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Weapons Systems

Killer Robots In Warfare

They have no fear, they never tire, they are not upset when the soldier next to them gets blown to pieces. Their morale doesn't suffer by having to do, again and again, the jobs known in the military as the Three Ds - dull, dirty and dangerous.

They are military robots and their rapidly increasing numbers and growing sophistication may herald the end of thousands of years of human monopoly on fighting war. "Science fiction is moving to the battlefield. The future is upon us," as Brookings scholar Peter Singer put it to a conference of experts at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania this month.

Singer just published Wired For War - the Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, a book that traces the rise of the machines and predicts that in future wars they will not only play greater roles in executing missions but also in planning them.

Numbers reflect the explosive growth of robotic systems. The U.S. forces that stormed into Iraq in 2003 had no robots on the ground. There were none in Afghanistan either. Now those two wars are fought with the help of an estimated 12,000 ground-based robots and 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the technical term for drone, or robotic aircraft.

Ground-based robots in Iraq have saved hundreds of lives in Iraq, defusing improvised explosive devices, which account for more than 40 percent of U.S. casualties. The first armed robot was deployed in Iraq in 2007 and it is as lethal as its acronym is long: Special Weapons Observation Remote Reconnaissance Direct Action System (SWORDS). Its mounted M249 machinegun can hit a target more than 3,000 feet away with pin-point precision.

From the air, the best-known UAV, the Predator, has killed dozens of insurgent leaders - as well as scores of civilians whose death has prompted protests both from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Predators are flown by operators sitting in front of television monitors in cubicles at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 8,000 miles from Afghanistan and Taliban sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. The cubicle pilots in Nevada run no physical risks whatever, a novelty for men engaged in war.


Reducing risk, and casualties, is at the heart of the drive for more and better robots. Ultimately, that means "fully autonomous engagement without human intervention," according to an Army communication to robot designers. In other words, computer programs, not a remote human operator, would decide when to open fire. What worries some experts is that technology is running ahead of deliberations of ethical and legal questions.

Robotics research and development in the U.S. received a big push from Congress in 2001, when it set two ambitious goals: by 2010, a third of the country's long-range attack aircraft should be unmanned; and by 2015 one third of America's ground combat vehicles. Neither goal is likely to be met but the deadline pushed non-technological considerations to the sidelines.

A recent study prepared for the Office of Naval Research by a team from the California Polytechnic State University said that robot ethics had not received the attention it deserved because of a "rush to market" mentality and the "common misconception" that robots will do only what they have been programmed to do.

"Unfortunately, such a belief is sorely outdated, harking back to the time when computers were simpler and their programs could be written and understood by a single person," the study says. "Now programs with millions of lines of code are written by teams of programmers, none of whom knows the entire program; hence, no individual can predict the effect of a given command with absolute certainty since portions of programs may interact in unexpected, untested ways."

That's what might have happened during an exercise in South Africa in 2007, when a robot anti-aircraft gun sprayed hundreds of rounds of cannon shell around its position, killing nine soldiers and injuring 14.

Beyond isolated accidents, there are deeper problems that have yet to be solved. How do you get a robot to tell an insurgent from an innocent? Can you program the Laws of War and the Rules of Engagement into a robot? Can you imbue a robot with his country's culture? If something goes wrong, resulting in the death of civilians, who will be held responsible?

The robot's manufacturer? The designers? Software programmers? The commanding officer in whose unit the robot operates? Or the U.S. president who in some cases authorises attacks? (Barack Obama has given the green light to a string of Predator strikes into Pakistan).

While the United States has deployed more military robots - on land, in the air and at sea - than any other country, it is not alone in building them. More than 40 countries, including potential adversaries such as China, are working on robotics technology. Which leaves one to wonder how the ability to send large numbers of robots, and fewer soldiers, to war will affect political decisions on force versus diplomacy.

You need to be an optimist to think that political leaders will opt for negotiation over war once combat casualties come home not in flag-decked coffins but in packing crates destined for the robot repair shop.

Weapons That Target Your Brain

Recently, I was asked to consult on a pharmaceutical product for schizophrenics manufactured by Janssen Pharmaceutica (a division of Johnson & Johnson). My task was to sort out exactly what a synthetic community of caregivers, patients, and health care professionals might function like. As part of my work I began to research heavily existing schizophrenic communities and other recent research on the topic. In doing so I came across an odd little bit of information in the form of a recently declassified Pentagon report dating back to 1998.

In all the crazy, bizarre less-lethal weapons that I have researched, the use of microwaves to target the human mind remains in my opinion one of the most creative. The question has always been: is this anything more than a myth? The declassified Pentagon report, "Bioeffects of Selected Non-Lethal Weapons," which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, provides some fascinating tidbits on a variety of exotic weapons ideas.

Among those discussed are weapons that could disrupt the brain, as the "Voice of God" device, which creates voices in people's heads. As the report notes, "Application of the microwave hearing technology could facilitate a private message transmission. It may be useful to provide a disruptive condition to a person not aware of the technology. Not only might it be disruptive to the sense of hearing, it could be psychologically devastating if one suddenly heard 'voices within one's head.'"

Voices in your head disturbing? Heck, yeah, considering it's something most people associate with schizophrenia. The age-old question is whether such a weapon is possible. According to the report, it's not only possible, it's already been demonstrated in crude form:

"Because the frequency of the sound heard is dependent on the pulse characteristics of the RF energy, it seems possible that this technology could be developed to the point where words could be transmitted to be heard like the spoken word, except hat it could only be heard within a person's head. In one experiment, communication of the words from one to ten using "speech modulated" microwave energy was successfully demonstrated. Microphones next to the person experiencing the voice could not pick up the sound. Additional development of this would open up a wide range of possibilities."

This technology requires no extrapolation to estimate its usefulness. Microwave energy can be applied at a distance, and the appropriate technology can be adapted from existing radar units. Aiming devices likewise are available but for special circumstances which require extreme specificity, there may be a need for additional development. Extreme directional specificity would be required to transmit a message to a single hostage surrounded by his captors. Signals can be transmitted long distances (hundreds of meters) using current technology. Longer distances and more sophisticated signal types will require more bulky equipment, but it seems possible to transmit some of the signals at closer ranges using man-portable equipment.

If voices in your head aren't disturbing enough, the report also goes on to theorize about a microwave weapon that could use electromagnetic pulses to disrupt the brain's functioning. It would work through "a rhythmic-activity synchronization of brain neurons that disrupts normal cortical control of the corticospinal and corticobulbar pathways that disrupts normal functioning of the spinal motor neurons which control muscle and body movements."

This concept is still very theoretical, the report notes:

Application of electromagnetic pulses is also a conceptual nonlethal technology that uses electromagnetic energy to induce neural synchrony and disruption of voluntary muscle control. The effectiveness of this concept has not been demonstrated. However, from past work in evaluating the potential for electromagnetic pulse generator to affect humans, it is estimated that sufficiently strong internal fields can be generated within the brain to trigger neurons.

Here's a copy of the report. Enjoy.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Competition

The University of Maryland, has won the 11th Annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition, in San Diego California. The event is organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Office of Naval Research, and challenges universities to design and build an AUV capable of navigating realistic underwater missions.
Twenty-five teams from the US, India, Canada and Japan participated in the AUV competition, which involved dead reckoning approximately 50 feet through the starting gate, pipeline following, buoy docking, tracking and hovering over an acoustic pinger, grabbing an object and surfacing with the object to a floating ring.

Click here to read a PDF of University of Maryland's Team Journal from the event.

Coming second in the competition was the University of Texas at Dallas, followed by École de Technologie Supérieure. A full list of the placings can be found here. The competition also gave out several special awards: the University of Colorado at Boulder won Best New Entry; the Delhi College of Engineering won Most Improved; the University of Wisconsin  won the Tupperware Use Award; the University of Ottawa won Persistence in Adversity; and Norwich University won the Innovation Award.

On August 8, the AUVSI and ONR also held its first International Autonomous Surface Vehicle Student Competition, at San Diego’s 40 foot deep Transducer Evaluation Center Pool. The craft will have to face challenges including passing through a starting gate and steering a steady course, navigating between buoys, detecting and eliminating shore bound threats, docking and recovering a victim. Embry-Riddle University, Florida Atlantic University, École de Technologie Supérieure, the University of Central Florida, the University of Michigan University_of_Michigan , and Villanova University are competing.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has over 1,400 member companies and organizations from 50 countries, making it the world’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems community.

Join the Facebook group for AUVSI Underwater Robot Makers.
Join the Facebook event AUVSI & ONR's 11th International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition.

Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation

I have a new favorite thing. It's a technology called Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation  — essentially, it's electricity messing with the delicate nerves inside the ear that help maintain our balance. One awesome application - using it as a remote control for people. Today, this is done by wearing a headset with a very low voltage electric current applied near the back of the ears which moves through the head — either from left to right or right to left, depending on which way a joystick on a remote-control is moved. Although I have not experienced this myself, it has been described like feeling a mysterious, irresistible urge to start walking to the right whenever the operator turned the switch to the right. Leaving the subject feeling convinced —mistakenly — that this is the only way to maintain balance.

Check out this video from 2005 taken at the Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp.'s (NTT), "Parasitic Humanoid Project" of "Radio Controlled Walking" in action:

The phenomenon is painless but dramatic. Subjects feet start to move before they know it. You could even remote-control yourself by taking the switch into your own hands. There's no proven-beyond-a-doubt explanation yet as to why people start veering when electricity hits their ear. But researchers say they were able to make a person walk along a route in the shape of a giant pretzel using this technique. Pretty cool.

The experience itself has been described as a "mesmerizing sensation similar to being drunk or melting into sleep under the influence of anesthesia. But it's more definitive, as though an invisible hand were reaching inside your brain." Researchers see the feature being used in video games and amusement park rides, although there are no plans so far for a commercial product.

Research on using electricity to affect human balance has been going on around the world for some time. James Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at  Boston University, has studied using the technology to prevent the elderly from falling and to help people with an impaired sense of balance. But he also believes the effect is suited for games and other entertainment. "I suspect they'll probably get a kick out of the illusions that can be created to give them a more total immersion experience as part of virtual reality," Collins said.

Timothy Hullar, assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., believes finding the right way to deliver an electromagnetic field to the ear at a distance could turn the technology into a weapon for situations where "killing isn't the best solution."

"This would be the most logical situation for a nonlethal weapon that presumably would make your opponent dizzy," he said. "If you find just the right frequency, energy, duration of application, you would hope to find something that doesn't permanently injure someone but would allow you to make someone temporarily off-balance. "Indeed, a small defense contractor in Texas, Invocon Inc., is exploring whether precisely tuned electromagnetic pulses could be safely fired into people's ears to
temporarily subdue them.

NTT has friendlier uses in mind. If the sensation of movement can be captured for playback, then people can better understand what a ballet dancer or an Olympian gymnast is doing, and that could come handy in teaching such skills. And it may also help people dodge oncoming cars or direct a rescue worker in a dark tunnel, NTT researchers say. They maintain that the point is not to control people against their will.

Here is a link to NTT's "Parasitic Humanoid" project which focuses on the Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation technology.

Nonlethal Microwave Weapons

Laser guns are cool. And, I plan on publishing about Tactical High Energy Lasers in the future. But, I happened on a very interesting technology based weapon that is not a laser, but is a directed-energy weapon,  and thought it was worth sharing. Meet the Active Denial System.

The Active Denial System or ADS is a non-lethal, directed-energy weapon system under development by the U.S. military. It is a strong millimeter-wave transmitter used for crowd control. Raytheon is currently marketing a reduced range version of this technology.

The ADS works by directing electromagnetic radiation at a frequency of 95 GHz toward the subjects. The waves excite water molecules in the epidermis to around 55 °C (130 degrees Fahrenheit), causing an intensely painful burning sensation. While not actually burning the skin, the burning sensation is similar to that of a hot light bulb being pressed against the skin. And, we all know how much fun that can be.

The focused beam can be directed at targets at a range of just under half a kilometer, or 500 yards. The device can penetrate thick clothing, although not walls. There is no indication on the feasibility of electromagnetically shielding a person from its effects with a wire mesh or Faraday cage, in a similar manner that a microwave oven prevents radiation escaping. As the beam excites the water molecules in the skin, water bearing materials such as wet clothing/towels, wet pastes/gels, vegetables or meat could effectively absorb the energy, although the military claims that wearing wet clothing actually intensifies the effect. So, go figure.

At 95 GHz, the frequency is much higher than the 2.45 GHz of a microwave oven. This frequency was chosen because due to the stronger absorption of water at those frequencies, they penetrate the skin to a depth of less than 1/64 of an inch (0.4 mm), which is where the nerve endings are located. A spokesman for the Air Force Research Laboratory described his experience as a test subject for the system: "For the first millisecond, it just felt like the skin was warming up. Then it got warmer and warmer and you felt like it was on fire.... As soon as you're away from that beam your skin returns to normal and there is no pain." 

Oh, what I could do with this and about 500 cases of Jiffy Pop