The Peripheral

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, explores two futures:

The second future takes place in a 22nd-century post-singularity London, where a recently disgraced publicist navigates a surveillance state ruled by a kleptocracy. Today, the singularity is a theoretical point at which artificial intelligence becomes smarter than us and lies outside our control. According to singularity devotees, we cannot predict what happens at this juncture, but some ideas include mankind uploading our consciousness into computers or causing our own end by runaway nanotechnology. Gibson’s vision of the singularity is a “nerd rapture,” and it’s different and more human than any other singularity depiction I’ve encountered.

“I’ve been making fun of the singularity since I first encountered the idea,” he says. “What you get in The Peripheral is a really fucked-up singularity. It’s like a half-assed singularity coupled with that kind of neoreactionary, dark enlightenment shit. It’s the singularity as experienced by Joseph Heller. We’re people, and we fuck up. We do a singularity, we’re going to fuck it up.”

Indeed, in the novel, we do. An apocalypse Gibson refers to only as “the Jackpot” devastates Earth’s population, and Gibson’s “half-assed singularity” comes along in time to save only the moneyed elite. Gibson’s vision is a multicausal apocalypse, one that refutes the idea of the single-trigger apocalypses (an epidemic, a nuclear holocaust, an asteroid) that have preoccupied man since before the Bible. I asked him why the people with money survived. His response: “Why wouldn’t they?

In The Peripheral, while those with money survive “the Jackpot,” they have no more control over that technology than the poor do. They merely have more access to it.

I’m more than a little curious about his use of neoreactionary and dark enlightenment.

Looney Balloons

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Google’s far-fetched Project Loon seems to be working:

[A]s you read this, some 75 Google balloons are airborne, hovering somewhere over the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere, automatically adjusting their altitudes according to complex algorithms in order to catch wind currents that will keep them on course. By next year, Google believes it will be able to create a continuous, 50-mile-wide ring of Internet service around the globe. And by 2016, Project Loon director Mike Cassidy anticipates the first customers in rural South America, Southern Africa, or Oceania will be able to sign up for cellular LTE service provided by Google balloons. (Google is starting in the far Southern Hemisphere, which is relatively sparsely populated, before expanding elsewhere.)

It took a while to get going though:

On the first try, the balloon burst not long after liftoff, the nylon fabric overmatched by the 100,000 pounds of pressure within. The same happened on the second try, and the third—and the next 50 after that. The team kept tweaking the fabric and reinforcing it with more Kevlar-like ropes, but the balloons kept bursting until they got the length of the ropes exactly right. (They had to be shorter than the fabric to relieve the pressure, but not too much shorter.)

“We knew it was hard to make a super-pressure balloon,” Cassidy recalls. “We didn’t think it would take us 61 attempts until we succeeded.”

Even then, the success was short-lived. Instead of bursting, the balloon slowly leaked helium, bringing it down after just a day or two in flight. “Even a millimeter-sized hole will bring a balloon like this down in a couple days,” Cassidy says. “And that’s what happened to the next 40 or 50 balloons we made.”

Google’s engineers spent weeks trying to isolate the problem. They took balloons out of their boxes and inflated them in a cavernous hangar at Moffett Field in Mountain View, shined polarized light through them, and even sniffed for helium leaks using a mass spectrometer. Each balloon that went down was subjected to a “failure analysis” that included poring over meticulous records of who had assembled it, where, and using what equipment, and how it had been transported.

Eventually they pinned the leaks on two sets of problems. One was that the balloons had to be folded several times over to be transported, and some developed tiny tears at the corners where they’d been folded repeatedly. Google set to work finding ways to fold and roll the balloons that would distribute the stress more evenly across the fabric.

The second problem was that some balloons were ripping slightly when workers stepped on the fabric with their socks. The solution to that problem? “Fluffier socks,” says Cassidy. “Seriously, that made a difference. Softer socks meant fewer leaks.”

As the team cut down on the leaks, the balloons started lasting longer: four days, then six, then several weeks at a time. As of November, Cassidy says, two out of every three balloons remain in the sky for at least 100 days.

But keeping the balloons airborne is only the first of the monumental problems that the project presented. Keeping them on course may be even harder.

Why do this again?

Providing Internet via a fleet of algorithmically directed balloons might sound prohibitively expensive, but Cassidy says it’s actually an order of magnitude cheaper than setting up and maintaining cell towers, making it more economically viable in remote regions.

A New Laser Age

Monday, December 15th, 2014

The nature of directed energy weapons — lasers — favors surface troops, Jonathan Jeckell explains:

The U.S. and Israel have had increasing success lately testing lasers to intercept missiles and artillery. We could be entering a new laser age — with huge implications for American military power.

But it could be a mostly defensive, ground-based laser age, to begin with. Aerial energy weapons need a lot more work and could lag far behind.

In December, the Army shot down 90 mortar rounds and several drones using a truck-mounted laser. The Navy is adding an experimental laser gun to its Persian Gulf base ship Ponce. The Army and Navy weapons work today. The Air Force, by contrast, is planning to install an energy weapon on jet fighters around the year 2030.


Unlike missile defenses using projectiles — which must fight against gravity and require storage space and sophisticated manufacturing — lasers require only the requisite energy and the ability to shed excess heat.

Lasers also move at the speed of light, meaning the target would have no warning or opportunity to maneuver before it strikes. Suddenly the energetics that have favored air power are reversed.

Historically the high ground lent decisive advantages in combat because gravity works in your favor. Anti-aircraft shells and missiles flying up to intercept aircraft must struggle against gravity to approach their target. They lose energy, and the ability to maneuver, as they ascend.

Meanwhile, air-launched ordnance uses gravity to its advantage, increasing its range so it can often strike first and from a standoff distance. This has been a major factor in helping aircraft fend off increasingly sophisticated air-defense systems.

Lasers will level that field, as surface forces will have effective lasers first. Placing energy weapons on planes runs up against serious constraints on the weight and space needed for shedding waste heat and providing energy to the laser. The Air Force Airborne Laser project, for example, used up nearly all the interior space in a 747 for a laser capable of shooting down just a handful of ballistic missiles.

Better lasers might eventually solve these aerial problems with more compact cooling and improved energy generation — but these advancements will also enhance ground-based systems that don’t suffer gravity’s constraints. With energy weapons, the conditions are set for air defense to leap ahead of air attack.

Solar Stickers

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Xiaolin Zheng’s research team at Stanford is reimagining solar panels:

Because conventional thin-film solar cells are manufactured on glass or silicon wafers, they are rigid, heavy, and quite limited in how and where they can be used. Plastic or paper would be far more flexible, but it cannot withstand the high temperatures and chemicals required for fabrication.

“Our new technique lets us treat the solar cells like a pizza,” explains Zheng. “When you bake pizza, you use a metal pan that can tolerate high temperatures. But when it’s time to distribute the pizza economically, it’s placed in a paper box.”

Working with her students, Zheng set out to fabricate solar cells on a silicone or glass surface as usual, but she inserted a metallic layer between the cell and the surface. After some trial and error, the team was finally able to peel away the metallic layer from the surface after soaking the whole structure in water for just a few seconds.

The result was an active solar cell that is only a couple of microns thick—about one-tenth the thickness of plastic wrap, Zheng says. “It’s extremely flexible, so it can be attached to any surface—the back of a mobile phone, a skylight, a wall, a curved column.”

The skinny, bendable cells can produce the same amount of electricity as rigid ones, and they offer cost benefits as well, according to Zheng. “The silicon wafers come through the process clean and shiny,” she says. “So just like a pizza pan, they can be used again and again, which translates to savings.” And because the solar stickers are lighter than conventional panels, they will be easier and less expensive to install.

The stickers might be able to reduce manufacturing costs too, Zheng says. In traditional solar-cell production, the foundation materials account for 25 percent of the cost. The new method will enable that base layer to be removed or replaced with a cheaper material. For example, the windows of a building provide a ready-made base layer, so all that’s needed is the solar cell itself. A cell that could simply be peeled and applied enables that economical shortcut.

World’s Simplest Electric Train

Friday, December 5th, 2014

The world’s simplest electric train is made from magnets, a battery, and coiled copper wire:

Nordenfelt Gun

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

The multi-barrel Nordenfelt gun was hopelessly behind the times, but the firm did introduce one innovation far ahead of its time:

The Nordenfelt multibarrel guns as a whole were clumsy contraptions when compared with American-designed weapons of this era. However, the firm did one thing that justified its existence by introducing the rifle caliber armor-piercing bullet years ahead of its time. In fact, it was so revolutionary that it was rediscovered nearly 40 years later. Nordenfelt left no doubt that he had the modern-day AP round in mind when he described his projectile as follows: “The bullet of this kind of cartridge is formed of hardening cast steel with a sharp pointed head. Over this projectile, for the purpose of a gas check and for rotating the bullet, is placed an envelope of brass, which is choked into a cannelure around its base. Also on the base are several radial cuts, into which the envelope is set on firing. In place of a brass envelope a coating of copper may be deposited on the projectile by the electro-galvanic process, and thus any possibility of altered flight due to the stripping of the brass envelope is rendered impossible.”

This high-velocity armor-piercing projectile that had a speed in excess of 2,000 feet a second and penetrated 2 inches of solid iron plate at 300 yards was a distinct contribution to the field of ordnance.

A Whiff of Grapeshot

Monday, December 1st, 2014

As a young Brigadier General, Napoleon once dispersed a mob of Royalists with “a whiff of grapeshot” — although it’s not quite clear how to translate that very Anglo-Saxon phrase back into French. Une bouffée de mitraille?

The phrase likely sounds so Anglo-Saxon because it was coined by Scottish essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, in The French Revolution: A History.

Mitraille is the French word for grapeshot, and it is also the root of the French word for machine gun, mitrailleuse, because the original French proto-machine gun was a multi-barrel affair meant to deliver a volley of rifle rounds, as a new and improved form of grapeshot, and the term stuck, even as true machine guns arrived on the scene.

Mitrailleuse Reffye

To a modern audience, it’s always surprising that the European armies going into the Great War didn’t see the potential of the machine gun, but there’s a reason for that. The English hadn’t faced a civilized army with their Gatling guns, and the French experience with the mitrailleuse had been a failure, when they deployed it — as a kind of artillery — against the Prussians in 1870, where it was no match for actual artillery — Krupp guns.

Testing the Gatling Gun

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

The Gatling Gun underwent strenuous testing around the world:

The development of this type of weapon divided military men into two schools of thought. One believed that it should be an artillery support; the other considered it a special objectives gun for bridges or street defense. Neither recognized its true mission as an infantry weapon.

Many of the trials included its being fired in competition with howitzers and cannon. In each instance the Gatling placed more bullets in the target than did the artillery if allowed to fire as many bullets as the number of grapeshot fired. On the basis of these results, the gun was officially adopted by the United States Army on 24 August 1866.


Some of the European governments, in order to prove certain tactical points, subjected the weapons to most unusual competitive events. For instance, in Carlsbad, Baden, in 1869 there were pitted against the rifle-caliber Gatling, 100 picked infantry soldiers, armed with the celebrated needle gun and trained to fire by volley. The machine gun was to fire the same amount of ammunition as the 100 riflemen at a distance of 800 meters. The results showed that the Gatling put 88 percent of its bullets into the target, while the soldiers succeeded in scoring only 27 percent hits. Doubtless the difference would have been even greater had the firing taken place during the heat and smoke of battle.


The endurance of the Gatling gun seems almost phenomenal when judged by modern standards. On 23, 24, and 25 October 1873, at Fort Madison near Annapolis, Md., 100,000 rounds of center-fire caliber .50 ammunition were fired from one gun to test not only the durability of the 1865 model gun, but also the quality of the cartridges. Lt. Comdr. J. D. Marbin supervised these trials under the auspices of Commodore William Nicholson Jeffers, Chief of the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. Excerpts of the official report are given below:

October 23, 10:33 a. m., commenced firing in the presence of Chief of Bureau of Ordnance and others. Ten drums, each holding 400 cartridges (making 4,000), were fired rapidly, occupying in actual time of firing ten minutes and forty-eight seconds. The firing was then discontinued to witness experimental firing of the 15-inch Navy rifle. The firing of the Gatling gun was resumed in the afternoon, when some 28,000 cartridges were fired. Commenced firing at 8:50 a. m., October 24, the gun having been cleaned.

One hundred and fifty-nine drums, of 400 cartridges each, making a total of 63,600 cartridges, were fired without stopping to wipe out or clean the barrels. At the close of the firing, which extended over a period of five hours and fifty-seven minutes, although the actual time of firing was less than four hours, the barrels were not foul to any extent; in proof of which a very good target was made at 300 yards range before cleaning the barrels. On the 25th day of October the remainder of the 100,000 cartridges were fired. The working of the gun, throughout this severe trial was eminently satisfactory, no derangements of any importance whatever occurring.

Industrial By-Products of the Gun Trade

Friday, November 28th, 2014

In order to speed up and to economize on weapon production, gun-makers conceived and perfected machine tools, which proved useful in other industries:

In the history of weapon progress, the advent of the machine age rivals the discovery of gunpowder. Power tools accomplished the impossible with the guns of the day, and opened means for the progressive inventor to write an unequaled chapter of development.

The influence of machine tools in modern life is little appreciated by the average person. The New York Museum of Science and Industry has on its wall a panel stating that the origin of machine tools has made possible all generated light, heat, and power; all modern transportation by rail, water, and air; all forms of electric communication; and has likewise caused to be produced all the machinery used in agriculture, textiles, printing, paper making, and all the instruments used in every science. “Everything we use at work, at home, at play, is either a child or a grandchild of a machine tool.” But the Adam and Eve of the machine tool, and its application to mass production, were the early Connecticut and Massachusetts gunsmiths.

Good mechanics have been found in every nation, yet for some reason, most of the important machine tools used throughout the world originated in only two places: Great Britain and New England. The English craftsmen, traditionally lovers of the hand-finished product, benefited little from this fact. They have furnished no serious competition in this field since the 1850′s when undisputed leadership shifted to New England. This section of the United States became, practically, a manufacturing arsenal. Its mechanics were recognized as the world’s best. In fact, some of their contributions to the power tool industry have affected the course of history more through industrial progress than their fine weapons did on the battlefield.

Among the little-known inventions of these men can be found the first milling machine with a power feed which was devised by the original Eli Whitney; it was the direct predecessor of what is known today as the power miller. Christopher M. Spencer, who was noted for his repeating rifles, patented a great improvement on the drop hammer, and perfected a cam control, or “brain wheel,” whereby the operation of lathes was made automatic. This invention was one of the few for which the original drawing was so perfectly devised that it is still used today. Another gunsmith, Henry Stone, developed the turret principle for lathes. The high speed automatic lathe of today is a combination of the work of Spencer and Stone. The two men originated many improvements which extend from farm machinery to silk winding machines, but their first success was in weapon design.

Francis A. Pratt was one of the best designers of machine tools. After founding the Pratt & Whitney Co. for manufacturing guns, he found other products so profitable that, today, few people know of the influence of firearms on this outstanding manufacturing concern.

Asa Cook, a brother-in-law of Pratt, and a former Colt mechanic, was the inventor and manufacturer of machines to make screws and bolts automatically. Eli J. Manville, a former Pratt & Whitney engineer, established with his five sons at Waterbury, Conn., a plant which has been conspicuous in the design of presses, bolt headers, and thread rollers for the brass industry.

The arms plants proved training schools for inventors. Guns were made as long as profitable, but with changing times these versatile men began to make things entirely unrelated to firearms. Many became so successful in other manufacturing ventures that today it is often hard to associate a large telescope company or a successful sewing machine plant with its original founder, a master craftsman, working patiently on the development of a new firearm. Yet the fact still remains that American domination of manufacturing “know how” came largely from the honest effort of gun producers just before the Civil War to compete with each other in providing the world’s finest weapons.

It did not take long for American gun makers to carry the gospel of machine tool performance across the seven seas. As early as 1851, a Vermont firm showed at a London fair guns with interchangeable components manufactured by mass production methods. The British government was so impressed that it ordered the making of 20,000 Enfield rifles in American factories by this method. Three years later Great Britain ordered from the company that made these weapons 157 gun milling machines, which were the first automatic tools to be used in Europe. Among them was the eccentric lathe invented by Thomas Blanchard of the Springfield Armory. This device allowed wooden gun stocks to be machine carved with great rapidity in lieu of the laborious hand method formerly employed. The machine turned out irregular (eccentric) forms, from patterns, with automatic speed and precision; and has undergone practically no change in design since it was invented by Blanchard. Like innumerable other weapon-inspired tools, it contributed not only to American domination of the armament business but also helped to reshape the entire structure of the manufacturing world.

Author Photograph

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

While researching The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, Lewis Dartnell tried to get first-hand experience with many of the skills he discussed, like silver chemistry:

The mugshot included on the inside flap of the hardback book jacket was created using a primitive single-lens camera and this rudimentary silver chemistry, resurrecting techniques that date right back to the 1850s and the earliest years of photography.

Richard Jones helped enormously with this process. He’s the curator at the Fox Talbot Museum, in Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, where the first photographic negative was created in 1835.

There are a few interesting things to note with this rudimentary photograph. Firstly, the primitive silver chemistry we used is very slow to react to light — it is hugely less photosensitive than modern ISO 400 films — and so correspondingly long exposures are needed. The image here is a 16 second exposure (hardly a snapshot!) and the slightest, imperceptible movement during that time results in a horribly blurred photo. To help solve this, hidden conveniently out of sight behind me is a wrought-iron stand and skull brace for holding my head perfectly stationary.

Lewis Dartnell Silver Chemistry Author Portrait

Such long exposures also mean that it is exceedingly hard to smile naturally, and hold the expression perfectly still for a good fraction of a minute without it looking like a rigour mortis snarl. This goes a long way to explaining the ridiculously-stern look common in early Victorian portraits of gentlemen and ladies. Believe it or not, this photo here is the most relaxed and natural-looking one we captured in a whole day of trying.

Also, the simple photochemical system used here is more sensitive to ultraviolet light than visible, as UV rays deliver more energy to drive the silver conversion reactions. This means that these photographs aren’t quite recording the world as the human eye sees it. As you can see, primitive photos make the lips look unusually pale (because they reflect more UV) and the skin appears more textured and blotchy in the UV.

Civilian Demand for Firearm Improvements

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

The American frontier provided a huge civilian market for cutting-edge guns — but there was no market for certain kinds of cutting-edge guns:

The Colt revolver and similar weapons enjoyed the confidence of the public as it began to push westward and demanded the best in weapons that money could buy. All the New England gun makers were operating at peak capacity. The war with Mexico had come to a conclusion, Texas was being settled, and gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Colt’s name was a household byword, but fine weapons were also being produced by many others. Among them were the Wesson brothers, Oliver Winchester, Elihu Remington, Henry Deringer, James Cooper, Edmund Savage and Christian Sharps. Their factories began to attract the finest mechanical skill. They invited competition, feeling it presented a means of showing their ability, and prided themselves on being able to present a mechanical solution to any firearms problem brought to their attention.

The industry was built on strict competition to meet public demand. There was practically no encouragement from the government by military orders for improved weapons.

After 36 years of civilian use had proved the reliability of the percussion cap, the army finally gave up the time-honored flintlock, but seemed content to advance no further. Many predicted that even this modern step was too extreme and the army would rue the day it had discarded the flintlock. General Winfield Scott is credited with outfitting a regiment of his own with flintlocks, after the adoption of the percussion system was approved over his strenuous objection.

Fortunately, civilian demand made up for the lack of military orders for the various firearms improvements. The market was practically equal to the adult population; for each male citizen, physically able to do so, usually owned and often carried some form of firearm.

During this period, the military ordered little more than the conventional small arms. For this reason guns like the Ripley were of little or no interest to firearm factories. The military would not consider such guns, and the civilians had no use for them.

Had there been an incentive, and a ready market, no doubt the head engineers of the big companies would have produced a reliable manually operated machine gun at this time.

Caseless Ammo

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Caseless ammunition has been the small-arms ammunition of the future for decades now, but it was also the ammo of the future in the mid-1800s, before we settled on metallic cartridges:

Christian Sharps’ self-consuming cartridge made of linen was introduced in 1852. It was made at his Fairmount, Pennsylvania, gun factory. This was a definite improvement over the fragile paper-filled envelopes previously used. The linen could be held in shape and would stand more abuse than the paper cartridge. That cartridges, in one form or another, were beginning to be used throughout the service is verified by a record showing the purchase of 393,304 paper cartridges by the United States Army in 1851.

Col. Samuel Colt collaborated with the Ely brothers of England in making further improvements on his patented self-consuming cartridge. This cartridge was made of a stiffer and more durable paper, and could be held to close manufacturing tolerances. The paper cartridge case was impregnated with a mixture of potassium nitrate. The explosion of the powder charge completely consumed the cartridge case. The percussion cap had sufficient force to rupture the paper and drive fire through to the powder charge.

Smith and Wesson of Springfield, Mass., in 1857 manufactured the first really successful rim-fire version of a metallic cartridge, self-contained and reasonably waterproof. This ammunition, with added improvements, to the present day is still produced by various American companies.

On 22 January 1856, the unusual method of housing both detonator and propelling charge in the base of a bullet was introduced and patented. The Winchester Arms Co. made a repeating weapon called the “Volcanic” using this odd principle. As the propelling ingredients were all contained in the bullet itself, there was naturally no problem of case ejection. This radical design was to compete with the impregnated self-consuming paper cartridge cases.

The volcanic bullet had a small charge of finely granulated powder, and a larger portion of fulminate of mercury mixture housed in a thin metal cup, all of which was protected from the elements by a thin cork insert. When the ball was fed into the arm, a spring-loaded firing pin was cammed forward and forced through the cork until it was brought to bear on the primer cup. A smart blow from the hammer ignited the detonating mixture, forcing the flame through the openings provided, and exploded the powder in the upper conical cavity of the bullet.

During the middle of the nineteenth century, the introduction of various methods of producing cartridge cases, the development of the conical bullet, and the idea of integrating the detonating cap in the cartridge were undoubtedly responsible for the rapid and radical designs of the innumerable weapons constructed to fire them.

Even skin cartridge cases were used successfully. They not only furnished a waterproof container, but also were easily made into the self-consuming case that seemed to be a military “must” of the day. To produce this cartridge case, pig’s intestines were used. After cleaning and while still wet, they were stretched over forms of the required cartridge dimensions. When dried, the powder and bullet were put in place. The skin case was then treated with a compound consisting of “eighteen parts by weight of nitrate of potassium, pure, and seventeen parts of sulphuric acid — pure, after which it was washed to free it from the soluble salts and excess of acids, and then dried by blotting… in order to render it perfectly waterproof, a light coat of shellac varnish was applied.”

It is easy to see how multifiring weapon development went hand in hand with cartridge design. As each different type of cartridge was introduced, inventors followed closely with a mechanical firing system, designed to use the new idea. No matter how radical a departure any new cartridge may have been from the heretofore accepted methods, there was a gun with an equally original design to shoot it.

The greatest problem in ammunition development was finally solved by George W. Morse’s invention in 1858 — the first true attempt at a metallic cartridge with a center fire primer and an inside anvil. It marked the most important step in the whole history of cartridge design. All other methods, experiments, and alleged improvements were but attempts to do what Morse successfully accomplished.

Smart Phones and Child Injuries

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

From 2005 to 2012, injuries to children under fi ve increased by 10%, and a new study suggests why:

Using the expansion of ATT’s 3G network, I find that smartphone adoption has a causal impact on child injuries. This eff ect is strongest amongst children ages 0-5, but not children ages 6-10, and in activities where parental supervision matters. I put this forward as indirect evidence that this increase is due to parents being distracted while supervising.


Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

The Naval Research Lab has developed mission planning software for snipers:

By asking the questions, what can I see, and from where can I be seen, the tool graphically indicates areas visible to observers at known positions in a 3-dimensional scene, as well as positions from which these observers can be seen.

The software uses digital 3-dimensional terrain data to determine and display these locations. Additional features include custom range rings/grids, multiple viewpoints, limited field-of-view angles, threat coverage and protectee scenarios. This utility can also be used for geospatial intelligence and determining viewsheds (an area of land, water, or other environmental element that is visible to the human eye from a fixed vantage point) in architectural design.


The distinguishing feature of these software tools from currently available commercial line-of-sight (LOS) software applications is the true 3-dimensional line-of-sight capability inside buildings, through windows, doors, tunnels, towers, power lines, vehicles, ships, aircraft, etc. All surfaces are color-coded, including interiors, under bridges and overhangs, vertical surfaces, etc.

War at a Very Intimate Level

Monday, November 10th, 2014

Flying a remotely piloted aircraft presents you with war at a very intimate level:

Because of the length of time that you’re over any certain area you’re able to engage in lengthy communications with individuals on the ground. You build relationships. Things are a little more personal in an RPA than in an aircraft that’s up for just a few hours. When you’re talking to that twenty year old with the rifle for twenty-plus hours at a time, maybe for weeks, you build a relationship. And with that, there’s an emotional attachment to those individuals.

You see them on a screen. That can only happen because of the amount of time you’re on station. I have a buddy who was actually able to make contact with his son’s friend over in the AOR [area of responsibility]. If you don’t think that’s going to make you focus, then I don’t know what will.


This is a strange dynamic in RPA operations. I think it makes people more focused on the mission. Does it cause you to be more emotionally invested? Absolutely. That’s the human aspect of it. That is the man-in-the-loop aspect of it. In some ways drone use is more human from the pilot’s perspective, which is kind of ironic.

Flying an RPA, you start to understand people in other countries based on their day-to-day patterns of life. A person wakes up, they do this, they greet their friends this way, etc. You become immersed in their life. You feel like you’re a part of what they’re doing every single day. So, even if you’re not emotionally engaged with those individuals, you become a little bit attached. I’ve learned about Afghan culture this way. You see their interactions. You’re studying them. You see everything.

In a traditional manned aircraft you drop ordinance and leave. You know that there was a big bang, but that’s it. With an RPA, you see these individuals and their interactions with people prior to an engagement and after the engagement. We see the aftermath. We see what happens next. That more than anything draws an emotional response.

They are human beings, right? That is the bottom line, so it affects you to watch the impact of a kinetic strike. You have to provide the battle damage assessment. We do that quite often and it can take a long time. You might even watch the burial and see the ceremony. We’re not disconnected from what’s happening. We’re not playing videogames. With RPAs, you grasp your enormous level of responsibility. You witness it all.

Targeting with RPAs is more intimate. It is war at a very intimate level.