The number of incoming drones made a bigger difference to the outcome

Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingBack in 2012, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), a study out of the Naval Postgraduate School predicted what would happen if a Destroyer (DDG) came under attack from simple drones, or “flying IEDs”:

The destroyer is protected by a system called Aegis, named after the legendary shield of Athena. Aegis is a sophisticated arrangement that coordinates various radars, guns, and missile launchers into a tightly integrated defense grid. It can detect, identify, track, and intercept incoming aircraft, missiles, and other threats in seconds, with minimal oversight from its human operators.


After running a computer simulation five hundred times, the researchers concluded that with eight drones approaching simultaneously, four could be expected to get through and hit the destroyer.


Worse, if the attacking drones targeted vulnerable points like radar or missile launchers, they might leave the destroyer defenseless so that it could be sunk by larger weapons.

The study went on to look at various ways of improving the defenses, by having better radar or greater accuracy or longer range weapons. These improvements reduced the number of hits, but only up to a point. Even with all the improvements in place, the average number of hits was reduced from four to 1.3.

The researchers also found that the number of incoming drones made a bigger difference to the outcome. Even the baseline destroyer with no improvements could beat off an attack by five drones; ten would tend to overwhelm even the best defenses and score at least one hit.

A 2014 RAND study concluded that “two or three smaller RPAs [Remotely Piloted Aircraft, drones] with less-capable sensor packages were often able to equal or exceed the performance of the larger RPAs employed singly.”

The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all

Tuesday, April 16th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen The use of drones in warfare has its origins in World War II, Annie Jacobsen reminds us (in Area 51):

Joseph Kennedy Jr., President Kennedy’s older brother, died in a secret U.S. Navy drone operation against the Germans. The covert mission, dubbed Operation Aphrodite, targeted a highly fortified Nazi missile site inside Germany. The plan was for the older Kennedy to pilot a modified B-24 bomber from England and over the English Channel while his crew armed 22,000 pounds of explosives piled high in the cargo hold. Once the explosives were wired, the crew and pilot needed to quickly bail out. Flying not far away, a mother ship would begin remotely controlling the unmanned aircraft as soon as the crew bailed out. Inside the bomber’s nose cone were two cameras that would help guide the drone into its Nazi target.

The explosive being used was called Torpex, a relatively new and extremely volatile chemical compound. Just moments before Joseph Kennedy Jr. and his crew bailed out, the Torpex caught fire, and the aircraft exploded midair, killing everyone on board. The Navy ended its drone program, but the idea of a pilotless aircraft caught the eye of general of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold. On Victory over Japan Day, General Arnold made a bold assertion. “The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all,” he said. He was off by four wars, but otherwise he was right.

David Hambling covered the same incident in Swarm Troopers.

Well before World War 2, Jacobsen notes, a few visionaries saw the potential of drones:

Nikola Tesla mastered wireless communication in 1893, years before any of his fellow scientists were even considering such a thing. At the Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden in 1898, Tesla gave a demonstration in which he directed a four-foot-long steel boat using radio remote control. Audiences were flabbergasted. Tesla’s pilotless boat seemed to many to be more a magic act than the scientific breakthrough it was. Ever a visionary, Tesla also foresaw a military application for his invention. “I called an official in Washington with a view of offering him the information to the government and he burst out laughing upon telling him what I had accomplished,” Tesla wrote. This made unfortunate sense—the military was still using horses for transport at the time. Tesla’s friend writer Mark Twain also envisioned a military future in remote control and offered to act as Tesla’s agent in peddling the “destructive terror which you have been inventing.” Twain suggested the Germans might be good clients, considering that, at the time, they were the most scientifically advanced country in the world. In the end, no government bought Tesla’s invention or paid for his patents. The great inventor died penniless in a New York hotel room in 1943, and by then, the Germans had developed remote control on their own and were wreaking havoc on ground forces across Europe. The Germans’ first war robot was a remote-controlled minitank called Goliath, and it was about the size of a bobsled. Goliath carried 132 pounds of explosives, which the Nazis drove into enemy bunkers and tanks using remote control. Eight thousand Goliaths were built and used in battle by the Germans, mostly on the Eastern Front, where Russian soldiers outnumbered German soldiers nearly three to one. With no soldiers to spare, the Germans needed to keep the ones they had out of harm’s way.

In America, the Army Air Forces developed its first official drone wing after the war, for use during Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in 1946. There, drones were sent through the mushroom cloud, their operators flying them by remote control from an airborne mother ship called Marmalade flying nearby. To collect radioactive samples, the drones had been equipped with air-collection bags and boxlike filter-paper holders. Controlling the drones in such conditions was difficult. Inside the mushroom cloud, one drone, code-named Fox, was blasted “sixty feet higher than its flight path,” according to declassified memos about the drone wing’s performance there. Fox’s “bomb doors warped, all the cushions inside the aircraft burst and its inspection plates and escape hatch blew off.” Remarkably, the drone pilot maintained control from several miles away. Had he witnessed such a thing, Nikola Tesla might have smiled.

During the second set of atomic tests, called Operation Sandstone, in April of 1948, the drones were again used in a job deemed too dangerous for airmen. During an eighteen-kiloton atomic blast called Zebra, however, a manned aircraft accidentally flew through a mushroom cloud, and after this, the Air Force made the decision that because the pilot and crew inside the aircraft had “suffered no ill effects,” pilots should be flying atomic-sampling missions, not drones.

Again, Hambling goes over some of the same history.

Life detection radar works on the Doppler principle and only detects movement

Wednesday, April 10th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingMost forms of radar are blocked by walls and other solid objects, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), but there are also through-the-wall “life detection” radars:

These use ultra-wideband radio waves, which can go through solid walls as easily as air. Life detection radar works on the Doppler principle and only detects movement, in particular the movements associated with human life — breathing and heartbeats. First responders use portable units in rescue operations to detect if there are people alive in a building. It is imprecise but will give the number and approximate location of any people inside. The technology is also used by the military and police.

Dull, dirty, and dangerous

Tuesday, April 9th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenThe development of drones become a national security priority, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), when Taiwanese “Black Cat” U-2 pilots got shot down over “Red” China:

Drones could accomplish what the U-2 could in terms of bringing home photographic intelligence, but a drone could do it without getting pilots captured or killed. Ideally, drones could perform missions that fell into three distinct categories: dull, dirty, and dangerous. Dull meant long flights during which pilots faced fatigue flying to remote areas of the globe. Dirty included situations where nuclear weapons or biological weapons might be involved. Dangerous meant missions over denied territories such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China, where shoot-downs were a political risk. Lockheed secured a contract to develop such an unmanned vehicle in late 1962. After Yeh Changti’s shoot-down, the program got a big boost. Flight-testing of the drone code-named Tagboard would take place at Area 51 and, ironically, getting the Lockheed drone to fly properly was among the first duties assigned to Colonel Slater after he left Taoyuan and was given a new assignment at Area 51.

“Lockheed’s D-21 wasn’t just any old drone, it was the world’s first Mach 3 stealth drone,” says Lockheed physicist Ed Lovick, who worked on the program. “The idea of this drone was a radical one because it would fly at least as fast, if not faster, than the A-12. It had a ram jet engine, which meant it was powered by forced air. The drone could only be launched off an aircraft that was already moving faster than the speed of sound.” The A-12 mother ship was designated M-21, M as in mother, and was modified to include a second seat for the drone launch operator, a flight engineer. The D-21 was the name for the drone, the D standing for daughter. But launching one aircraft from the back of another aircraft at speeds of more than 2,300 mph had its own set of challenges, beginning with how not to have the two aircraft crash into each other during launch. The recovery process of the drone also needed to be fine-tuned. Lovick explains, “The drone, designed to overfly China, would travel on its own flight path taking reconnaissance photographs and then head back out to sea.” The idea was to have the drone drop its photo package, which included the camera, the film, and the radio sensors, by parachute so it could be retrieved by a second aircraft nearby. Once the pallet was secure, the drone would crash into the sea and sink to the ocean floor.

The first test encountered some problems:

Park hit Ignite, and the drone launched up and off the M-21. But during separation, the drone pitched down instead of up and instantly split the mother aircraft in half. Miraculously, the drone hit neither Park nor Torick, who were both trapped inside.

The crippled aircraft began to tumble through the sky, falling for nearly ten thousand feet. Somehow, both men managed to eject. Alive and now outside the crashing, burning airplane, both men were safely tethered to their parachutes. Remarkably, neither of the men was hit by the burning debris falling through the air. Both men made successful water landings. But, as Slater recalls, an unforeseen tragedy occurred. “Our rescue boat located Bill Park, who was fine. But by the time the boat got to Ray Torick, he was tied up in his lanyard and had drowned.”

Kelly Johnson was devastated. “He impulsively and emotionally decided to cancel the entire program and give back the development funding to the Air Force and the Agency,” Johnson’s deputy Ben Rich recalled in his 1994 memoir about the Lockheed Skunk Works. Rich asked Johnson why. “I will not risk any more test pilots or Blackbirds. I don’t have either to spare,” Johnson said. But the Air Force did not let the Mach 3 drone program go away so quickly. They created a new program to launch the drone from underneath a B-52 bomber, which was part of Strategic Air Command. President Johnson’s deputy secretary of defense, Cyrus Vance, told Kelly Johnson, “We need this program to work because our government will never again allow a Francis Gary Powers situation develop. All our overflights over denied territory will either be with satellites or drones.”

Three years later, in 1969, the D-21 drone finally made its first reconnaissance mission, over China, launched off a B-52. The drone flew into China and over the Lop Nur nuclear facility but had then somehow strayed off course into Soviet Siberia, run out of fuel, and crashed. The suggestion was that the drone’s guidance system had failed on the way home, and it was never seen or heard from again. At least, not for more than twenty years. In the early 1990s, a CIA officer showed up in Ben Rich’s office at Skunk Works with a mysterious present for him. “Ben, do you recognize this?” the man asked Rich as he handed him a hunk of titanium. “Sure I do,” Rich said. What Ben Rich was holding in his hand was a piece of composite material loaded with the radar-absorbing coating that Lovick and his team had first developed for Lockheed four decades before. Asked where he got it, the CIA officer explained that it had been a gift to the CIA from a KGB agent in Moscow. The agent had gotten it from a shepherd in Siberia, who’d found it in the Siberian tundra while herding his sheep. According to Rich, “The Russians mistakenly believed that this generation-old panel signified our current stealth technology. It was, in a way, a very nice tribute to our work on Tagboard.”

Kelly Johnson expected planes to be pilotless soon, when he wrote his memoir in 1985.

That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table

Monday, April 8th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk had jolted his team, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), right after the third failed flight in August 2008, with his deadline of getting a new rocket to Kwaj in six weeks:

That seemed like a Musk reality-distortion ploy. It had taken them twelve months between the first and second failed launches, and another seventeen months between the second and the third. But because the rocket did not need any fundamental design changes to correct the problems that caused the third failure, he calculated that a six-week deadline was doable and would energize his team. Also, given his rapid cash burn, he had no other choice.

SpaceX had components for that fourth rocket in its Los Angeles factory, but shipping it by sea to Kwaj would take four weeks. Tim Buzza, SpaceX’s launch director, told Musk that the only way to meet his deadline would be to charter a C-17 transport plane from the Air Force. “Well, then, just do it,” Musk replied. That’s when Buzza knew that Musk was willing to put all his chips on the table.

Twenty SpaceX employees rode with the rocket in the hold of the C-17, strapped into jump seats along the wall.


As they started to descend for refueling in Hawaii, there was a loud popping sound. And another. “We’re like looking at each other, like, this seems weird,” Harriss says. “And then we get another bang, and we saw the side of the rocket tank crumpling like a Coke can.” The rapid descent of the plane caused the pressure in the hold to increase, and the valves of the tank weren’t letting in air fast enough to allow the pressure inside to equalize.

There was a mad scramble as the engineers pulled out their pocket knives and began cutting away the shrink wrapping and trying to open the valves. Bülent Altan ran to the cockpit to try to stop the descent. “Here’s this big Turkish guy screaming at the Air Force pilots, who were the whitest Americans you have ever seen, to go back higher,” Harriss says. Astonishingly, they did not dump the rocket, or Altan, into the ocean. Instead, they agreed to ascend, but warned Altan that they had only thirty minutes of fuel. That meant in ten minutes they would need to start descending again. One of the engineers climbed inside the dark area between the rocket’s first and second stage, found the large pressurization line, and managed to twist it open, allowing air to rush into the rocket and equalize the pressure as the cargo plane again started to descend. The metal began popping back close to its original shape. But damage had been done. The exterior was dented, and one of the slosh baffles had been dislodged.

They called Musk in Los Angeles to tell him what happened and suggest that they bring the rocket back. “All of us standing there could just hear this pause,” says Harriss. “He is silent for a minute. Then he’s like, ‘No, you’re going to get it to Kwaj and fix it there.’” Harriss recalls that when they got to Kwaj their first reaction was, “Man, we’re doomed.” But after a day, the excitement kicked in. “We began telling ourselves, ‘We’re going to make this work.’”


After SpaceX’s first three failures, Musk had imposed more quality controls and risk-reduction procedures. “So we were now used to moving a little bit slower, with more documentation and checks,” Buzza says. He told Musk that if they followed all these new requirements, it would take five weeks to repair the rocket. If they jettisoned the requirements, they could do it in five days. Musk made the expected decision. “Okay,” he said. “Go as fast as you can.”

Musk’s decision to reverse his orders about quality controls taught Buzza two things: Musk could pivot when situations changed, and he was willing to take more risk that anyone. “This is something that we had to learn, which was that Elon would make a statement, but then time would go on and he would realize, ‘Oh no, actually we can do it this other way,’” Buzza says.


“It was unlike anything that the bloated companies in the aerospace industry could possibly have imagined,” Buzza says. “Sometimes his insane deadlines make sense.”

Terraform Industries converts electricity and air into synthetic natural gas

Saturday, April 6th, 2024

Terraform Industries converts electricity and air into synthetic natural gas via a system it calls the Terraformer:

Roughly the size of two shipping containers, the Terraformer consists of three subsystems: an electrolyzer, which converts solar power into hydrogen; a direct air capture system that captures CO2; and a chemical reactor that ingests both these inputs to produce pipeline-grade synthetic natural gas. The entire machine is optimized for a one-megawatt solar array.

Terraformer Diagram

The result is some fairly staggering cost reductions: Terraform says its system converts clean electricity into hydrogen at less than $2.50 per kilogram of H2 (currently, green hydrogen ranges from $5-11 per kilogram, Handmer estimated). The direct air capture system also filters CO2 for less than $250 per ton, which the company said in a statement, is a world record.

The startup says that improvements are already in the works to bring these prices down even further to ensure that its synthetic natural gas hits cost parity with conventionally sourced liquified natural gas. Much of that is dependent on the build-out of lots (and lots and lots) of cheap solar power, and the requisite production of thousands of Terraformers per year.

The enemy would only ever see expendable unmanned drones, loitering overhead permanently and holding everything underneath at risk of instant, laser-guided destruction

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingA laser illuminator, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), is not a laser designator:

The Raven’s most conspicuous battlefield shortcoming is the lack of a laser designator to highlight targets for Hellfire missiles and other guided munitions. It has a laser illuminator so it can “sparkle” targets, highlighting them for helicopter gunners or others to aim at, but it cannot “lase” a target to guide a missile to the aim point.


Laser designators are large because they have to put out a beam powerful enough for the laser seeker on an incoming missile to lock on to.


Back in the early 2000s, the US Army’s “portable” laser designator weighed almost forty pounds. The latest version is below ten pounds.


Previously laser guidance was confined to bigger and more expensive weapons like the Hellfire and 500-pound bombs. These days, there are small, cheaper laser seeker heads. Not only are there laser-guided artillery rounds and rockets a quarter the size of Hellfire, but even mortars can fire laser-guided bombs. The mortar might have a range of ten miles, but still needs someone within eyeball range of the target to light it up with the designator. If artillery spotters could do this with a small drone, they would be able to direct precise fire to anywhere.


Standard, unpowered laser-guided bombs can hit targets fifteen miles away if the plane dropping them has enough speed and height. More advanced gliding bombs, like the recent SDB II, have a range of up to forty miles and almost qualify as drones in their own right.

Air strikes can be carried out by simple “bomb trucks” like transport aircraft which have no need for high speed and maneuverability to avoid anti-aircraft defenses. The enemy would only ever see expendable unmanned drones, loitering overhead permanently and holding everything underneath at risk of instant, laser-guided destruction.

The Black Cats flew the deadliest missions in the U-2’s 55-year history

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenPreparing for “Oxcart” missions — that is, preparing to fly the CIA’s A-12, precursor to the Air Force’s SR-71, over enemy territory — involved punishing survival-training operations, Annie Jacobsen explains, in her book about Area 51:

“I crawled slowly through the brambles, bugs, and mud for about thirty minutes when, suddenly, I hit a trip wire and alarms went off. A glaring spotlight came on and ten Chinese men in uniform grabbed me and dragged me to one of their jeeps.” Collins was handcuffed, driven for a while, put into a second vehicle, and taken to so-called Chinese interrogation headquarters. There, he was stripped naked and searched. “A doctor proceeded to examine every orifice the human body has, from top to bottom—literally,” which, Collins believes, “was more to humiliate and break down my moral defenses than anything else.” Naked, he was led down a dimly lit hallway and pushed into a concrete cell furnished with a short, thin bed made of wood planks. “I had no blanket, I was naked, and it was very cold. They gave me a bucket to be used only when I was told.”

For days, Collins went through simulated torture that included sleep deprivation, humiliation, extreme temperature fluctuation, and hunger, all the while naked, cold, and under surveillance by his captors. “The cell had one thick wooded door with a hole for viewing. This opening had a metal window that would clank open and shut. A single bright light was on and when I was about to doze off, the light would flash off, which would immediately snap me out of sleep.” For food, he was given watery soup, two thin pepper pods, and two bits of mysterious meat. “I had no water to drink and I was always watched. I didn’t know day from night so there was no sense of time. The temperature varied from hot to very cold. The voice through the viewing window shouted demands.”

Soon Collins began to hallucinate. Now it was interrogation time. Naked, he was led to a small room by two armed guards. He stood in front of his Chinese interrogators, who sat behind a small desk. They grilled him about his name, rank, and why he was spying on China. The torturous routine continued for what Collins guessed was several more days. Then one day, instead of being taken to his interrogators, he was told that he was free to go.

Halfway across the world, the Chinese interrogators were real:

A CIA pilot named Yeh Changti had been flying a U-2 spy mission over a nuclear facility in China when he was shot down, captured by the Chinese Communist government, and tortured. Yeh Changti was a member of the Thirty-Fifth Black Cat U-2 Squadron, a group of Taiwanese Chinese Nationalist pilots (as opposed to the Communist Chinese, who inhabited the mainland) who worked covert espionage missions for the CIA. In the 1960s, the Black Cats flew what would prove to be the deadliest missions in the U-2’s fifty-five-year history, all of which were flown out of a secret base called Taoyuan on the island of Taiwan. When the CIA declassified most of the U-2 program, in 1998, “no information was released about Yeh Changti or the Black Cats,” says former Black Cat pilot Hsichun Hua. The program, in entirety, remains classified as of 2011.

Colonel Hugh “Slip” Slater, the man who would later become the commander of Area 51, remembers Yeh Changti before he got shot down. “His code name was Terry Lee and he and I played tennis on the base at Taoyuan all the time. He was a great guy and an amazing acrobat, which helped him on the court. Sometimes we drank scotch while we played. Both the sport and the scotch helped morale.” Slater says that the reason morale was low was that “the U-2 had become so vulnerable to the SA-2 missiles that nobody wanted to fly.” One Black Cat pilot had already been shot down. But that didn’t stop the dangerous missions from going forward for the CIA.

Unlike what had happened with the Gary Powers shoot-down, the American press remained in the dark about these missions. For the CIA, getting hard intelligence on China’s nuclear facilities was a top national security priority. On the day Yeh Changti was shot down, he was returning home from a nine-hour mission over the mainland when a surface-to-air missile guidance system locked on to his U-2. Colonel Slater was on the radio with Yeh Changti when it happened. “I was talking to him when I heard him say, ‘System 12 on!’ We never heard another word.” The missile hit Yeh Changti’s aircraft and tore off the right wing. Yeh Changti ejected from the airplane, his body riddled in fifty-nine places with missile fragments. He landed safely with his parachute and passed out. When he woke up, he was in a military facility run by Mao Tse-tung.

This was no training exercise. Yeh Changti was tortured and held prisoner for nineteen years until he was quietly released by his captors, in 1982. He has been living outside Houston, Texas, ever since. The CIA did not know that Yeh Changti had survived his bailout and apparently did not make any kind of effort to locate him. A second Black Cat pilot named Major Jack Chang would also get shot down in a U-2, in 1965, and was imprisoned alongside Yeh Changti. After their release, the two pilots shared their arduous stories with fellow Black Cat pilot, Hsichun Hua, who had become a general in the Taiwanese air force while the men were in captivity. Neither Yeh Changti nor Major Jack Chang was ever given a medal by the CIA. The shoot-down of the Black Cat U-2 pilots, however, had a major impact on what the CIA and the Air Force would do next at Area 51. Suddenly, the development of drones had become a national security priority, drones being pilotless aircraft that could be flown by remote control.

There are already several drones that can hook up to power lines and recharge

Wednesday, March 27th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingBattery-powered drones have limited range, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), but perching on power lines opens up the possibility of recharging by stealing electricity:

There are already several drones that can hook up to power lines line and recharge. Design Research Associates has developed such a system for small drones and a spin-off known as the “Bat Hook” for Special Forces. This really does look like something Batman would use – a small, sharpened boomerang with a line attached. Toss it over a power line and the sharp edge cuts through insulation. A device on the end of the line converts the high-voltage alternating supply into a regulated direct current for charging electronics. The Bat Hook can be popped off the line so it can be removed and reused.

The chances of anyone looking for it there are slim

Tuesday, March 26th, 2024

I read and enjoyed Annie Jacobsen’s Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators, and Assassins, so I was paying attention when she announced her new book, Nuclear War: A Scenario, and I caught this interview, which actually meanders through all of her related books:

She mentions that most of her first book, Area 51, got much less attention than a small section on UFOs. Most of the book is a well researched summary of what we know about classified programs like the U-2, its successor the A-12, better known in its later Air Force configuration, the SR-71, and the F-117, and that small section on UFOs has to rely on much sketchier evidence:

Of the seventy-four individuals interviewed for this book with rare firsthand knowledge of the secret base, thirty-two of them lived and worked at Area 51.

Area 51 is the nation’s most secret domestic military facility. It is located in the high desert of southern Nevada, seventy-five miles north of Las Vegas. Its facilities have been constructed over the past sixty years around a flat, dry lake bed called Groom Lake. The U.S. government has never admitted it exists.

Key to understanding Area 51 is knowing that it sits inside the largest government-controlled land parcel in the United States, the Nevada Test and Training Range. Encompassing 4,687 square miles, this area is just a little smaller than the state of Connecticut—three times the size of Rhode Island, and more than twice as big as Delaware. Set inside this enormous expanse is a smaller parcel of land, 1,350 square miles, called the Nevada Test Site, the only facility like it in the continental United States.


Two early projects at Groom Lake have been declassified by the Central Intelligence Agency: the U-2 spy plane, declassified in 1998, and the A-12 Oxcart spy plane, declassified in 2007. And yet in thousands of pages of declassified memos and reports, the name Area 51 is always redacted, or blacked out. There are only two known exceptions, most likely mistakes.


According to most members of the black world who are familiar with the history of Area 51, the base opened its doors in 1955 after two CIA officers, Richard Bissell and Herbert Miller, chose the place to be the test facility for the Agency’s first spy plane, the U-2. Part of Area 51’s secret history is that the so-called Area 51 zone had been in existence for four years by the time the CIA identified it as a perfect clandestine test facility. Never before disclosed is the fact that Area 51’s first customer was not the CIA but the Atomic Energy Commission. Beginning in 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission used its parallel system of secret-keeping to conduct radical and controversial research, development, and engineering not just on aircraft but also on pilot-related projects—entirely without oversight or ethical controls.

That the Atomic Energy Commission was not an agency that characteristically had any manner of jurisdiction over aircraft and pilot projects (their business was nuclear bombs and atomic energy) speaks to the shadowy, shell-game aspect of black-world operations at Area 51. If you move a clandestine, highly controversial project into a classified agency that does not logically have anything to do with such a program, the chances of anyone looking for it there are slim.

Jacobsen contends that Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 fake-newscast adaptation of The War of the Worlds profoundly influenced authorities in the US and around the world:

“Thousands of persons believed a real invasion had been unleashed. They exhibited all the symptoms of fear, panic, determination to resist, desperation, bravery, excitement or fatalism that real war would have produced,” which in turn “shows the government will have to insist on the close co-operation of radio in any future war.” What these military men were not saying was that there was serious concern among strategists and policy makers that entire segments of the population could be so easily manipulated into thinking that something false was something true. Americans had taken very real, physical actions based on something entirely made up.


America was not the only place where government officials were impressed by how easily people could be influenced by a radio broadcast. Adolf Hitler took note as well. He referred to the Americans’ hysterical reaction to the War of the Worlds broadcast in a Berlin speech, calling it “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.” It was later revealed that in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had also been paying attention. And President Roosevelt’s top science adviser, Vannevar Bush, observed the effects of the fictional radio broadcast with a discerning eye. The public’s tendency to panic alarmed him, he would later tell W. Cameron Forbes, his colleague at the Carnegie Institution.

This leads us to Roswell, New Mexico:

During the first week of July 1947, U.S. Signal Corps engineers began tracking two objects with remarkable flying capabilities moving across the southwestern United States. What made the aircraft extraordinary was that, although they flew in a traditional, forward-moving motion, the craft—whatever they were—began to hover sporadically before continuing to fly on. This kind of technology was beyond any aerodynamic capabilities the U.S. Air Force had in development in the summer of 1947. When multiple sources began reporting the same data, it became clear that the radar wasn’t showing phantom returns, or electronic ghosts, but something real. Kirtland Army Air Force Base, just north of the White Sands Proving Ground, tracked the flying craft into its near vicinity. The commanding officer there ordered a decorated World War II pilot named Kenny Chandler into a fighter jet to locate and chase the unidentified flying craft. This fact has never before been disclosed.

Chandler never visually spotted what he’d been sent to look for. But within hours of Chandler’s sweep of the skies, one of the flying objects crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. Immediately, the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or JCS, took command and control and recovered the airframe and some propulsion equipment, including the crashed craft’s power plant, or energy source. The recovered craft looked nothing like a conventional aircraft. The vehicle had no tail and it had no wings. The fuselage was round, and there was a dome mounted on the top. In secret Army intelligence memos declassified in 1994, it would be referred to as a “flying disc.” Most alarming was a fact kept secret until now—inside the disc, there was a very earthly hallmark: Russian writing. Block letters from the Cyrillic alphabet had been stamped, or embossed, in a ring running around the inside of the craft.

In a critical moment, the American military had its worst fears realized. The Russian army must have gotten its hands on German aerospace engineers more capable than Ernst Steinhoff and Wernher Von Braun—engineers who must have developed this flying craft years before for the German air force, or Luftwaffe.

This would be a much more reasonable hypothesis, if the cutting-edge craft had crashed near Soviet-controlled territory. All of this is sourced from “Interview with EG&G engineer.” EG&G was a defense contractor out of MIT that had worked on the Manhattan Project.

The first thing they did was initiate the withdrawal of the original Roswell Army Air Field press release, the one that stated that a “flying disc… landed on a ranch near Roswell,” and then they replaced it with the second press release, the one that said that a weather balloon had crashed—nothing more.


The first order of business was to determine where the technology had come from. The Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked an elite group working under the direct orders of G-2 Army intelligence to initiate a top secret project called Operation Harass. Based on the testimony of America’s Paperclip scientists, Army intelligence officers believed that the flying disc was the brainchild of two former Third Reich airplane engineers, named Walter and Reimar Horten—now working for the Russian military. Orders were drawn up. The manhunt was on.


The brothers were the inventors of several of Hitler’s flying-wing aircraft, including one called the Horten 229 or Horten IX, a wing-shaped, tailless airplane that had been developed at a secret facility in Baden-Baden during the war. From the Paperclip scientists at Wright Field, the Army intelligence investigators learned that Hitler was rumored to have been developing a faster-flying aircraft that had been designed by the brothers and was shaped like a saucer. Maybe, the Paperclips said, there had been a later-model Horten in the works before Germany surrendered, meaning that even if Stalin didn’t have the Horten brothers themselves, he could very likely have gotten control of their blueprints and plans.


A records group of more than three hundred pages of Army intelligence documents reveals many of the details of Operation Harass. They were declassified in 1994, after a researcher named Timothy Cooper filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. One memo, called “Air Intelligence Guide for Alleged ‘Flying Saucer’ Type Aircraft,” detailed for CIC officers the parameters of the flying saucer technology the military was looking for, features which were evidenced in the craft that crashed at Roswell.

Extreme maneuverability and apparent ability to almost hover; A plan form approximating that of an oval or disc with dome shape on the surface; The ability to quickly disappear by high speed or by complete disintegration; The ability to group together very quickly in a tight formation when more than one aircraft are together; Evasive motion ability indicating possibility of being manually operated, or possibly, by electronic or remote control.


A former Messerschmitt test pilot named Fritz Wendel offered up some firsthand testimony that seemed real. The Horten brothers had indeed been working on a flying saucer–like craft in Heiligenbeil, East Prussia, right after the war, Wendel said. The airplane was ten meters long and shaped like a half-moon. It had no tail. The prototype was designed to be flown by one man lying down flat on his stomach. It reached a ceiling of twelve thousand feet. Wendel drew diagrams of this saucerlike aircraft, as did a second German informant named Professor George, who described a later-model Horten as being “very much like a round cake with a large sector cut out” and that had been developed to carry more than one crew member. The later-model Horten could travel higher and faster—up to 1,200 mph—because it was propelled by rockets rather than jet engines. Its cabin was allegedly pressurized for high-altitude flights.

Horten H.IX V2 before a test flight


The next batch of solid information came from a rocket engineer named Walter Ziegler. During the war, Ziegler had worked at the car manufacturer Bayerische Motoren Werke, or BMW, which served as a front for advanced rocket-science research. There, Ziegler had been on a team tasked with developing advanced fighter jets powered by rockets. Ziegler relayed a chilling tale that gave investigators an important clue. One night, about a year after the war, in September of 1946, four hundred men from his former rocket group at BMW had been invited by Russian military officers to a fancy dinner. The rocket scientists were wined and dined and, after a few hours, taken home. Most were drunk. Several hours later, all four hundred of the men were woken up in the middle of the night by their Russian hosts and told they were going to be taking a trip. Why Ziegler wasn’t among them was not made clear. The Germans were told to bring their wives, their children, and whatever else they needed for a long trip. Mistresses and livestock were also fine. This was not a situation to which you could say no, Ziegler explained. The scientists and their families were transported by rail to a small town outside Moscow where they had remained ever since, forced to work on secret military projects in terrible conditions.


And then, six months into the investigation, on March 12, 1948, along came abrupt news. The Horten brothers had been found. In a memo to the European command of the 970th CIC, Major Earl S. Browning Jr. explained. “The Horten Brothers have been located and interrogated by American Agencies,” Browning said. The Russians had likely found the blueprints of the flying wing after all. “It is Walter Horten’s opinion that the blueprints of the Horten IX may have been found by Russian troops at the Gotha Railroad Car Factory,” the memo read. But a second memo, entitled “Extracts on Horten, Walter,” explained a little more. Former Messerschmitt test pilot Fritz Wendel’s information about the Horten brothers’ wingless, tailless, saucerlike craft that had room for more than one crew member was confirmed. “Walter Horten’s opinion is that sufficient German types of flying wings existed in the developing or designing stages when the Russians occupied Germany, and these types may have enabled the Russians to produce the flying saucer.”

The Soviets never went on to develop a flying wing, but another superpower did.

Jacobsen summarizes the Roswell incident near the end of her book:

The flying craft that crashed in New Mexico, the myth of which has come to be known as the Roswell Incident, happened in 1947, sixty-four years before the publication of this book. Everyone directly involved in that incident—who acted on behalf of the government—is apparently dead. Like it does about Area 51, the U.S. government refuses to admit the Roswell crash ever happened, but it did—according to the seminal testimony of one man interviewed over the course of eighteen months for this book. He participated in the engineering project that came about as a result of the Roswell Incident. He was one of the elite engineers from EG&G who were tasked with the original Area 51 wicked engineering problem.

In July of 1947, Army intelligence spearheaded the efforts to retrieve the remains of the flying disc that crashed at Roswell. And as with other stories that have become the legends of Area 51, part of the conspiracy theory about Roswell has its origins in truth. The crash did reveal a disc, not a weather balloon, as has subsequently been alleged by the Air Force. And responders from the Roswell Army Air Field found not only a crashed craft, but also two crash sites, and they found bodies alongside the crashed craft. These were not aliens. Nor were they consenting airmen. They were human guinea pigs. Unusually petite for pilots, they appeared to be children. Each was under five feet tall. Physically, the bodies of the aviators revealed anatomical conundrums. They were grotesquely deformed, but each in the same manner as the others. They had unusually large heads and abnormally shaped oversize eyes. One fact was clear: these children, if that’s what they were, were not healthy humans. A second fact was shocking. Two of the child-size aviators were comatose but still alive.

Everything related to the crash site was sent to Wright Field, later called Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio, where it all remained until 1951. That is when the evidence was packed up and transported to the Nevada Test Site. It was received, physically, by the elite group of EG&G engineers. The Atomic Energy Commission, not the Air Force and not the Central Intelligence Agency, was put in charge of the Roswell crash remains. According to its unusual charter, the Atomic Energy Commission was the organization best equipped to handle a secret that could never be declassified. The Atomic Energy Commission needed engineers they could trust to handle the work that was about to begin. For this, they looked to the most powerful defense contractor in the nation that no one had ever heard of—EG&G.

The engineers with EG&G were chosen to receive the crash remains and to set up a secret facility just outside the boundary of the Nevada Test Site, sixteen miles to the northwest of Groom Lake, approximately five and a half miles north of the northernmost point where Area 12 and Area 15 meet. A facility this remote would never be visited by anyone outside a small group with a strict need-to-know and would never have to be accounted for or appear on any official Nevada Test Site map. These five men were told there was more engineering work to be done, and that they would be the only five individuals with a set of keys to the facility. The project, the men were told, was the most clandestine, most important engineering program since the Manhattan Project, which was why the man who had been in charge of that one would function as the director of this project as well.

Vannevar Bush had been President Roosevelt’s most trusted science adviser during World War II. He held engineering doctorates from both Harvard University and MIT, in addition to being the former vice president and former dean of engineering at MIT. The decisions Vannevar Bush made were ostensibly for the good of the nation; they were sound. The men from EG&G were told that the project they were about to work on was so important that it would remain black forever, meaning it would never see the light of day. The men knew that a secrecy classification inside the Atomic Energy Commission charter made this possible, because they all worked on classified engineering projects that were hidden from the rest of the world. They understood born classified meant that no one would ever have a need-to-know what Vannevar Bush was going to ask them to do. The operation would have no name, only a letter-number designation: S-4, or Sigma-Four.


There was the crashed craft that had been sent by Stalin—with its Russian writing stamped, or embossed, in a ring around the inside of the craft. So far, the EG&G engineers were told, no one working on the project when it had been headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had been able to discern what made Stalin’s craft hover and fly. Not even the German Paperclip scientists who had been assigned to assist. So the crashed craft was job number one. Reverse engineer it, Vannevar Bush said. Take it apart and put it back together again. Figure out what made it fly.

But there was the second engineering problem to solve, the one involving the child-size aviators. To understand this, the men were briefed on what it was they were dealing with. They had to be. They were told that they, and they alone, had a need-to-know about what had happened to these humans before they were put in the craft and sent aloft. They were told that seeing the bodies would be a shocking and disturbing experience. Because two of the aviators were comatose but still alive, the men would have to transfer them into a Jell-O-like substance and stand them upright in two tubular tanks, attached to a life-support system. Sometimes, their mouths opened, and this gave the appearance of their trying to speak. Remember, the engineers were told, these humans are in a comatose state. They are unconscious; their bodies would never spark back to life.

Once, the children had been healthy humans. Not anymore. They were about thirteen years old. Questions abounded. What made their heads so big? Had their bodies been surgically manipulated to appear inhuman, or did the children have genetic deformities? And what about their haunting, oversize eyes? The engineers were told that the children were rumored to have been kidnapped by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi madman who, at Auschwitz and elsewhere, was known to have performed unspeakable experimental surgical procedures mostly on children, dwarfs, and twins. The engineers learned that just before the war ended, Josef Mengele made a deal with Stalin. Stalin offered Mengele an opportunity to continue his work in eugenics—the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase desirable, heritable characteristics—in secret, in the Soviet Union after the war. The engineers were told that this deal likely occurred just before the war’s end, in the winter of 1945, when it was clear to many members of the Nazi Party, including Mengele, that Nazi Germany would lose the war and that its top commanders and doctors would be tried and hanged for war crimes.


Mengele’s victims included Jewish children, Gypsy children, and people with severe physical deformities. He removed parts of children’s craniums and replaced them with bones from larger, adult skulls. He removed and transplanted eyeballs, and injected people with chemicals that caused them to lose their hair. On Mengele’s instruction, an Auschwitz inmate, a painter named Dina Babbitt, made comparative drawings of the shapes of heads, noses, mouths, and ears of people before and after the grotesque surgeries Mengele performed. Another inmate doctor forced to work for Mengele, named Dr. Martina Puzyna, recounted how Mengele had her keep detailed measurements of the shapes and sizes of children’s body parts, casting those of crippled children—particularly their hands and heads—in plaster molds. When Mengele left Auschwitz, on January 17, 1945, he took the documentation of his medical experiments with him. According to his only son, Rolf, Mengele was still in possession of his medical research documents after the war.

The EG&G engineers were told that part of Joseph Stalin’s offer to Josef Mengele stated that if he could create a crew of grotesque, child-size aviators for Stalin, he would be given a laboratory in which to continue his work. According to what the engineers were told, Mengele held up his side of the Faustian bargain and provided Stalin with the child-size crew. Joseph Stalin did not. Mengele never took up residence in the Soviet Union. Instead, he lived for four years in Germany under an assumed name and then escaped to South America, where he lived, first in Argentina and then in Paraguay, until his death in 1979.

When Joseph Stalin sent the biologically and/or surgically reengineered children in the craft over New Mexico hoping it would land there, the engineers were told, Stalin’s plan was for the children to climb out and be mistaken for visitors from Mars. Panic would ensue, just like it did after the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. America’s early-warning radar system would be overwhelmed with sightings of other “UFOs.” Truman would see how easily a totalitarian dictator could control the masses using black propaganda. Stalin may have been behind the United States in atomic bomb technology, but when it came to manipulating the people’s perception, Stalin was the leader with the upper hand. This, says the engineer, is what he and the others in the group were told.

For months I asked the engineer why President Truman didn’t use the remains from the Roswell crash to show the world what an evil, abhorrent man Joseph Stalin was. I guessed that maybe Truman didn’t want to admit the breach of U.S. borders. For a long time, I never got an answer, just a shaking of the head. Here was the engineer who had the answer to the riddle inside the riddle that is Area 51, but he was unwilling to say more. He is the only one of the original elite group of EG&G engineers who is still alive. He said he wouldn’t tell me more, no matter how many times I asked. One day, I asked again. “Why didn’t President Truman reveal the truth in 1947?” This time he answered.

“Because we were doing the same thing,” he said. “They wanted to push science. They wanted to see how far they could go.”

Again, the small sections on UFOs are wildly different from the rest of the book.

In a recent interview with Lex Fridman, 13 years after the book came out, she doesn’t quite walk back her claims about the Roswell flying saucer being a Soviet hoax, but she reveals who that anonymous source was to explain why he was so credible. It was Al O’Donnell, the technical expert who had wired most of the atomic bombs used in atmospheric tests, right after World War 2, while that was still allowed.

The Pentagon does not have the budget to create anything as slick and sophisticated as the latest smartphone

Wednesday, March 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingThe smartphone industry’s research budget was around $150 billion in 2014, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), dwarfing the Pentagon’s entire R&D spend of around $60 billion:

In aviation, the Pentagon is the biggest player in the game; only a handful of other countries can afford to develop fourth and fifth-generation combat aircraft like the F-22. But when it comes to small electronics, the Pentagon does not have the budget to create anything as slick and sophisticated as the latest smartphone.

Space radiation comes in two different flavors

Saturday, March 16th, 2024

The Orion spacecraft that is supposed to take humans on a Moon fly-by mission this year has a heavily shielded (solar) storm shelter for the crew, but shelters like that aren’t sufficient for a flight to Mars:

Space radiation comes in two different flavors. Solar events like flares or coronal mass ejections can cause very high fluxes of charged particles (mostly protons). They’re nasty when you have no shelter but are relatively easy to shield against since solar protons are mostly low energy. The majority of solar particle events flux is between 30 Mega-electronVolts to 100 MeV and could be stopped by Orion-like shelters.

Then there are galactic cosmic rays: particles coming from outside the Solar System, set in motion by faraway supernovas or neutron stars. These are relatively rare but are coming at you all the time from all directions. They also have high energies, starting at 200 MeV and going to several GeVs, which makes them extremely penetrating. Thick masses don’t provide much shielding against them. When high-energy cosmic ray particles hit thin shields, they produce many lower-energy particles—you’d be better off with no shield at all.

The particles with energies between 70 MeV and 500 MeV are responsible for 95 percent of the radiation dose that astronauts get in space. On short flights, solar storms are the main concern because they can be quite violent and do lots of damage very quickly. The longer you fly, though, GCRs become more of an issue because their dose accumulates over time, and they can go through pretty much everything we try to put in their way.

The reason nearly none of this radiation can reach us is that Earth has a natural, multi-stage shielding system. It begins with its magnetic field, which deflects most of the incoming particles toward the poles. A charged particle in a magnetic field follows a curve—the stronger the field, the tighter the curve. Earth’s magnetic field is very weak and barely bends incoming particles, but it is huge, extending thousands of kilometers into space.

Anything that makes it through the magnetic field runs into the atmosphere, which, when it comes to shielding, is the equivalent of an aluminum wall that’s 3 meters thick. Finally, there is the planet itself, which essentially cuts the radiation in half since you always have 6.5 billion trillion tons of rock shielding you from the bottom.

To put that in perspective, the Apollo crew module had on average 5 grams of mass per square centimeter standing between the crew and radiation. A typical ISS module has twice that, about 10 g/cm2. The Orion shelter has 35–45 g/cm2, depending on where you sit exactly, and it weighs 36 tons. On Earth, the atmosphere alone gives you 810 g/cm2—roughly 20 times more than our best shielded spaceships.

The two options are to add more mass—which gets expensive quickly—or to shorten the length of the mission, which isn’t always possible. So solving radiation with passive mass won’t cut it for longer missions, even using the best shielding materials like polyethylene or water. This is why making a miniaturized, portable version of the Earth’s magnetic field was on the table from the first days of space exploration. Unfortunately, we discovered it was far easier said than done.


In 1967, Richard H. Levy and Francis W. French delivered a report saying that plasma and electrostatic shields were promising, but they both needed 60 million volts to work—even by today’s standards, that number is ridiculous.


Electrostatic shields had been ignored because they required those 60 million volts that French and Levy talked about in their report. In 2008, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and ASRC Aerospace Corporation proposed an electrostatic shield based on three huge Van de Graaff generators connected to an outer ring that looked like something taken straight from a Vulcan Combat Cruiser. It was undeniably cool, but it was completely infeasible. Fry and Madzunkov had to find something more realistic, so they turned to advanced modeling software and huge GPU clusters.


events’ radiation and 15 percent of cosmic rays using just 1 million volts, not 60 million. And you no longer needed to haul a full-size power plant with you. “Using grid-like, porous structures we not only brought the weight down, but we also brought the needed power down from megawatts to 100 watts,” said Fry. Power savings that big were possible because plasmas, which normally bleed away volts, did not accumulate on these porous structures—they flew right through them.

The cost of each new generation of military aircraft rises exponentially.

Wednesday, March 13th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingIn 1984, Norman Augustine, former Under Secretary of the Army, and CEO of aerospace company Martin Marietta, published a set of “laws” about military procurement, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers):

His most celebrated pearl of wisdom is Augustine’s Law 16, which says that the cost of each new generation of military aircraft rises exponentially.


Although intended facetiously, Augustine’s Law 16 has been remarkably accurate. The North American P-51 Mustang was one of the most important US fighters of WWII. Over fifteen thousand were built, at a cost of around $50,000 each in 1945 dollars ($655,000 in 2014). It was succeeded in the 1950s by the jet-powered F-100 Super Sabre at a cost of $700,000 ($6 million in 2014), ten times as expensive in real terms. The McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, which first flew in 1960, broke the million-dollar barrier, costing $2.4 million apiece in 1965 ($18 million in 2014), tripling the cost of its predecessor. Even allowing for inflation, the upwards curve is steep.


The USAF’s new F-15 Eagle, also from McDonnell Douglas, was set to replace the F-4. The Eagle was a superb aircraft, but it had reached a new high, costing in excess of $20 million ($45 million in 2014), almost tripling again the cost of its predecessor.


Extensive flying exercises found that the big twin-engine F-15 was only slightly superior to the small, cheap fighters fielded by the Russians in a dogfight. If it came to a war, the small band of F-15s would be overwhelmed by swarms of Russian MiGs. Certainly, the F-15s would be able to knock out plenty of the Russians at long range, but when the survivors closed with them, the contest would be bloody and one-sided.

The Air Force decided to go for a “high-low” mix, supplementing the elite F-15s with a large number of cheaper aircraft known as lightweight fighters. The aircraft selected for the lightweight fighter role was the single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcon, two-thirds the size of the F-15. It was to be the embodiment of a concept by fighter guru John Boyd for an austere aircraft with extreme agility that could beat anything in a dogfight. Being less complex, it would be so cheap it could be acquired in vast numbers. The F-15 with its powerful radar was the champion at long-range combat; the agile F-16 was to be the champion in the “furball” of dogfighting.

During the development process, the purity of the F-16 was slowly corrupted. It became heavier, less agile, and more expensive as more and more capabilities were added.


At $15 million in 1998 dollars ($22 million in 2014), the F-16 was cheaper than the F-15, but more expensive than anything in the previous generation, including the big F-4.


The US Navy went through a parallel experience. They also replaced the F-4 Phantom, and chose the F-14 Tomcat, a $ 38 million (1998 dollars, $ 55 million in 2014) carrier-based fighter. Like the F-15 it had a big radar and impressive long-range capabilities.

Again the F-14 was too pricey to acquire in large quantities, and the Navy took up the idea of bolstering numbers with a smaller, cheaper aircraft. They chose the F-18 Hornet, originally a failed competitor in the Air Force’s lightweight fighter competition. The F-18s costs grew from a planned $5 million to around $29 million (2003 = $37 million in 2014).

It’s about building the machine that builds the machine

Monday, March 11th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonBefore joining Tesla’s board, Antonio Gracias had invested in an electroplating plant in California, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), where he learned some important lessons:

Because Gracias spoke Spanish like most of the factory workers, he was able to learn from them where the problems were. “I realized that if you invest in a company, you should spend all your time on the shop floor,” he says. When he asked how they could speed things up, one of the workers explained that having smaller vats for the nickel baths would make the plating go faster. Those and other worker-generated ideas succeeded so well that the factory began turning a profit, and Gracias started buying more troubled companies.

He learned one very big lesson from these ventures: “It’s not the product that leads to success. It’s the ability to make the product efficiently. It’s about building the machine that builds the machine. In other words, how do you design the factory?” It was a guiding principle that Musk would make his own.

A helicopter is necessarily a complex, delicate, and expensive piece of equipment

Wednesday, March 6th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingDavid Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers) the history of quadcopter drones:

A helicopter is necessarily a complex, delicate, and expensive piece of equipment. This is because steering involves changing the angle or pitch of the rotor blades, which needs an elaborate mechanical arrangement. The quadrotor has four sets of blades, and steers and maintains stability simply by speeding up or slowing down different rotors. Without modern electronics, it would be impossible; with them it is easy.

Modern multirotors date back to the late 1980s with the Gyrosaucer toy produced by Japanese company Keyence. However, modern developments tend to be traced back to US engineer Mike Dammarm, who developed his first battery-powered quadcopter in the early 90s. This was marketed by Spectrolutions Inc. as the Roswell Flyer in 1999 and later adapted into the Draganflyer, a range which is still going.

Multicopters multiplied, and the big breakthrough came in 2010 when Parrot produced their first AR.Drone. This was hailed as a fantastic toy: a helicopter sending back video via Wi-Fi which you control with an iPhone. The AR.Drone was a bestseller, and the world woke up to the potential of multicopters.


Multirotors have a couple of major advantages over fixed-wings. For one thing, they can operate indoors, going through buildings, tunnels, and bunker complexes. And they give a more stable view than a moving fixed-wing.