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Archive for May, 2005

Predator’s Maverick Maker

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

The Pentagon has been toying around with limited-run, prototype drones for decades. So how did the U.S. military suddenly have a small fleet of Predator robotic planes at the ready after 9/11? Aviation Week says the answer lies with Tom Cassidy, the maverick chief of Predator-maker General Atomics.

“We’re going to tell General Atomics to build every Predator they can possibly build,” replied [Air Force chief of staff] Gen. John P. Jumper, referring to the small San Diego company that developed the aircraft.
Tom Cassidy isn’t waiting for the paperwork to go through. Cassidy, the president and CEO of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, is expanding the Predator production line, even building eight additional Predator Bs — a more capable version of the aircraft — without orders. “They’ll procrastinate for three years,” he says of his military customers. “Then when they want to buy, they think it’s like going down to the Ford dealership and picking one off the lot.“
Such blunt talk has won him his share of critics, but the 72-year-old retired rear admiral and veteran fighter pilot from The Bronx doesn’t seem to care. The Predator, initially shunned by the military services, has won wide acclaim as a simple, adaptable aircraft that can provide crucial reconnaissance and strike capability for the bargain price of less than $5 million a copy, sensors included.
The remotely piloted aircraft, which carries two Hellfire missiles and can stay aloft for more than a day at a time, stunned the world with its ability to hunt down and kill Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Afghanistan and the Middle East…
It was Cassidy’s risky “build it and they will come” strategy — developing and building aircraft ahead of orders — that proved decisive following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. When U.S. forces were unexpectedly and very suddenly ordered to rout guerilla-like forces from mountainous Afghanistan, Hellfire-equipped Predators weren’t just a concept on the drawing board. They were in production.

Support Rising for Near-Space Blimps

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

Good news, blimp boys: the Air Force is slowly starting to line up behind a plan to put airships on the edge of the atmosphere.
wired_blimp.jpgAccording to Inside Defense, a 90-day Air Force study has concluded that there would be “military utility” in putting blimps, balloons, and drones in near space — between 65,000 and 350,000 above sea level. Up there, they could serve as cheap substitutes for satellites, relaying communications and snooping on foes. They might be able to carry equipment, effectively becoming giant U-Hauls in the sky. And this could be done, at least in the balloons’ case, without “significantly strain[ing] existing infrastructure or requir[ing] large amounts of equipment or personnel to operate the balloons,” Inside Defense says.

The Air Force has conducted a number of near space demonstrations in recent months. Three tests, carried out last November, December and January, placed tactical radios on balloons, which then operated between 65,000 and 80,000 feet above sea level…
In March, the Air Force Space Battlelab conducted a proof of concept demonstration for a radio relay system with Combat SkySat I in Arizona. That [system] can now be used in theater operations [places like Iraq, in otherwords].
SkySat II, which the service hopes to test in FY-06 [fiscal year 2006], will demonstrate a payload return system. Such a system would permit heavier, more expensive and more sensitive payloads than were placed on the SkySat I, which utilized payloads that were destroyed after leaving the coverage area.

These Sensors Rock!

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

army_sensor_rock.jpgSooooo sneaky. The Pentagon is working with North Dakota researchers to turn man-made stones into hidden sensors, Technology Trends notes.
RFID sensors… will be installed in fake little rocks. These ‘rocks,’ which will be the size of golf balls, will be sent from an aircraft and will detect enemies by ‘listening’ to them from 20 to 30 meters. These sensors should be operational within 18 months and they should be cheap enough to leave them on the battlefield after they completed their tasks.

Memorial Day

Monday, May 30th, 2005

On this Memorial Day, the Military​.com family is encouraging everyone to click on over to Packages from Home.
As many of you know, American troops in the field often have to dig into their own pockets to buy the most basic supplies — stuff like sun screen and Gatorade mix and good t-shirts. Packages from Home puts together boxes of these items, as well as snacks and books and phone cards; anything, really, to make soldiers’ time overseas go a little bit easier.
It only takes a minute or two to donate a couple of bucks to the group. Or, if you live in Arizona, you can drop off your goods at one of the locations listed here.

: Winds of Change has put together an exhuastive list of aid organizations.

Jet Defense Lifts Off

Saturday, May 28th, 2005


In an airplane hangar north of Fort Worth, technicians are preparing to mount a fire-hydrant-shaped device onto the belly of an American Airlines Boeing 767. It is an effort that could soon turn into a more than $10 billion project to install a high-tech missile defense system on the nation’s commercial planes.
an-aaq-24_pic2.gifThe Boeing 767 — the same type of plane that terrorists flew into the World Trade Center — is one of three planes that, by the end of this year, will be used to test the infrared laser-based systems designed to find and disable shoulder-fired missiles. The missiles have long been popular among terrorists and rebel groups in war zones around the world; the concern now is that they could become a domestic threat.
The tests are being financed by the Department of Homeland Security, which has been directed by Congress to move rapidly to take technology designed for military aircraft and adapt it so it can protect the nation’s 6,800 commercial jets. It has so far invested $120 million in the testing effort, which is expected to last through next year.

Unmanned Culture Clash

Friday, May 27th, 2005

In March, Wired magazine sent me to a remote desert outpost in Arizona, where the Army is training newly-minted GIs to fly the robotic planes which have become so critical to the battle for Iraq. The place is central flashpoint in a military culture clash between teenaged videogamers and veteran fighter jocks for control of the drones. Here’s a snippet of what I found:
drones_wired.jpgPrivate Joel Clark doesn’t have any macho dogfight stories. He doesn’t have a cool call sign or the swagger of a guy who has pulled 9 gs. In fact, Clark has never held a throttle. He did, however, flunk high school English. And that’s how the milky-pale 19-year-old became one of America’s newest pilots.
Clark had planned to join the Army as a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic. But that F kept him from graduating on time, forcing him to reapply. The second time around, his recruiter suggested he try instead to be a “96 Uniform” — Army-speak for a unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, operator. Clark had never considered becoming a pilot. But the idea of running a robot spy plane sounded pretty rad. Now he’s one of 225 soldiers, reservists, and National Guardsmen training on a lonely airstrip at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, a 125-year-old outpost 10 miles from the Mexican border.
In a sense, Clark has been prepping for the job since he was a kid: He plays videogames. A lot of videogames. Back in the barracks he spends downtime with an Xbox and a PlayStation. When he first slid behind the controls of a Shadow UAV, the point and click operation turned out to work much the same way. “You watch the screen. You tell it to roll left, it rolls left. It’s pretty simple,” Clark says. But this is real life. “So you have to take it more seriously. If you crash one of these, you have to bleed and piss” — in other words, take a drug test.
Clark has no intention of nose-diving, however. He’s gamed away the past 11 months in Arizona, and today, finally, is his last “check ride.” After this takeoff, he’ll be certified to fly the Shadow 200. He’ll spend a few months at Fort Hood, Texas, training with the 4th Infantry Division. Then he’ll ship off to what his sergeant calls the Big Sandbox: Iraq.

I’ve also written an online “reporter’s notebook” to accompany the Wired magazine piece. Model airplane champs, robotic border guards, and Saddam’s children all figure in. Give ‘em both a look.

Bomb-Spotting Laser Tested

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

laser_dude.gifBack in December, there was a bit of a ray gun party at Yuma Proving Grounds, apparently. While the Air Force put its new Scorpion bomb-zapping microwave blaster through its paces, the Army Research Lab successfully tried out a prototype bomb-spotter that relies on lasers to spot explosives, according to Inside Defense.

[The Lab is] calling the system “Standoff LIBS,” using the acronym for laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy…
LIBS is a means of detecting traces of explosives on surfaces as far away as 30 meters, employing technology found in mining operations to determine the grade of ore.
As envisioned, here is how the military system could work: A laser is directed at a vehicle or other item that could have a bomb attached. Due to the heat created by the laser, the surface material then vaporizes. In the process, the material’s molecules break down into their atoms, which “get excited in the high-temperature environment and light up as sharp lights in the spectrometer” — the device used to read and analyze the reaction, ARL research physicist Andrzej Miziolek explained.
The wave length of the lights are then analyzed by a computer which matches the information against a library of known signatures…
For instance, a laser pointed at the door handle of a car could let the system detect if someone who has touched explosives has subsequently touched that door…
A typical application for the technology could be at a road checkpoint, where troops would be able to check cars for traces of explosives without the drivers’ knowledge, a [military] official said.
“You don’t want the adversary to know that you are checking him,” the source said. “If you find explosives, you can go ahead and secure the situation.”

Torture, Broken Down

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

So much of what passes for online journalism — this site included — is really just old-fashioned newspaper or magazine reporting, ported from the page to the screen. And the few lame attempts by the mainstream press to break out of those formats usually leave readers panting for the old stand-bys.
050519_PrisonerAbuse_014.jpgSlate’s “interactive primer on American interrogation,” however, is different. By breaking a large, messy, complex issue into digestible online bites, Phil Carter and friends succeed in educating readers on the torture debate better than any TV show or magazine article or blog post I’ve seen so far.
Every major player in the American interrogation scandals is profiled. All the legal justifications for torture are called out. Each of the big techniques for getting a suspect to talk is outlined. But despite the motherlode of information, Slate’s feature isn’t in the slightest bit overwhelming.
If you’ve largely tuned out the torture issue since those awful Abu Ghraib pictures surfaced last year, it’s time to click here.

Congress Slashes Pentagon Space Projects

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

It’s kind of hilarious, when you think about it. At the same time the New York Times is chasing its tail about weapons in orbit, Congress is slashing the Pentagon’s eternally-mismanaged space programs.
SBR.jpg“Brushing aside the recent claim by a senior U.S. Air Force officer that all is well with the military space acquisition system, a congressional defense oversight committee made good on threats to rein in the service’s top two satellite development programs,” reports C4ISR Journal’s Jeremy Singer.
In marking up their version of the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee sent a strong message that they beg to beg to differ with the April 5 assertion by Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, that the space acquisition system is not broken and that those who think otherwise should “get over it.“
The panel slashed the Air Force’s funding request for the Space Radar surveillance satellites and the Transformational Satellite Communications System (T-Sat), directing the service to restructure both efforts. The panel recommended providing $436 million of the $836 million request for T-Sat and $100 million of the $226 million request for the Space Radar.

Hi-Tech Cop Moves Up

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

I’m not expecting a box of candy or anything. Or even a thank you note. It’s just coincidence, of course, that a month after I profiled Ron Huberman the ex-cop behind many of Chicago’s high-tech crime fighting efforts he gets appointed as Mayor Richard Daley’s new chief of staff.
FF_154_crime2_f.jpgHuberman was brought in last Wednesday, “the same day that a central figure in a City Hall contracting scam was sentenced in federal court,” the Chicago Tribune reports. “Huberman said that ‘first and foremost’ among Daley’s marching orders is to ‘help restore taxpayers’ confidence in the integrity of city government.’”
Later Wednesday, Daley introduced Huberman to more than three dozen city department heads at a meeting where, to “stunned silence,” the mayor “read them the riot act,” according to a city official who was present.
Daley told them that Huberman “is going to look at your department and your performance; if you have a problem with that, you are out,’” the official recounted.

In his previous jobs in the police and emergency management departments, Huberman also looked for ways to shove the least productive through the door. CLEAR, Chicago’s massive police database project, started out as a tool for fighting crime. Huberman wanted to turn it into pink-slip machine, according to Northwestern University professor Susan Hartnett, a longtime CPD watcher. By tracking cops’ arrests and their hours, Huberman hoped to “get rid” of the Chicago police’s “bottom third” — the officers for whom “there’s nothing you can do,” she observes.
Huberman put it to me more judiciously, saying, “We want to save officers — ID them when they’re falling off the right course early in their career.“
CLEAR’s personnel suite won’t be done for months, maybe years. The system may not even get built at all, without Huberman actively promoting it.
If there’s a knock on Huberman, it’s that when he’s pushing his projects, he gets too caught up in the hype. “He sometimes sort of believes the future is the present,” one colleague says.
Anyway, here’s a bit more about Huberman — parts of last month’s Wired story that didn’t make it into the final draft:

Huberman doesn’t want to be here, peering in on perps from 15,000 feet away, staring at the shimmering video wall and the PC monitor banks. “Too clinical,” Huberman says. He’d rather be out in the streets, where he spent four years as a beat cop and a gang specialist in Rogers Park. Huberman fell in love with police work, “the pleasure of locking up the bad guy the justice of it all,” from “day one” at the academy. (The fact that his Israeli-immigrant parents were mugged when he was six years old wasn’t that much of an inspiration, he insists.)
On the beat, he was known as an eager over-achiever. When he discovered a double homicide, he did more than the frontline cop’s duty to fill out the initial paperwork, and make the customary rounds; Huberman found the lead suspect’s mom, and persuaded her to convince her son to turn himself in.
Even now, working seven-day weeks as the head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, Huberman still likes to go out on patrol, just for fun, once a month, with his old partner, Sgt. Greg Hoffman an 11-year veteran who keeps a revolver on his hip and a can of chili in his desk drawer…
Ron Huberman has long been a believer in the transformative power of security, in “using the police department not just for law enforcement, but to promote social change,” as University of Chicago professor Pastora Cafferty puts it. Back when he was a beat cop, Huberman studied under her, getting dual masters degrees in social work and management, while riding a squad car at night.
During a stint with a Washington law enforcement think tank in the late 90’s, Huberman went home to his native Israel, and helped train West Bank cops. “For there to be peace, Palestinians had to learn to police themselves,” he says.
For peace to break out on Chicago’s streets, law-abiding citizens had to be given a sense that the cops had their backs even when there wasn’t a Crown Vic on the corner. That meant developing a system, like CLEAR, that could help the police figure out who the real crooks were. That meant putting silent, bulletproof sentries with flashing cobalt lights up on telephone poles, to let the bad guys know they weren’t welcome any more. “This is about restoring a sense of order, about taking streets from the gangbangers,” Huberman says.