Killer Drones

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Transcript Revenge of the Killer Drones  ARLINGTON, Virginia -- They've served, mostly, as spies. Once in a great while, they've moonlighted as assassins. But now,unmanned aircraft are slowly starting to become full-fledged killing machines -- armed to the teeth, and designed for the deadliestparts of war.In just five years, the U.S. military wants a handful of battle-ready fighting drones. This week, in a hotel ballroom just a few milesfrom the Pentagon, a group of a hundred or so Defense Department officials and defense contractors laid out their road map forhow they'll reach this goal.The next step will come in a few days, when a prototype unmanned combat aerial vehicle (or UCAV, for short) will soar over theNavy's China Laketesting range in California's Mojave Desert and drop its first smartbomb. Drones have quickly become a central part of U.S. military efforts because they can hover over a combat zone for hours on end. A flesh-and-blood pilot poops out after about 10 hours; some robotic planes can stay aloft for more than three times that long.In Pentagon-ese, this is known as persistence. The Defense Department would like to shift from persistent surveillance -- whichthe drones are now starting to provide -- to an always-on ability to kill, should an adversary pop up in a pilotless plane's sights. The idea is to be there when targets present themselves,  Northrop Grumman program manager Scott Winship told the group gathered for theCombat UAV 2004 conference here. Northrop is one of two firms working on prototype fighting drones.  Already, the RQ-1 Predator spy drone, equipped with Hellfire missiles, has taken out al-Qaida operatives in Yemen and destroyedthe Iraqi television broadcast center. But the Predator is slow, cruising at around 85 miles per hour, and low -- normally flying at10,000 feet. That would make it an easy target over a well-defended country. What the Pentagon wants instead is a new plane that could knock out an opponent's air defenses; strike hundreds, maybethousands, of miles deep into enemy territory; and serve as a scout in hostile skies -- all without risking the life of a single American pilot. Enter the UCAV.Northrop and Boeing are building the test models for the combat drone, called the X-47 and X-45 respectively. Boeing is a little further along in the process. Its two X-45A prototypes have flown about 25 times, while the X-47A has only been aloft once. It's theX-45 that will drop a 250-pound, satellite-guided small-diameter bomb over China Lake. Roughly a month later, according to X-45 program manager Darryl Davis, the two Boeing drones will start flying together at the same time.More-refined designs of the aircraft -- both of them will have wingspans around 49 feet and will carry 4,500 pounds of bombs andsensors -- should be ready to fly by 2006 or 2007. The Pentagon will then put the drones through a series of tests that should lastuntil about 2009. That's when it will make a decision about whether to mass-produce either model.Even if neither drone is developed further, the Pentagon will have a few UCAVs in its arsenal by the end of the decade. If we wanted to take them to war, we could do that, said Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of the defense secretary's task force for unmanned planes. At this point, however, the shape and size of the planes is almost secondary -- just a dust cover, in Weatherington's words. Themilitary may want the UCAVs to take on very different roles in the years to come. So what's important now is to begin to build anarchitecture on which the drones can rely. We need an integrated, plug-and-play type of system, so we can add new technologies without ripping the whole vehicle apart,  Weatherington said.The Navy, the Air Force and Pentagon research division Darpa are working together with Boeing and Northrop on theseJointUnmanned Combat Air Systems,or J-UCAS.Right now, drones from one manufacturer often have trouble talking to a base station made by another; think of the problems PCsand Macs have had communicating. So, one of the biggest steps in the J-UCAS process will be to develop a common operatingsystem for the drones. It's like an Internet protocol for robotic fighters.  But the Pentagon wants the UCAVs to be able to do more than chat with one another. The unmanned planes should be able to takeoff, fly and defend themselves as a group without a human telling them what to do. Darpa is working on a decision aid system that will automatically handle the many tasks of directing a UCAV team, explained Marc Pitarys, a deputy program director at theagency.Let's say there's a problem with the route a drone is following. The decision-aid system would pick a new one and upload it to theUCAV -- or it would enable the vehicle to make up one on its own, Pitarys said.Such a system has already been demonstrated in the lab, noted Michael Francis, Pitarys' boss. And, within the next few months, it will be loaded onto the planes themselves.But at least one of the pilots who remotely operate the drones of today doesn't want to take humans too far out of the loop. Any time we go to automation -- things just happening, a guy not thinking -- that's the wrong direction, said Michael Keaton,commander of the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron (PDF), one the few Air Force groups that use unmanned planes. You've got to make sure there's a person to make the split-second, instantaneous decisions. It's unclear whether the software will be smart enough to handle the job, in any event. On a scale from zero to 10, Boeing officialStan Kasprzyk told  National Defense magazine, the UCAV is heading toward an autonomy level of 1 to 2. Even if the system's autonomy climbs higher, that may not be an entirely beneficial thing, some outside analysts say. We already have in this country a predisposition that the world is a set of problems with military solutions. One of the only checkson that is the threat of American boys coming home in body bags, said director John Pike.Unmanned systems could remove one of those final checks. Pike asked, What happens when we can resort to violence, when wecan hurt others, without being hurt in return?
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