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Archive for April, 2006

Darpa’s Smart, Mean, Off-Road Drone

Friday, April 28th, 2006

crusher1.JPGBy the time you read this, Carnegie Mellon roboticists and Darpa chieftains will be rolling out their latest mechanical warrior: a six-and-half-ton, six-wheeled unmanned behemoth called Crusher.
Back in October, I took a look at the bot as it was being built, in a restored brick-and-chestnut mill on the banks of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River. Even as an aluminum-titanium skeleton, the machine left an impression — something that looked ready to chew up all kinds of terrain. The clever, almost leg-like way the wheels attached would allow Crusher (like its predecessor, Carnegie’s Spinner robot) to climb steps bigger than four feet, and tackle slopes with a 40 degree grade. In-hub electric motors, powered by a VW Jetta’s turbo diesel engine, wouldn’t hurt, either.
Carnegie and Darpa will be talking up Crusher’s off-road toughness today. And they’ll crow about the robot’s brains and eyes — the machine is part of a $35 million, Darpa-backed effort to make robots more autonomous. crusher_shop_3a.JPGA few weeks before I visited Pittsburgh, Spinner used eight laser range-finders and four pairs of stereo cameras to help travel 26 miles of tough terrain, completely on its own. Crusher’s 18-foot, telescoping mast, packed with sensors, should only make this both more perceptive.
But what today’s presenters probably won’t talk about much is that Crusher is designed to be mean, too. It’s an “unmanned ground combat vehicle,” a prototype for the military’s next generation of armed robots. Crusher has been equipped with a Rafael Mini-Typhoon gun mount, which holds a “simulated” .50 caliber rifle.
“Were developing Crusher,” Carnegie’s John Bares said in a statement, “to show people what can be done and pave the way for the future.“
And in that future, the robots can go anywhere, think for themselves, and carry guns.
UPDATE 6:04 PM: Alan Boyle reports on Crusher’s “Hollywood-style rollout.”

Two Crusher prototypes made their entrance amid music, video and flashing lights and one of them proceeded over to the center’s obstacle course, rolling over wrecked cars and other obstacles… Crusher also demonstrated a tight U-turn maneuver inside a garage.

Tongue = Battlefield Probe?

Friday, April 28th, 2006

Ok, ok. I know the topic is a couple of days old. And I know it was mentioned in yesterday’s Rapid Fire. When when Jimmy Wu sent in a short post about using tongues to make better sense of the battlefield, well, I couldn’t resist.
tongue_brain.jpgIn Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein envisioned troopers using their heads and tongues to turn on/off the infrared snoopers, plasma and bomb aiming reticles, moving map overlays, jump jets, etc, of their powered armor suits
The future just got closer, reports the AP.
Researchers at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition developed a “Brain Port” that puts 144 electrods on the tongue. The pattern of electrode firing convey information such as sonar returns and compass headings. Michael Zinszer, a diver, described it as “Pop Rocks candies”. The research team has built the system for sonar and compasses, and plans to integrate infrared sensors.
This is a logical next step, as the tongue has more nerve endings per inch than most other parts of the skin.
Modern human-machine interfaces are approaching the threshold of information overload. For example, fighter cockpits used to be full of analog gauges and TV screens. It takes a long time for pilots to learn which gauges were important when. Even with the advent of multi-function displays, pilots still struggle with information management. Infantrymen, and maybe a few German infantrywomen, will soon face the same problem. For example, the Land Warrior soldier ensemble gives soldiers outputs from GPS, text and voice comm links, LLTV and IR cameras, and moving map displays. And soldiers still have to contend with the regular inputs from their Mk I, Mod 0 eyeballs and ears.
It will be interesting to see whether the “Brain Port” will allow soldiers to process more information than before. If it will, the brain port will herald a revolution in human information processing. For example, in stock trading, the analysts can “look” at more data and make better decisions. And our soldiers will “see” better than our enemies.
– Jimmy Wu

Cruise Missiles do Recon?

Friday, April 28th, 2006

cruise_takeoff.jpgYou can’t blame ‘em for trying, I guess. Defense contractors want to sell a bigger pile of their gear to the Pentagon. So, from time to time, they come up with all kinds of, shall we say, sub-optimal explanations why their hardware should be used more often. Like jamming IEDs with supersonic fighters. Or delivering commandos with 14,000-ton destroyers.
Here’s the latest brainstorm, courtesy of Raytheon: Use Tomahawk cruise missiles to handle reconnaissance. That’s right. $750,000-a-shot Tomahawks. Never mind the fact that a Predator drone can handle hundreds of spy missions, for a $4.5 million price tag. (For argument’s sake, let’s say it costs $45,000 per flight, when you throw in maintenance money and pilot pay.) The Pentagon should spend 750 large for a one-time, one-way unmanned flight.
Now, Tomahawks are certainly faster than Predators — 528 miles per hour, as opposed to 135. But we’ve got plenty of fighter jets doing supersonic recon already. And the idea that, somehow, a Tomahawk could be a “cheaper… alternative to unmanned aerial vehicles,” as National Defense magazine tries to argue this month? C’mon, guys. I know you’ve got sales targets to make. But this is taxpayer money here. You need a better explanation than that.

Rapid Fire 04/28/06

Friday, April 28th, 2006

* “Dogs Go Where Satellites Can’t“
* Secrecy hurting CIA studies
* Ridge in homeland budget shenanigans
* Listen up, Darpa!
* Missile defense radar breaks in four days
* Global info grid gags
* San Clemente Isle’s sound wave mystery
* Mad scientists need drugs, quick
* Navy taps Vietnam “river rats“
* “After suffering paralysis, brain damage, lost limbs and other wounds in war, nearly 900 soldiers have been saddled with $1.2 million in government debt because of the military’s ‘complex, cumbersome’ pay system.”

(Big ups: DS, NOSI)

Stroke Me, Stroke Me

Friday, April 28th, 2006

Oh, this is gonna be good. Ryan Singel, the man behind a zillion data-mining scoops, and cracker-legend-turned-editor Kevin Poulsen have teamed up for a new blog over at Wired News. 27B Stroke 6 (named for Brazil’s most famous form) will “scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, in a daily briefing on security, freedom and privacy in the wired world,” according to Poulsen. I can’t wait.

So Much for “Force Fields”

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

A few weeks back, buzz was building, fast, for Trophy, an Israeli “active protection” system that stops rocket-propelled grenades in mid-air. At the Naval Surface Warfare Center, demonstrations of the vehicle-mounted defender a went well, with the Trophy’s four radars picking out out RPG threats, and firing a kind of buckshot at the incoming shells. In Israel and here in the States, test vehicles were getting equipped. Fox News got so fired up, it declared Trophy to be a “top secret… futuristic force field.” Which lead some commenters on the lunatic fringe to cheer for the new “barrier of invisible energy fragments (perhaps light particles charged by lasers).“
trophy-seequence2.jpgBut all the heavy-breathing didn’t help the system, in the end. “The Army is passing up [on Trophy] … to pursue an alternative system that wont be fielded until 2010 or later,” Defense News ace Greg Grant reports.
The Army won’t say why, exactly — only that “the issue with any [active] armor protection system is the 60 percent solution is not acceptable,” says Maj. Gen. Roger Nadeau. But here’s a guess: What happens when Trophy confuses a kid with a rock and an RPG-carrying insurgent? How does that look on Al-Jazeera?
The free-thinkers at the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation — the folks who sponsored the Trophy trials, and who are planting the system on their experimental Project Sheriff vehicles — have an alternate theory, however. The Army, in their view, is worried that Project Sherriff and Trophy might compete with its massive vehicle modernization program, Future Combat Systems.

The Army knew about Trophy some 60 officers and FCS officials visited Israel for briefings, but not a single one asked for more information on the system. The OFT stumbled onto the system last summer and immediately moved to negotiate a government-to-government technology agreement allowing American officers unprecedented access to all the top-secret data on the system…
In fact, Army acquisition officials are lobbying [higher-up Pentagon] officials to allow the service to remove the active protection system and the millimeter-wave active denial [pain ray] systems that are at the heart of the [Project Sherriff] vehicle.

“Instead, the Army wants to field a Sheriff that eschews the active armor system for slat armor,” Grant notes. And that’s a big problem. Because insurgents in Iraq have started using a new, powerful RPG that shreds the cage-like defense.

The RPG-29… packs two shaped-charge warheads: a small one to blow up the reactive armor or blow through the slats, clearing a path for a larger charge to strike the vehicles hull. [The weapon] poses such a threat to American armor that the U.S. military has refused to allow the newly formed Iraqi Army to buy them, fearing they will fall into the wrong hands, the top Iraqi ground-forces general told The New York Times last August.
There is only one currently available active armor system designed to defeat RPGs: Israels Trophy system, according to OFT officials.

UPDATE 12:55 PM: Last week’s Inside Defense had more on the Army’s active protection reservations. “It is not just about giving [soldiers] an APS system. How do the soldiers work with it? How does it tie into the network? How do you know when to turn it on? When not to turn it on?” said Future Combat Systems program manager Brig. Gen. Charles Cartwright. “We could put something over there … overnight but have I got the logistics to be able to support,” the technology.

In recent months, service officials — not directly involved in the development of APS technologies — have warned against waiting for a 100 percent solution. During a March 28 Institute for Defense and Government Advancement defense acquisition symposium, Edward Bair — the Armys program executive officer for intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors — spoke in detail about how acquisition reform could better support the warfighter. Included in Bairs presentation was the term “Good Enuf,” at which time he explained that good enough today is better than optimum five years from now.

UPDATE 1:09 PM: Alabama National Guard LT and missile defense engineer Jimmy Wu says some of the Army’s hesitancy is legit. But only some.

The cloud of projectiles from the active protection system is bound to hit people in addition to its target RPG. In addition, in an urban fight, the RPG gunners will try to get inside the minimum range of a Trophy system such that it does not have the time to shoot down the RPG.
On the other hand, there are situations where the Trophy is useful. For example, during the approach march [eg, highway convoys], where everyone is under armor, the Trophy will minimize losses from an RPG ambush.
Both sides have merit. However, if I was deciding, I would deploy the Trophy. By adding an off switch, the Trophy operator can turn off the system when there are many people outside the vehicle. Training is not a big factor because the small fleet deployed is too small to cause future training problems. Supply should not be an issue either because of the small fleet. We need to encourage experimentation on the battlefield instead of quashing initiatives like the Sheriff.

Censorship’s Silver Lining

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

By now the numerous slights both deliberate and accidental during Chinese President Hu Jintaos visit to Washington are well known: mixing up Taiwan and China when introducing the National Anthem; the Falun Gong heckler; President Bush unceremoniously tugging President Hu around by his coat-sleeve; administration officials dozing through Mr. Hus statements. What’s less understood, though, is the official Chinese reaction or really, lack of reaction –to these gaffes.
Hu Visit.jpgThe slip-ups, and their possible implications, have all been widely discussed in the US and international media. But in the Chinese press, they havent been mentioned at all.
In the West, the censorship has been seen as a measure of how serious these insults are. The argument is that the assorted incidents are so shaming and embarrassing that keeping the incident off Chinese screens was to save Hu Jintao from humiliation, in the words of one Beijing-based analyst.
Maybe. But the far more important point this censorship communicates is the value China places on its relationship with America, and the direction the government wants that relationship to go.
Chinas government could have easily used these incidents to spur anti-American, patriotic sentiments within the population. They didnt hesitate to do so a year ago, when demonstrations over revisionist Japanese textbooks engulfed the nation, or 7 years ago in the aftermath of Americas bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In both of those instances, it would not have been difficult for the government to keep the population from learning of the issues. However, stirring up nationalist, anti-Japanese or anti-American sentiments suited the governments agenda at the time, and it didnt hesitate to do so. However shaming or embarrassing last weeks gaffes may have been, they pale in comparison to having your sovereign territory (the Embassy) bombed and offering only a few student protesters in response. But in the past, the government was willing to swallow the shame of these events in the interests of its agenda. They almost certainly would do so again if it furthered their plans few things will rally a population to support you like rallying them against someone else. That they have chosen not to, and have rather gone to great efforts to hide the gaffes, indicates a desire to maintain and improve their relationship with America.
Broadcasting the insults would almost certainly have given fodder to hardliners within China to rail against the slap in the face. And its easy to imagine the reaction of our own China hawks to any anti-American demonstrations that may have resulted. If Chinas censorship of last weeks events indicates the governments desire to keep the ball away from these hardliners on both sides of the Pacific, it may be the silver lining to last weeks exhibition of Americas inept diplomacy and Chinas continuing free speech issues.
[My thanks to Ms. Lauren Keane in Beijing for helping develop this analysis.]
Matthew Tompkins

Rapid Fire 04/27/06

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

* Border patrol drone crashes
* MIT mini-sats take off
* The Army’s $25-billion repair bill
* House bill: CIA, NSA can make arrests for “any felony“
* MRE containers = combat coffee
* Mmmmmm… taste that warzone
* Moon race!
* Tanker war!
* Cop fires bullet into gunman’s barrel
* Navy gets blimpy
* Lords of Kobol, thank you!

(Big ups: /., Nick)

Happiness is…

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

…wandering around Paris for a week, and coming home to discover that, if anything, your blog is in better shape than it was when you departed. David Axe, David Hambling, Jason Sigger, Steven Snell, Geoff Edwards: Thanks for taking such good care of the ranch while I was gone. I should leave more often!

NBC Reconnaissance Vehicles — Coming Soon

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

I hadn’t seen a picture of the Stryker NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle (NBCRV), but now it’s up at a few sites now (here and here). Word is that General Dynamics got the contract in January to start modifying the basic Stryker chassis to manufacture 17 NBCRVs under a low rate initial production contract for test and evaluation through FY2007.
This Army Chemical Review article offers more details on the advances of this system over the existing M91A1 NBC Recon System (Fox), including an upgraded chemical standoff sensor (you can make it out — it’s to the left of the remote weapons system in the picture), a biological agent detector, a CB mass spectrometer for sampling, and of course, the standard chemical and radiological point detectors. Plus there’s the advantage of having a standard military vehicle instead of a German vehicle (which was always tough to get spare parts and maintenance for).
LAND_Stryker_NBCRV.jpgThis might be the last dedicated Army NBC recon vehicle for a long time. Currently, there are no plans to have a Future Combat Systems NBC recon variant. Rather, the proposed FCS recon and surveillance vehicle will include the NBC defense systems, and one would hope that the chemical specialists would be an integral part of the future scout platoons. No offense to the infantry, but the scouts I knew had trouble keeping their protective masks clean, let alone operating sophisticated CB defense sensors.
–Jason Sigger, crossposted at Armchair Generalist