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Three words: Predator Drones. Domestically.

[Originally posted 2011-06-19. I'm reposting it because I think the ideas still have merit; the faraway brown people in Afghanistan are just lab rats used for testing. When the testing is done, drones will be deployed domestically. This post assumes that a government agency would handle that, but perhaps a "market state" solution will be adopted, with drone domestic operations contracted out. --lambert]

[Welcome, Naked Capitalism readers! --lambert]

Not that I'm foily, but I'd really hate to be prematurely correct on the idea that Afghanistan is the real-life proving ground for drone technology. Looking on the bright side, though, at least that way we'd have some reason to be there! Still, when you read this story from Elizabeth Bumiller, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the ultimate theatre where drones will be deployed is, er, Northern Command: The continental United States. There have, after all, already been stories of domestic drone deployment against protesters in WaPo, as far back as 2007. Anyhow, I'll quote from the printed version shown here -- that's right, printed, and then typed in; see NOTE 1 below. The story's headline is "Unblinking, lethal and soon to be ubiquitous," and no, they're not talking about Timmy Geither.

IHT front page

First, let's get the "Gee whiz!" Popular Science stuff out of the way. Bumiller writes:

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, OHIO — Two miles from the cow pasture where the Wright Brothers learned to fly the first airplanes, military researchers are at work on another revolution in the air: shrinking unmanned drones, the kind that fire missiles into Pakistan and spy on insurgents in Afghanistan, to the size of insects and birds.

The base’s indoor flight lab is called the ‘‘microaviary,’’ and for good reason. The drones in development here are designed to replicate the mechanics of flight of moths, hawks and other inhabitants of the natural world.

‘‘We’re looking at how you hide in plain sight,’’ said Greg Parker, an aerospace engineer, as he held up a prototype of a mechanical hawk that in the future might carry out espionage or kill.

Shades of Theodorus Nitz! The military goes on the record:

‘‘[The Predator has] been a game-changer for me,’’ [We won?] Capt. Nickoli Johnson said in Sangin this spring. ‘‘I want a bunch more put in.’’

"It's a growth market," said Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer.

What's odd here, or not, is that the use cases the military gives are all for big drones, like the Predator:

The Pentagon has asked Congress for nearly 5 billion for drones next year, and envisions by 2030 even more stuff of science fiction: "spy flies" equipped with sensors and microcameras to detect ["]enemies["] [who may, of course, be US citizens, whom we're already killing without needing drones the size of houseflies], nuclear weapons [which is ridiculous because we don't even scan shipping containers with existing technology], or victims in rubble [no doubt for final elimination].

But all Bumiller's "Gee Whiz" stuff is about miniaturized drones, for which the use cases are rawther less persuasive (assuming you regard blowing wedding parties to red mist with a Predator as a persuasive use case). But neither Bumiller nor her sources give any use cases for "espionage or kill." So where will the killing and the espionage be done?

The push right now is developing "flapping wing" technology, or recreating the physics of natural flight, but with a focus on insects rather than birds. Birds have complex muscles that move their wings, making it difficult to copy their aerodynamics. Designing an insect is hard, too, but their wing motions are simpler.

In February, researchers did unveil a hummingbird drone, built by a company called AeroVironment for the secretive Devense Advanced Research Projcets Agency, which can fly at 11 miles per hour, or 18 kilometers per hour, and perch on a windowsill. But the bird is still a prototype.

Good to know. But that's just a matter of funding. But you know what? Bumiller buried the lead. The real story is all the way at the end. Here are the final two paragraphs:

The future world of drones is here inside the air force headquarters at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, where hundreds of flat-screen televisions hang from industrial metal skeletons in a cavernous room, a scene vaguely reminiscent of a rave club [or Minority Report]. In fact, this is one of the most sensitive installations for processing, exploiting and disseminating a tsunami of information from a global network of flying sensors.

The pressures on humans will only increase as the military moves from the limited "soda straw" views of sensors to new "Gorgon Stare" technology that can capture live video of an entire city--but require 2,000 analysts to process the data feeds from a single drone, compared with 19 analysts per drone today.

So, suppose an administration much like Obama's but with better technology wants to create a system of total control, much like the Stasi's. Suppose that administration -- or, more to the point, its elite owners -- has come to believe that events like Tahrir Square, or Syntagma Square, or Plaza del Sol are bad for business, and would just as soon they didn't happen. And suppose the administration notices that such manifestations tend to happen in cities, where the population is concentrated, people exchange ideas in coffee shops, the agora, the churches, the union halls, and so forth. And suppose, moreover, that the elite which owns the administration lives in or near cities -- like Manhattan, or the Gold Coast, or even McClean -- and yet would rather not deal with the ... Well, let's just go ahead and say the subhumans, eh? Don't you think everybody who matters would just love to put cities on lockdown with surveillance drones? As long as they could still get to their private planes? So much more effective than cameras, since while cameras are static, drones can be... kinetic.

Do the math. A list of the top 50 cities by population takes us all the way down to Minneapolis, MN. So, at rollout, you'd need 50 * 2,000 analysts (assuming no automation and a desire to avoid false positives). That's 100,000 people, plus some managers and political appointees. Seems like a lot, except (1) "Jobs!!!" and (2) TSA has a head count of 60,000 now, so 100,000 really isn't very much. Heck, the Stasi had 68,000, for a country the size of Nevada.

Anyhow, think how much safer we'll all feel.

NOTE 1 This story has a really odd provenance. MsExpat spotted it in the printed version of the Asian International Herald Tribune, a New York Times property. However, the story doesn't appear on the Times web site, although the lead did appear on the Times feed. Now see this slideshow, from which the bylines have been removed, and which includes some of the more "Gee Whiz!" material, and not much else. The full story does not appear on a Times website in Google, Yahoo, or Bing, at least from a US location, with any keyword combination I tried. MsExpat finally ran a copy down in the IHT's PDF version, and typed in the complete story, which I have extracted here. Just odd. A ground-breaking story with two reporters -- one, Bumiller, being a name brand -- a big travel budget, and a lot of on-the-record quotes doesn't exactly get spiked, but .... And I've also got this nagging feeling I've seen the story before, somewhere, and not in the slideshow, but search turns up nothing. Readers?

NOTE Oh, for those who don't get the headline, listen this:

What dead eyes Obama has, to be sure.

UPDATE I went out today [Sunday] and specifically dropped six (6) hard-earned bucks on a printed Sunday Times to make sure this story wasn't there. And it wasn't! But now it's on the Times website. Something was weird about the way this story made it into print, for sure. Shades of James Risen.

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MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

What also struck me is that if we're having flubs, accidents and civilian killings with the big Predator drones that only need 19 analysts per drone, how many "accidents" will we have when the sky is buzzing with drones that need 2,000 analysts per?

It's rather like the proliferation of nuclear power technology--the danger is not as much in the hardware as it is in the (human, bureaucratic) system that operates the hardware.

I don't think it is being foily at all to connect the dots between the "insect like drones" and the "inconvenient" popular demonstrations erupting all over the world.

The next "innovation" will be when the corporations who are the developers of this surveillance technology start selling it to the Chinese.

Eureka Springs's picture
Submitted by Eureka Springs on

the enemy is within. From no jobs plan to no single payer, patriot acts, for profit prisons and wars, homeland security, drug wars... it's so plain to see.

Great footwork you two... thanks so much. I'll buzz it so we can see if the left gives a hoot. The buzzers sure pigeonholed last weeks post on Obama FDR with gusto.

jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

There was a real story going around that's why a few generals have been let go lately and people at the P service members are being asked if they would fire on Amerikans. Then with the us armed forces running drill around cities just make you wonder doesn't it. Alex might not be wrong this one like he so many other times he is.

I'm not sure we should get to excited because we all know here in Amerika the govt has are best interest in mind, like mind control that is;)

Submitted by lambert on

"people at the P service members are being asked if they would fire on Amerikans"

Got a link on that?

Submitted by jawbone on

iirc) have been apearing with some regularity. This one at Fulfilled Prophecy is from August of 2005. There were called MAVs -- Micro Air Vehicles.

So, no, this is not new -- what appears to be new may be the increasing sophistication of their development? Readiness?

I vaguely recall commenting about them as part of the Big Brother surveillance state coming to a window near you....

So, the question is why this report now? And why did it wend its way so circuitously onto the NYTimes front page?

Submitted by lambert on

As others have pointed out, there have been bits of it around for ages. So why front page it on the Sunday Times? I keep coming back to that buried lead....

Oh, and not just me. MsExPat thought exactly the same thing.