This week, Lockheed Martin announced plans for a small-scale fusion power plant to be developed in as little as 10 years. A number of experts have expressed doubts over its viability.
If it ever became a reality, fusion power would be truly world-altering – a clean, safe and essentially limitless supply of energy allowing humanity's continued survival for centuries and millennia to come. The international project known as ITER is planned for operation in 2022 and its eventual successor may emerge in the 2040s. Widespread deployment of fusion is not expected until 2070.
U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin hopes to accelerate progress in this area, by developing what it calls a compact fusion reactor (CFR). This would be around 10 times smaller than conventional tokamak designs, small enough to fit on the back of a truck and generating 100 megawatts (MW) of power. The company intends to build a prototype within five years – according to its press release – with commercial introduction five years after that. It has several patents pending for the work and is looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories.
As illustrated above, the main improvement over ITER would be the use of a superconducting torus to create a differently shaped magnetic field, able to contain plasma far better than previous configurations. These small reactors could be fitted in U.S. Navy warships and submarines while eliminating the need for other fuel types. They could power small cities of up to 100,000 people, allow planes to fly with unlimited range, or even be used in spacecraft to cut journey times to Mars from six months to a single month. Using a CFR, the cost of desalinated water could fall by 60 percent.
If this sounds too good to be true, it may well be. Although Lockheed has been successful in its magnetised ion confinement experiments, a number of significant challenges remain for a working prototype with plasma confinement – let alone a commercialised version.
"I think it's very overplayed," University of California nuclear engineering professor Dr. Edward Morse told The Register. "They are being very cagey about divulging details."
"Getting net energy from fusion is such a goddamn difficult undertaking," said University of Texas physicist Dr. Swadesh M. Mahajan, in an interview with Mother Jones. "We know of no materials that would be able to handle anywhere near that amount of heat."
"The nuclear engineering clearly fails to be cost effective," Tom Jarboe told Business Insider in an email.
For these reasons, it is perhaps best to wait for more news and developments before adding the CFR to our timeline. We will, of course, keep you updated on Lockheed's progress as it emerges. You can also discuss this project on our forum.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has announced a technological breakthrough that allows unmanned surface vehicles (USV) to not only protect Navy ships, but also, for the first time, autonomously “swarm” offensively on hostile vessels.
First-of-its-kind technology – demonstrated on the James River in Virginia – allows unmanned, self-guided vessels to overwhelm an adversary. This is achieved using a combination of sensors and software called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing). The hardware is small and light enough to be portable and can be installed on almost any boat. It is also inexpensive, at just $2000 for each kit.
These automated patrols could leave warships they're protecting and swarm around potential threats on the water. This technology could be utilised by the U.S. Navy within a year, defence officials say, adding it could help stop attacks like the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
“Our Sailors and Marines can’t fight tomorrow’s battles using yesterday’s technology,” said Chief of Naval Research, Matthew Klunder. “This kind of breakthrough is the result of the Navy’s long-term support for innovative research in science and technology.”
Without a human physically needing to be at the controls, the boats can operate in sync with other unmanned vessels – choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting/protecting naval assets.
“This networking unmanned platforms demonstration was a cost-effective way to integrate many small, cheap, and autonomous capabilities that can significantly improve our warfighting advantage,” said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations.
“This multiplies combat power by allowing CARACaS-enabled boats to do some of the dangerous work,” said Dr. Robert Brizzolara, program manager at the ONR. “It will remove our Sailors and Marines from many dangerous situations; for instance when they need to approach hostile or suspicious vessels. If an adversary were to fire on the USVs, no humans would be at risk.”
In the tests, as many as 13 Navy boats were operating together. First they escorted a high-value Navy ship, and then, when a simulated enemy vessel was detected, the boats sped into action, swarming around the threat. This demonstration comes near the anniversary of the USS Cole bombing off the coast of Yemen. In that October 2000 terrorist attack, a small boat laden with explosives was able to get near a guided-missile destroyer and detonate, killing 17 Sailors and injuring 39 others.
Autonomous unmanned surface vehicles could play a vital role in protecting people, ports and commerce. In the future, the capability could be scaled up to include even greater numbers of USVs – and even to other platforms such as drones, helicopters and jet fighters.
"This is something that you might find not only just on our naval vessels. We could certainly see this utilised to protect merchant vessels, to protect ports and harbours; used also to protect offshore oil rigs," Klunder said.
The U.S. military is researching possible designs for a new generation of stealthier, faster, more mobile tanks.
For the past 100 years of mechanised warfare, protection for ground-based armoured fighting vehicles and their occupants has boiled down almost exclusively to a simple equation: more armour equals more protection. Weapons’ ability to penetrate armour, however, has advanced faster than armour’s ability to withstand penetration. As a result, achieving even incremental improvements in crew survivability has required significant increases in vehicle mass and cost.
The trend of increasingly heavy, less mobile and more expensive combat platforms has limited Soldiers’ and Marines’ ability to rapidly deploy and manoeuvre in theatre and accomplish missions in varied and evolving threat environments. Moreover, larger vehicles are limited to roads, as well as requiring more logistical support and are more expensive to design, develop, field and replace. The U.S. military has now reached a point where – considering tactical mobility, strategic mobility, survivability and cost – innovative and disruptive solutions are necessary for a new generation of armoured fighting vehicles.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has created the Ground X-Vehicle Technology (GXV-T) program to overcome these challenges. GXV-T seeks to investigate revolutionary ground-vehicle technologies that would simultaneously improve the mobility and survivability of vehicles through means other than adding more armour – i.e. avoiding detection, engagement and hits by adversaries. This improved stealth and mobility would enable future U.S. ground forces to more efficiently and cost-effectively tackle the varied and unpredictable combat situations of the 21st century.
“GXV-T’s goal is not just to improve or replace one particular vehicle – it’s about breaking the ‘more armour’ paradigm and revolutionising protection for all armoured fighting vehicles,” says Kevin Massey, DARPA program manager. “Inspired by how X-plane programs have improved aircraft capabilities over the past 60 years, we plan to pursue groundbreaking fundamental research and development to help make future armoured fighting vehicles significantly more mobile, effective, safe and affordable.”
Technical goals include the following improvements relative to today’s armoured fighting vehicles:
Reduce vehicle size and weight by 50 percent
Reduce onboard crew needed to operate vehicle by 50 percent
Increase vehicle speed by 100 percent
Access 95 percent of terrain
Reduce signatures that enable adversaries to detect and engage vehicles
DARPA says these four technical areas are examples of where advanced technologies could be developed that would meet the program’s objectives:
Radically enhanced mobility – ability to traverse diverse off-road terrain, including slopes and various elevations; advanced suspensions and novel track/wheel configurations; extreme speed; rapid omnidirectional movement changes in three dimensions
Survivability through agility – autonomously avoid incoming threats without harming occupants through technologies such as agile motion (dodging) and active repositioning of armour
Crew augmentation – improved physical and electronically assisted situational awareness for crew and passengers; semi-autonomous driver assistance and automation of key crew functions, similar to capabilities found in modern commercial airplane cockpits
Signature management – reduction of detectable signatures, including visible, infrared (IR), acoustic and electromagnetic (EM)
DARPA aims to develop GXV-T technologies over a period of 24 months, from 2015 to 2017.
US military research agency DARPA intends to cut the average time to develop new advanced materials from 10 years to less than three.
Military platforms – such as ships, aircraft and ground vehicles – rely on advanced materials to make them lighter, stronger and more resistant to stress, heat and other harsh environmental conditions. Currently, the process for developing new materials to field in platforms frequently takes over a decade. These lengthy schedules often mean that developers of new platforms are forced to rely on decades-old, mature materials, because other potentially more advanced materials are still being tested and aren’t ready to be implemented into platform designs.
To address this problem, US military research agency DARPA has initiated a new program called Materials Development for Platforms (MDP). This aims to develop a methodology and toolset to compress the applied material development process by at least 75 percent: from an average of 10 years or more, to just two and a half years.
To achieve this goal, a cross-disciplinary model will incorporate materials science and engineering, Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME) principles, and platform development disciplines of engineering, design, analysis and manufacturing. DARPA will focus on rapid development of materials with specific platform capabilities and intended missions in view – rather than supporting long-term, generalised materials development followed by assessments of potential applications for the resulting materials.
“In this program, we want to move from the current mindset of sporadic ‘pushes’ in materials technology development to a mindset that ‘pulls’ materials technology forward driven by platform design intent and mission need,” says Mick Maher, DARPA program manager. “Ideally, we could envision materials development happening on timescales more in line with modern commercial automobile development.”
A hypersonic aircraft
As a test case, the program intends to focus its initial efforts on a hypersonic platform design – a bold and pressing challenge, since hypersonic vehicles operate under extreme conditions that push state-of-the-art materials to their thermal, chemical and structural limits. Specifically, the first MDP materials development effort would be applied to the design of an outer aerodynamic shell for a hypersonic vehicle that would glide through the atmosphere. Hypersonic air vehicles travel at more than five times the speed of sound, resulting in shell temperatures of several thousand degrees – hot enough to melt steel. The goal is to prove the MDP concept by developing, manufacturing and independently testing various new material structural elements of an outer shell within two and a half years.
“A key to the program’s success will be integrating expertise from a wide range of relevant technical disciplines,” Maher said. “We want to reach out to potential performers in all of the relevant scientific and engineering communities – and from both large companies and small businesses – so they can team together to create the most effective solutions possible.”
Fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” would jeopardise basic human rights, whether used in wartime or for law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said in a report released yesterday, on the eve of the first multilateral meeting on the subject at the United Nations.
The 26-page report, “Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots,” is the first report to assess in detail the risks posed by these weapons during law enforcement operations – expanding the debate beyond the battlefield. Human Rights Watch found that fully autonomous weapons threaten rights and principles under international law as fundamental as the right to life, the right to a remedy, and the principle of dignity.
“In policing, as well as war, human judgment is critically important to any decision to use a lethal weapon,” said Steve Goose, arms division director. “Governments need to say no to fully autonomous weapons for any purpose and to preemptively ban them now, before it is too late.”
International debate over fully autonomous weapons has previously focused on their potential role in armed conflict and questions over whether they would comply with international humanitarian law, also called the laws of war. Human Rights Watch, in this new report, examines the potential impact of fully autonomous weapons under human rights law, which applies during peacetime as well as armed conflict.
Nations must adopt a preemptive international ban on these weapons, which could identify and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, Human Rights Watch said. Countries are pursuing ever-greater autonomy in weapons, and precursors already exist.
The release of the report, co-published with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, coincides with the first ever multilateral meeting on the weapons. Many of the 117 countries that joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons will attend the meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the United Nations in Geneva this week. Members of the convention agreed at their annual meeting in November 2013 to begin work on the issue in 2014.
Human Rights Watch believes the agreement to work on these weapons in the Convention on Conventional Weapons forum could eventually lead to new international law prohibiting fully autonomous weapons. The convention preemptively banned blinding lasers in 1995.
Human Rights Watch is a founding member and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. This coalition of 51 nongovernmental organisations in two dozen countries calls for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.
Human Rights Watch issued its first report on the subject, “Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots,” back in November 2012. In April 2013, Christof Heyns – UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions – issued a report citing a range of objections to the weapons, and called for all nations to adopt national moratoria and begin international discussions about how to address them.
Fully autonomous weapons could be prone to killing people unlawfully because these weapons could not be programmed to handle every situation, Human Rights Watch found. According to robot experts, there is little prospect that these weapons would possess human qualities, such as judgment, that facilitate compliance with the right to life in unforeseen situations.
Fully autonomous weapons would also undermine human dignity, Human Rights Watch said. These inanimate machines could not understand or respect the value of life, yet they would have the power to determine when to take it away.
Serious doubts exist about whether there could be meaningful accountability for the actions of a fully autonomous weapon. There would be legal and practical obstacles to holding anyone – a superior officer, programmer, or manufacturer – responsible for a robot’s actions. Both criminal and civil law are ill suited to the task, Human Rights Watch found.
“The accountability gap would weaken deterrence for future violations,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch and lecturer at the Harvard clinic as well as author of the report. “It would be very difficult for families to obtain retribution or remedy for the unlawful killing of a relative by such a machine.”
The human rights impacts of killer robots compound a host of other legal, ethical, and scientific concerns – including the potential for an arms race, prospect of proliferation, and questions about their ability to protect civilians adequately on the battlefield or the street, Human Rights Watch found.
By using lightweight "membrane optics" instead of traditional glass, a new generation of space telescopes could be deployed that reach sizes of 20 metres (68 foot) or larger.
As the need for higher-resolution orbital imagery expands, glass mirrors are fast approaching the point where they will be too large, heavy and costly for even the largest of today's rockets to carry to orbit. DARPA's Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE) program seeks to address these challenges by developing technologies that would make orbital telescopes much lighter, more transportable and more cost-effective. Currently in its second and final phase, the program recently successfully demonstrated a ground-based prototype that incorporated several critical technologies, including new lightweight polymer membrane optics to replace glass mirrors.
Instead of reflecting light with mirrors or refracting it with lenses, MOIRE's membrane optics diffract light. Roughly the thickness of household plastic wrap, each membrane serves as a Fresnel lens — it is etched with circular concentric grooves like microscopically thin tree rings, decreasing from hundreds of microns at the centre, down to only 4 microns at the outside edge. The diffractive pattern focuses light on a sensor that the satellite translates into an image.
MOIRE technology houses the membranes in thin metal "petals" that would launch in a tightly-packed configuration roughly 20 feet in diameter. Upon reaching its destination orbit, a satellite would then unfold the petals to create the full-size, multi-lens optics. The envisioned diameter of 68 feet (about 20 metres) would be the largest telescope optics ever made — dwarfing the glass mirrors contained in the world's most famous telescopes. This behemoth would be even larger than the 16-metre ATLAST observatory planned for 2025.
Looking down from geostationary orbit, it is believed a satellite using MOIRE optics could see approximately 40 percent of the Earth’s surface at once. It could focus on a 10 km-by-10 km region at 1-metre resolution and provide real-time video of this entire area at one frame per second. In its ground-based tests, MOIRE has achieved a technological first for membrane optics by nearly doubling their efficiency, from 30 percent to 55 percent.
Lt. Col. Larry Gunn, DARPA program manager: "Membrane optics could enable us to fit much larger, higher-resolution telescopes in smaller and lighter packages. In that respect, we're 'breaking the glass ceiling' that traditional materials impose on optics design. We're hoping our research could also help greatly reduce overall costs and enable more timely deployment using smaller, less expensive launch vehicles."
Luxury bespoke tailoring house, Garrison Bespoke, has launched the first fashion-forward bulletproof suit with a live ammo field-testing event in Toronto, Canada.
Michael Nguyen, co-owner of Garrison Bespoke: "After receiving requests from high-profile clients who travel to dangerous places for work, we set out to develop a lightweight, fashion-forward bulletproof suit as a more discreet and stylish alternative to wearing a bulky vest underneath."
The Garrison Bespoke bulletproof suit is made with carbon nanotubes created using nanotechnology and originally developed to protect the US 19th Special Forces in Iraq. The patented material is thinner, more flexible and 50 percent lighter than Kevlar, which is traditionally used for bulletproof gear. The suit also protects against stabbing – the carbon nanotubes harden on impact to prevent a knife from penetrating.
The live ammo field-testing event was held in the Ajax Rod and Gun Club, Ontario. It demonstrated the suit's ability to shield against 9mm bullets. Nguyen claims the suit can block .45 bullets as well. Garrison Bespoke's latest collection – Town & Country – features a range of new clothing, all of which can be made bulletproof by request, with prices starting from $20,000.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking to develop new technology to enable near real-time measurement and analysis of brain systems, for use in precise neural stimulation therapies.
Despite our best efforts to protect the health of U.S. service members and veterans, the effects of neuropsychological illness brought on by war, traumatic injuries and other experiences are not always easily treated. While current approaches can often help to alleviate the worst effects of these illnesses, they are imprecise and not universally effective. Demand for new therapies is high, as mental disorders are the leading cause of hospital bed days and the second leading cause of medical encounters for active duty service members. Among veterans, ten percent of those receiving treatment from the Veterans’ Health Administration are provided mental health care or substance abuse counselling.
DARPA has created the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program to pursue advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology that could lead to new clinical understanding of how neuropsychological illnesses manifest in the brain – and to advanced therapies to reduce the burden and severity of illnesses in troops and veterans. This program will attempt to establish the characteristics of distributed neural systems, and develop therapies based on near real-time recording, analysis and stimulation using next-generation devices inspired by Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).
DBS already exists as a therapy option for certain neurologic and neuropsychological illnesses in patients who are not responsive to other therapies. Approximately 100,000 people around the globe live with a DBS implant – a device that delivers electrical stimulation to reduce the motor impairment caused by Parkinson's disease and dystonia. These devices are also being studied as therapy for depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s and epilepsy.
Despite recent advances, clinicians and researchers remain limited by the tools available to study, understand and treat systems of the brain. To achieve maximum benefit, they are often forced to complete a slow, repetitive and imprecise cycle of observing behaviours and then fine-tuning drug or behavioural therapy until the effects of a disease are reduced. The science has, until now, been largely based on a century of identifying associations between complex behaviours and diffuse understanding of the brain.
SUBNETS will seek to move beyond this limited understanding, to create interventions based on new insights that can be gained from the intersection of neuroscience, neurotechnology and clinical therapy. While there is no question that brain activity, anatomy and behaviour are functionally linked, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that many neural and behavioural processes are not localised to specific anatomical regions – but are emergent from systems that span several regions of the brain. SUBNETS will establish the capability to record and model how these systems function.
DARPA is specifically interested in the underlying systems which contribute to the following conditions: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder. DARPA also seeks to evaluate the representation in the central nervous system of: Traumatic Brain Injury, Substance Abuse/Addiction and Fibromyalgia/Chronic Pain.
“If SUBNETS is successful, it will advance neuropsychiatry beyond the realm of dialogue-driven observations and resultant trial and error, and into the realm of therapy driven by quantifiable characteristics of neural state,” said Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager. “SUBNETS is a push toward innovative, informed and precise neurotechnological therapy to produce major improvements in quality of life for service members and veterans who have very few options with existing therapies. These are patients for whom current medical understanding of diseases like chronic pain or fatigue, unmanageable depression or severe post-traumatic stress disorder can't provide meaningful relief.”
As described in a broad agency announcement, the work will require development of novel medical hardware, complex modelling of human neural systems, clinical neurology and animal research. DARPA expects that successful teams will span across disciplines including psychiatry, neurosurgery, neural engineering, microelectronics, neuroscience, statistics and computational modelling.
“We're talking about a whole systems approach to the brain, not a disease-by-disease examination of a single process or a subset of processes,” Sanchez said. “SUBNETS is going to be a cross-disciplinary, expansive team effort and the program will integrate and build upon historical DARPA research investments.”
Because programs like SUBNETS push the leading edge of science, they are often society’s first encounter with the dilemmas associated with new technologies. DARPA understands the importance of considering ethical, legal, societal and policy questions. For that reason, the Agency has convened an Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) panel to inform and advise on emerging neuroscience efforts.
The SUBNETS project is part of the $100 million BRAIN Initiative announced by President Obama in April. DARPA hopes to have the brain implants developed within five years.
The ability to shrink laboratory-scale processes to automated chip-sized systems would revolutionise biotechnology and medicine. For example, inexpensive and highly portable devices that process blood samples to detect biological agents, such as anthrax, are needed by the U.S. military and for homeland security efforts.
A microfluidic bioreactor. Credit: Adam Fenster/University of Rochester.
One of the challenges of "lab-on-a-chip" technology is the need for miniaturised pumps to move solutions through micro-channels. Electroosmotic pumps (EOPs) — devices in which fluids appear to magically move through porous media in the presence of an electric field — are ideal, because they can be readily miniaturised. EOPs however, require bulky and external power sources, which defeats the concept of portability. But a super-thin silicon membrane developed at the University of Rochester could now make it possible to drastically shrink the power source, paving the way for new diagnostic devices the size of a credit card.
"Up until now, electroosmotic pumps have had to operate at a very high voltage, about 10 kilovolts," said James McGrath, associate professor of biomedical engineering. "Our device works in the range of one-quarter of a volt, which means it can be integrated into devices and powered with small batteries."
McGrath's research paper is published this week by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
McGrath and his colleagues use porous nanocrystalline silicon (pnc-Si) membranes that are microscopically thin – it takes more than one thousand stacked on top of each other to equal the width of a human hair. And that's what allows for a low-voltage system.
A porous membrane needs to be placed between two electrodes in order to create what's known as electroosmotic flow, which occurs when an electric field interacts with ions on a charged surface, causing fluids to move through channels. Membranes previously used in EOPs have resulted in a significant voltage drop between the electrodes, forcing engineers to begin with bulky and high-voltage power sources. The thin pnc Si membranes allow the electrodes to be placed much closer to each other, creating a much stronger electric field with a much smaller drop in voltage. As a result, a smaller power source is needed.
"Until now, not everything associated with miniature pumps was miniaturised," said McGrath. "Our device opens the door for a tremendous number of applications."
Along with medical applications, it's been suggested that EOPs could be used to cool electronic devices. As electronic devices get smaller, components are packed more tightly, making it easier for the devices to overheat. With miniature power supplies, it may be possible to use EOPs to help cool laptops and other portable electronic devices.
McGrath said there's one other benefit to the silicon membranes. "Due to scalable fabrication methods, the nanocrystalline silicon membranes are inexpensive to make and can be easily integrated on silicon or silica-based microfluid chips."
Engineering and robotics firm Boston Dynamics has released three new videos showing the latest progress on its hi-tech machines.
First up is the ATLAS, an early prototype of which was seen in October 2012. Since then, this humanoid robot has undergone a number of tests and design revisions. It is now able to walk over rock-strewn terrain with ease, as well as remaining balanced when hit by an object from the side.
Next is the Legged Squad Support System (LS3). Due to enter service in 2014, this robotic pack mule will assist soldiers with carrying heavy equipment through rugged terrain. It is designed to automatically follow a squad, using advanced computer vision, so does not require a dedicated driver. Each LS3 will carry up to 400 lbs of gear and enough fuel for a 20-mile mission lasting 24 hours. This video shows field testing at Twentynine Palms, California.
Finally, here is the WildCat. This machine is a more advanced version of the Cheetah robot seen last year. Although not quite as fast (yet), it can operate without being tethered to a power supply. Here it is shown running outdoors at a maximum speed of 16 mph (compared with the Cheetah's 28 mph).
Peter Joseph, creator of the Zeitgeist movies, has released the final episode of his Culture in Decline series. From the video description:
"In this final episode of the season, Dr. Peter Joseph shows off his fresh new Time Machine, guiding the audience through a vision of two possible futures. The first exploring the current trends that just may lead us all into vast new levels of decline; the second showing what the world could be... if anyone actually gave a damn to make it happen."
The Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program aims to improve air-to-ground fire coordination, but could revolutionise military tech development and deployment as well.
Air-ground fire coordination – also known as Close Air Support or CAS – is a dangerous and difficult business. Pilots and dismounted ground agents must ensure they hit only the intended target using just voice directions and, if they’re lucky, a common paper map. It can often take up to an hour to confer, get in position and strike – time in which targets can attack first or move out of reach. To help address these challenges, DARPA recently awarded a contract for Phase II of its Persistent Close Air Support (PCAS) program to the Raytheon Company of Waltham, Mass.
PCAS aims to enable ground forces and combat aircrews to jointly select and employ precision-guided weapons from a diverse set of airborne platforms. The program seeks to leverage advances in computing and communications technologies to fundamentally increase CAS effectiveness, as well as improve the speed and survivability of ground forces engaged with enemy forces.
“Our goal is to make Close Air Support more precise, prompt and easy to coordinate under stressful operational conditions,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager. “We could use smaller munitions to hit smaller or moving targets, minimising the risk of friendly fire or collateral damage.”
While its tools have become more sophisticated, CAS has not fundamentally changed since World War I. To accelerate CAS capabilities well beyond the current technological state of the art, PCAS envisions an all-digital system that incorporates commercial IT products and models such as open interfaces, element modularity and mobile software applications.
PCAS designs currently include two main components, PCAS-Air and PCAS-Ground. PCAS-Air would consist of an internal guidance system, weapons and engagement management systems, and high-speed data transfer via Ethernet, existing aircraft wiring or wireless networks. Based on tactical information, PCAS-Air’s automated algorithms would recommend optimal travel routes to the target, which weapon to use on arrival and how best to deploy it. Aircrews could receive information either through hardwired interfaces or wirelessly via tablet computers.
PCAS-Air would inform ground forces through PCAS-Ground, a suite of technologies enabling improved mobility, situational awareness and communications for fire coordination. A HUD eyepiece wired to a tablet computer like that used in PCAS-Air would display tactical imagery, maps and other information, enabling ground forces to keep their eyes more on the target and less on a computer screen.
Parts of PCAS-Ground are already in field trials that mark some of the first large-scale use of commercial tablets for air-ground fire coordination. From December 2012 through March 2013, PCAS deployed 500 Android tablets equipped with PCAS-Ground situational awareness software to units stationed in Afghanistan. The tablets provided warfighters with added capabilities including digital gridded reference graphics (GRGs), digital terrain elevation data and other mission planning and execution tools. In the air, in-flight GPS tracking enabled pilots and ground forces to locate their relative positions in real time. Field reports show that PCAS-Ground has replaced those units’ legacy paper maps, dramatically improving ground forces’ ability to quickly and safely coordinate air engagements.
One of the most potentially groundbreaking elements of PCAS is its Smart Rail, a modular system that would attach to standard external mounting rails on many common fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft. The Smart Rail would initially carry and perform engagement computations for the PCAS-Air components, but it would also enable quick, inexpensive installation of new piloting aids and new radios to communicate to ground agents. The plug-and-play system could accommodate legacy and future equipment with equal ease, and eventually could also be compatible with unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).
“The Smart Rail is an easy way to get digital air-ground coordination onto current and future aircraft,” Patt said. “Just as the USB revolutionised how we use IT-enabled devices, modular technologies like the Smart Rail could greatly reduce development time and costs for military technology and speed deployment of PCAS and other capabilities.”
The FBI confirmed this week that drones are carrying out surveillance within the USA, without regulations in place to address privacy concerns. Speaking to Democracy Now!, Heidi Boghosian – National Lawyers Guild executive director and author of the forthcoming book, "Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance" – explains the technologies being developed to expand drone surveillance in the near future. These include drones the size of mosquitoes, capable of entering apartment buildings and remaining airborne inside to spy without detection. You can watch the full interview here.
The results of a new survey by the University of Massachusetts Amherst show that a majority of Americans across the political spectrum oppose the outsourcing of lethal military and defence targeting decisions to machines. The opposition to autonomous weaponry is bipartisan, with the strongest opposition on the far left and far right, and among active and former members of the military.
A random sample of 1,000 Americans was asked how they felt about military technology that could take humans out of the loop altogether, dubbed "killer robots" by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international coalition of non-governmental organisations launched in April that is working to ban fully autonomous weapons.
Overall, 55 percent of the survey's respondents said that they oppose the development of autonomous weapons, while 39 percent were "strongly opposed." Of the remainder, nearly 20 percent were "not sure," but the study found that people without a strong opinion tended to favour a precautionary approach to the emerging technology. The findings were consistent across all ages, regions, education and income levels, as well as both genders, but those with higher levels of education and those most likely to follow the news were more opposed.
The survey was overseen by Charli Carpenter, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and a specialist in human security and global advocacy movements. Carpenter, who has studied the ethical debate around autonomous weapons since 2007, determined that the survey's findings support the claims of advocates for a pre-emptive ban.
"While much of the recent public debate has focused on remote-controlled military drones, there has been less research on what people think about fully-autonomous weapons," Carpenter said. "This question matters in terms of the international law on new weapons, because an important treaty clause states that 'the public conscience' should serve to guide policy decisions in the absence of clear rules. These findings would suggest that people across the board do tend to feel very concerned about the development of these forms of weapons."
Carpenter also collected open-ended answers on why people liked or disliked the idea of autonomous weapon systems. While she is continuing to analyse the data, the preliminary results show concerns over potential malfunctions, the absence of a moral conscience in machines, whether they could distinguish civilians and combatants, the loss of human control over machines with the power to kill, and the possibility that they could be used by dictators to more efficiently violate human rights.
The minority of respondents arguing in favour of the weapons generally mentioned their desire to "protect the troops." However, active duty military personnel themselves indicated the highest proportion of strong disapproval for autonomous weapon systems among all subsets polled, at 65 percent. Overall, active duty military personnel had a 73 percent disapproval rate of such weapons. Military veterans and those with family in the military also had strong feelings against the weapons, with veterans registering a 50 percent "strongly opposed" response rate and 63 percent general opposition, while military family members showed a similar 62 percent rate of general opposition.
Citing critics who have accused organisations like Human Rights Watch of using the term "killer robots" as a scare tactic to heighten public concern over autonomous systems, Carpenter varied the survey's questions to randomise its wording between "killer robots" and "fully autonomous weapons." She said that the results showed public opposition to autonomous weapon systems is constant regardless of the terms used.
"We found no significant difference in public sentiment depending on whether we used language like 'stopping killer robots' versus 'banning fully autonomous weapons,'" Carpenter said. "People are scared by the idea of removing humans from the loop, not simply scared of the label."
This online survey of 1,000 Americans aged 18 or older was conducted by YouGov America under the direction of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The margin of error for the poll is 3.6 percent.