kyrgyzstan last week. But Bayaman Erkinbayev, a lawmaker, martial arts champ and one of the Central Asian nation’s richest men, says it was his small army of Kung Fu-style fighters,” according to AFP.

“When our old men were beaten and thrown out of the regional administration building, my fighters were on the front line. And during the siege in Bishkek, my fighters went in first,” Erkinbayev says…
Pupils from Erkinbayev’s Alysh martial arts school in Osh were sent to protect demonstrators protesting the contested ballot in the Kara Suu bazaar.
Afterwards demonstrations with the participation of Erkinbayev’s trainees spread to the southern cities of Jalal-Abad, Osh, and Batken. They captured government sites, burnt down police stations and blocked key highways in the lead-up to the chaos that deposed Akayev in Bishkek.
(via Fortean Times)


Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

talon_grenade1.jpgThose of you who found the idea of gun-toting robots a little creepy should probably click away right now. Because the Army has just finished testing out a unmanned ground vehicle, or UGV, that obliterates its foes with electrically-fired grenades.
The robot is the same modified Talon UGV that’s now on its way to Iraq, to watch the back of Stryker armored vehicles on patrol. But instead of carrying a M249 machine gun, like the Iraq-bound robo-grunt, this Talon has been armed by Metal Storm Limited — the Australian firm famous for its million-round-a-minute gun.
The robot, which recently wrapped up trials at the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, only had 16 shots. But they were big ones: 40 mm grenades. And the rounds were loaded four to a barrel, giving the UGV 10 more shots than traditional systems supply. It was enough to waste a variety of mock opponents, “including simulated personnel, an infantry carrier and a bunker,” according to Metal Storm. (You can watch video of the bot in action here.) Eventually, the firm thinks it can load the UGV up with as many as 48 grenades at a time.
While Metal Storm seemed pretty psyched about how the Picatinny tests went, there was a bit of bad news for the company. The demonstrations “did not include firings from the Dragonfly DP4X unmanned aerial vehicle as previously planned because of operational restrictions on the range which prevented in-flight live fire trials being possible,” Metal Storm sobbed. “Arrangements are currently being made for in-flight test-firings and demonstrations to be held in the next few months.“
I’m nervous already.


Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

New, from the maker of the internationally-renowned “Girlfriend Quest” PC game, comes a six-foot tall set of mirrors, designed to reflect the sun’s light — and roast whatever comes in its way.
link_SDR7.gifThe Solar Death Ray captures sunlight in 112 mirrors, each 3.5 inches square, and then spits it back onto a single spot five feet, six inches away.
“I estimate that the Solar Death Ray can heat things up to between 500–600 degrees Celsius (930‑1100 degrees Fahrenheit) under good conditions,” its maker says.
Mr. SDR swears he won’t turn his homemade weapon on living things. “Im not going to burn puppies or goldfish or anything like that.” But chocolate bunnies, Hootie and the Blowfish tapes, and “my pants” — all of them have already been reduced to protoplasmic goo with by the Death Ray’s awesome might.


Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

It’s not Kirk and Spock’s universal translator. Not quite. But the Pentagon is looking to for researchers to build a software set “with the goal of eliminating the need for linguists and analysts and automatically providing relevant, distilled, actionable information.“
gorn_speaks.jpgGlobal Autonomous Language Exploitation, or GALE, is a project of — who else? — Defense Department mad science division Darpa. And the idea, according to Darpa’s call for proposals, is to “develop and apply computer software technologies to absorb, analyze and interpret huge volumes of speech and text in multiple languages.“
The result won’t necessarily be a “natural language” dialogue between man and interpreting machine. But, if GALE works as planned, it will deliver “consolidated information in easy-to-understand forms to military personnel and monolingual English-speaking analysts in response to direct or implicit requests.“
The American military is still struggling to fill its ranks with Arabic speakers, three-and-a-half years after 9/11. Language training for enlisted men and junior officers is minimal. And the technological solutions to the problem — like the hand-held Phraselator and Interact systems — really only work for the most monosyllabic of conversations.
What Darpa wants instead are a trio of software tools for soldiers and spooks:

A transcription engine that produces English transcripts [from foreign speech] with 95% accuracy
A translation engine producing English text [from foreign prose] with 95% accuracy
A distillation engine able to fill knowledge bases with key facts and to deliver useful information as proficiently as humans can.

And Darpa’s not talking about just translating a couple of newspapers in Baghdad. GALE researchers have to be ready to have their algorithms interpret “all the following types:”

Broadcast news (radio, television)
Talk shows (studio, call-in)
Telephone conversations
The source languages will be English, Chinese and Arabic plus surprise languages to be announced later.


Monday, March 28th, 2005

I was in Arizona last week, right on the Mexican border. And let me tell you, a whole bunch of folks are about to make asses of themselves there on Friday.
border-patrol-agent.jpg2,200 federal agents are assigned to keep watch over the 260-mile stretch of border known as the “Tucson Sector,” which covers pretty much the entire state, except for Yuma. And those agents do a pretty bang-up job, nabbing about a half-million aliens every year. (Compare that to a big city cop, many of whom only make an arrest every few weeks.)
But there’s only so much those 2,200 can do. Hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people illegally enter the country through the Tucson Sector every year.
So a team of geniuses calling themselves the Minuteman Project have decided that they are going to start policing the border on their own. Starting on April Fool’s Day, the Project will disperse an estimated 1,000 volunteers to a slice of the border near Tombstone.
Now, the Minutemen says they’ll only be “observing” and “reporting” the movements of illegals. This is “not a call to arms,” the group swears. But if you think, in that part of the world, that any organization calling itself a “grassroots effort to bring Americans to the defense of their homeland” is going to be gunless, you need to get off of the peyote. Of course the Minutemen are going to be packing heat.
And so will the smugglers. Since October, 180 Border Patrol agents have been assaulted by the “coyotes” who haul people north. That includes 14 shootings and 20 attempts to run agents over.
Remember, those are attempts on federal agents’ lives. Do you think the coyotes will have even the slightest of doubts about pulling the trigger on some self-proclaimed defender of liberty? We all know the answer: hell, no.
But the Minutemen are going to be doing more than just endangering themselves. They’re going to be reducing the effectiveness of the Tucson Sector agents, too. Those agents are trained to stop any unknown vehicles sitting on the border line — which, for the month of April, is going to include a whole bunch of Minutemen. So that will mean less time actually going after illegals. The agents are also trackers, used to picking up fresh tire treads and footprints — and follow them to coyote-led groups. That’s going to be a whole lot harder, with so many Minutemen messing up the trails.
Clearly, these agents, they need help. They’re absolutely overwhelmed by the tide of immigrants pouring into this country. Maybe this little bit of political theater will shame DC into hiring a whole lot more agents, and significantly upping the amount spent on border security. If that’s the case, then the Minutemen have done something right. But in the meantime, a whole of people are going to get hurt in the process.
THERE’S MORE: “The Homeland Security Department will assign more than 500 additional patrol agents to the porous Arizona border,” the AP is reporting. “About 155 agents will be immediately sent to Arizona… More than 370 additional agents — all new trainees — will be permanently assigned to the Arizona border throughout the year.” Good stuff.


Monday, March 28th, 2005

telesurgery.jpgFor decades, telemedicine guru and former MASH surgeon Dr. Richard Satava has been pushing the Defense Department to fund systems for remote and robotically-controlled operating rooms. He’s not mentioned in the AP article below. But you can see his fingerprints all over this $12 million Darpa grant to “develop an unmanned ‘trauma pod’ designed to use robots to perform full scalpel-and-stitch surgeries on wounded soldiers in battlefield conditions.”

“The main challenge is how can we get high-quality medical care onto the battlefield as close to the action and as close to the soldiers as possible,” said John Bashkin, head of business development at SRI International, a nonprofit laboratory that often handles Defense Department research. “Right now, the resources are pretty limited to what a medic can carry with him.“
SRI researchers caution that the project remains at least a decade away from appearing on any battlefields. Surgeons will need to manipulate the robot in real time, using technology that prevents any delays between their commands and the robot’s actions. The “trauma pod” has to keep connected wirelessly without giving away its position to the enemy, and it has to be nimble and hardy enough to perform under fire.
Still, some of the initial technology is already being put to use in hospitals, and the goal of the initial $12 million project is relatively modest researchers hope to show that a surgeon, operating the robot remotely, can stitch together two blood vessels of a pig…
SRI spearheaded the Pentagon’s first such endeavor to develop a “telesurgery” system in the 1980s. The resulting robot, dubbed the da Vinci Surgical System, proved to be too bulky and too dependent on too many humans to be used in battle.
But the Food and Drug Administration approved the da Vinci in 2000 for civilian medical use and surgeons now use the $1.3 million machines in about 300 hospitals worldwide to remove cancerous prostates, repair faulty heart valves and other procedures.

Of course, this isn’t the only Darpa telesurgery program. Not by a long shot. A bunch of others are covered here.
A few months back, I wrote about an unmanned ambulance experiment that’s being funded by the Army. And here is an article I wrote back in ’03 about Dr. Satava’s efforts to digitally recreate every element of a soldier’s body, and embed it all on a chip in the soldier’s dog tags.


Monday, March 28th, 2005

“The Navy has formally agreed to lease a Swedish submarine and its crew for a year so U.S. nuclear-powered subs… can practice hunting it,” the Virginian-Pilot reports.

gotland.jpgThe Swedish navy will send a Gotland-class sub to San Diego, where it will help [U.S. Fleet Forces Command] train to combat the potential threat of diesel-powered submarines in the hands of rogue nations.
The 200-foot submarine, which displaces 1,490 tons and carries a crew of about 30, will become frequent prey of American sub hunters nearly twice its size. Los Angeles-class fast attack submarines, for example, are 360-feet long, carry a crew of 140 and displace 7,147 tons when submerged.
The U.S. is interested in studying the quietness of the diesel-powered boats, since it no longer has any of its own, Jim Brantley, a spokesman for the Fleet Forces Command, said Wednesday.
(thanks to reader JH for the tip)


Sunday, March 27th, 2005

Ever since it was just a wee little $92 billion program, Defense Tech has been ranting about the spiraling costs and doe-eyed expectations behind Future Combat Systems, the Army’s gargantuan modernization plan. Now that the project — meant to almost reinvent just about every aspect of warfighting, almost simultaneously — is moving north of $145 billion, the New York Times is finally starting to take notice.

nlos_c.jpgThe Army’s plan to transform itself into a futuristic high-technology force has become so expensive that some of the military’s strongest supporters in Congress are questioning the program’s costs and complexity.
Army officials said Saturday that the first phase of the program, called Future Combat Systems, could run to $145 billion
[click here for details]. Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said the “technological bridge to the future” would equip 15 brigades of roughly 3,000 soldiers, or about one-third of the force the Army plans to field…
That price tag, larger than past estimates publicly disclosed by the Army, does not include a projected $25 billion for the communications network needed to connect the future forces. Nor does it fully account for Army plans to provide Future Combat weapons and technologies to forces beyond those first 15 brigades.
Now some of the military’s advocates in Congress are asking how to pay the bill.
“We’re dealing today with a train wreck,” Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania and vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said at a March 16 Congressional hearing on the cost and complexity of Future Combat Systems.
“We’re left with impossible decisions,” said Mr. Weldon, a strong supporter of Pentagon spending. One of those choices, he warned, might cut back Future Combat.

Good idea, Curt. What took you so long?
THERE’S MORE: “But there’s another, more serious issue, which the Times’ otherwise excellent story doesn’t explore,” says Slate’s Fred Kaplan. “Even if all the technical problems could be solved and the costs brought under control, the Army may be tumbling down the wrong road; Future Combat Systems may not address the true nature and needs of future combat.“
AND MORE: Project on Government Oversight piles on, too.


Saturday, March 26th, 2005

St. Patrick’s Day was just supposed to be another day of routine training for undersea researchers at the University of Hawaii. But then, they found something extraordinary 870 meters down, off of Barbers Point, Oahu: a mammoth, World War II-era Japanese sub, meant for biological combat.

i401.jpgThe submarine is from the I-400 Sensuikan Toku class of subs, the largest built before the nuclear-ballistic-missile submarines of the 1960s. They were 400 feet long and nearly 40 feet high and could carry a crew of 144. The submarines were designed to carry three “fold-up” bombers that could quickly be assembled…
An I-400 and I-401 were captured at sea a week after the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Their mission, which was never completed, reportedly was to use the aircraft to drop rats and insects infected with bubonic plague, cholera, typhus and other diseases on U.S. cities.
When the bacteriological bombs could not be prepared in time, the mission reportedly was changed to bomb the Panama Canal. Both submarines were ordered to sail to Pearl Harbor and were deliberately sunk later, partly because Russian scientists were demanding access to them.

“It is not the first World War II-era ‘monster’ that the HURL [Hawaii Undersea Research Lab] scientists have found,” notes the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “Last year, off Pearl Harbor, they located the wreck of the gigantic seaplane Marshall Mars, one of the largest aircraft built and used as a transport plane by the U.S. Navy. Two years earlier in the same area, the HURL crew also found the wreckage of a Japanese midget sub that was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941.” (via Boing Boing)