Marine Corps looks at ocean glider for rapid resupply to fight China

Friday, December 8th, 2023

The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab has signed a nearly $5 million contract to test out Rhode Island-based Regent‘s Viceroy seaglider, which uses hydrofoils and the wing-in-ground effect to fly efficiently just above the surface of the ocean.

George Downs of the Wall Street Journal declares it not quite there yet:

An eVinci microreactor and surrounding infrastructure is about half the size of a hockey rink

Thursday, December 7th, 2023

The Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) is poised to become Westinghouse’s first customer for its eVinci microreactor — a flagship 5-MWe/13-MWth “nuclear battery”:

At the heart of the eVinci is a fully passive heat pipe–cooled design that will use tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel. Its alkali metal heat pipe technology relies on alkali metal phase change to capture temperature uniformity within the reactor core. The reactor’s core, built around a solid steel monolith, has channels for both heat pipes and fuel pellets, with each fuel pin placed adjacent to several heat pipes. The array of closed heat pipes essentially removes heat from the nuclear core and transfers that heat to air, which then turns a turbine in an open-air Brayton thermodynamic power conversion cycle.

Along with providing redundancy of the primary heat removal path, the heat pipes eliminate the need for a reactor coolant pump, bulk coolant, and associated equipment, as well as enable a modular core design, Westinghouse President of eVinci Microreactor Jon Ball told POWER in October.

An eVinci microreactor and surrounding infrastructure is about “half the size of a hockey rink,” Westinghouse says. In addition, unlike a high-temperature gas reactor (HTGR), heat pipe reactors are not pressurized and have no moving parts, though they are passive (naturally driven) and can self-adjust to the amount of heat transferred—which allows inherent load following

As usual, nobody liked a smart robot

Monday, December 4th, 2023

In contrast to the DASH, which started out as a combat aircraft and ended as a target, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), the Teledyne Ryan Firebee started out as a target and ended as much more:

The Firebee was a sleek, jet-powered machine, twenty-three feet long and with a top speed of over 700 mph. It could fly at any height from the treetops to fifty thousand feet. It could be launched from an aircraft and remotely controlled from two hundred miles away. The Firebee would return to the ground on a parachute, an easy feat for a small plane with no human inside risking broken bones.

There was little interest from the Air Force’s mainstream, but the highly unconventional BIG SAFARI team liked the idea. BIG SAFARI was set up to circumvent the usual complexities of Air Force procurement, to provide quick solutions to urgent problems. They funded development of a version of the Firebee called Fire Fly or Model 147, and it went through their streamlined channels without the interference it might have otherwise endured.


In the first trials the F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart pilots never even saw the drones they were trying to shoot down, and only caught brief glimpses of them on radar. Further tests followed. In one, a Delta Dagger fired a burst of cannon fire at the drone, but the rounds missed. Before the pilot could line up for another shot, his jet engine flamed out because of the high altitude. He dropped to lower altitude to reignite the engine, at which point other planes mistook his aircraft for the target. Fortunately, they did not shoot, but the Fire Fly had escaped. Later on two Delta Darts achieved a radar lock on the Fire Fly, but not for long enough to fire a missile.


The military was unhappy with the results. Many felt the test was intended to make them look bad. Robert Schwanhausser of Teledyne Ryan says the results were classified Top Secret, and he was ordered to burn every piece of information on them.


They were sent on virtual suicide missions, to test Vietnamese radar and missile defenses.

When losses mounted, the developers at BIG SAFARI started equipping their drones with electronic bags of tricks. One device, known as High Altitude Threat Reaction and Countermeasure (HAT-RAC) responded to being lit up by radar by throwing the drone into a series of sharp turns.


When the Chinese downed their first Fire Fly in 1964, it was only after some sixteen MiGs had made over thirty passes trying to hit the little drone.


A decoy version of the Fire Fly was produced. This was known as the 147N and was fitted with radar reflectors to make it look like a bigger aircraft. The 147Ns were originally purely intended to distract defenders away from the real Fire Flies equipped with cameras, but they survived and managed to return so frequently that they were later fitted with cameras of their own.


On one mission, the pictures from a Fire Fly captured the subject’s faces from close range: “You could see features on the guy’s face. If it would have been in color, you could have seen the color of his eyes.”

This was at a time when the U-2 spy planes were taking pictures from fifty thousand feet or higher, with resolution only good enough to recognize objects two feet across. The low-level Fire Fly pictures were a revelation in the art of the possible.


The basic drone could only handle acceleration of about 3G, but a modified Firebee equipped with “Maneuverability Augmentation System for Tactical Air Combat Simulation” or MASTACS could pull 6G for several seconds at a time. This put it pretty much on a par with manned fighters. In 1971, the MASTACS developers challenged Commander John C. Smith, head of the Navy’s Top Gun combat training school – the “Top Gun” of the 1982 movie – to try and shoot MASTACS down.

Smith and his wingman, both flying F-4 Phantoms, made repeated attacks on the remotely controlled Firebee. It was far too agile for them. They fired two Sparrow radar-guided missiles and two Sidewinder heat-seekers without scoring a hit. Meanwhile, the Firebee kept circling around and lining itself up in firing position behind the Phantoms. Had it been armed, the Firebee would have had easy shots.

As usual, nobody liked a smart robot. MASTACS was deemed “too sophisticated” for training purposes.


Even the memory of the Fire Fly seems to have been lost. In 2014 the US Navy proudly announced in a press release that, “Truman will be the first aircraft carrier in naval aviation history to host test operations for an unmanned aircraft.” It seems that amnesia buried the 1969-70 Fire Fly operations from the USS Ranger, not to mention the TDR-1s flown from the USS Sable in 1943.

You can launch without regret

Friday, December 1st, 2023

Since its founding in 2017, Anduril has argued that it’s a new type of defense contractor:

Instead of taking orders upfront from the US Department of Defense to fund development of products, Anduril has raised money from venture capitalists, including Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, that it uses to build weapons it predicts the military will want. Its first product was an automated security tower designed for the US border in the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency. The company then began shipping early counter-drone aircraft to the US and UK militaries in 2019.


Anduril started work two years ago on the Roadrunner, a Looney Tunes-inspired dig at Raytheon’s Coyote, because it said the US would need a lower-cost, more nimble way to combat swarms. The tiny fighter jet has a carbon-fiber body and onboard electronics that let it track objects and perform maneuvers that’d be too dangerous for a human-piloted plane. One of its main advantages is that it can be reused, which makes it easier to launch at the first sign of an unknown object. “If you see a threat, you can launch multiple Roadrunners to go out to do a closer inspection of that threat and be loitering in case they’re needed,” says Christian Brose, the chief strategy officer at Anduril. “You can recall them, land them, refuel them and reuse them, so, essentially, you can launch without regret.”


To start the test, Anduril sent a fixed-wing drone into the air from a runway behind its compound. The sentry tower quickly detected the aircraft and fed information about its speed and trajectory into the company’s Lattice software. The test pilot received imagery of the drone and then manually marked it as a hostile threat. In an instant, the lid of the Roadrunner launch container opened, the turbines fired up and the craft zipped into the air. It took off toward the target and then began feeding its own sensor data and imagery into Lattice. As the Roadrunner closed in on the target, the test pilot gave a final command to destroy the fixed-wing craft, and, seconds later, the Lattice software displayed information showing that it had been a successful attack.

For the purposes of this demonstration, Anduril used proximity sensors to confirm that it would have taken out the target and didn’t actually blow up the fixed-wing craft. If it had, the Roadrunner wouldn’t have been able to do what it did next: It turned to fly back toward the Anduril compound, shifted into a vertical position and fired its thrusters toward the ground as landing legs kicked out from its side. During a maneuver lasting about a minute, the machine got ever closer to the ground before finally settling gently on a small concrete pad in a fashion very similar to a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket. A future version of the Roadrunner will be able to land even after destroying a target, Luckey says.

The whole idea, as Anduril sees it, is to allow a single operator to manage dozens or more Roadrunners in the field with Lattice providing a full view of the surroundings, targets and weapons available. If a drone swarm approaches a base, Lattice will quickly see and identify all the drones, and, with a couple of clicks, the operator can send Roadrunners off to combat the threat. This is a major change from many of the other counter-drone weapons that require about a dozen people to operate them.

Anduril has raised $2.7 billion to date and is valued at almost $10 billion.

Electrified trailer cuts fuel consumption in semi-trucks by 36.3%

Wednesday, November 29th, 2023

When hybrid vehicles were first catching on, I wondered if electrifying a semi-truck trailer would improve performance and efficiency:

Range Energy makes truck trailers, with a clever connection to any standard tractor cab, loaded with electric powertrains to turn any semi into an efficient hybrid. They also let you push entire trailers around by hand at the depot in “shopping cart mode.”

Range’s 53-foot (16-m) RA-01 trailer packs its own 200-kWh battery, as well as an 800-volt e-axle powertrain that can put up to 14,000 Nm (10,326 lb-ft) of torque, at up to 350 kW (469 hp), through the rear wheels. The same battery also feeds a rear liftgate and powered landing gear.

It works with any electric or diesel-powered cab and is perfectly suitable for fleet operations, without any modification to the trucks. It takes its cues from a smart kingpin, which basically senses the acceleration and braking loads that the tractor is putting on the trailer, and uses its electric motors to help out.


In fuel economy testing performed by Mesilla Valley Transportation Solutions, Range reports a fuel economy boost of 3.25 mpg (72.4 L/100km) , representing a 36.9% efficiency gain against the test truck’s standard fuel consumption.


The test was conducted on a “25.5-mile (41-km) urban/highway loop at approximately 59,000 lb (26,760 kg) gross vehicle weight and 60-mph (96.5-km/h) top speeds across multiple scenarios including stop/go and steady-speed portions.”The test was conducted on a “25.5-mile (41-km) urban/highway loop at approximately 59,000 lb (26,760 kg) gross vehicle weight and 60-mph (96.5-km/h) top speeds across multiple scenarios including stop/go and steady-speed portions.”


Even beyond that 200-mile range once the battery is completely depleted, Range still expects about a 10-15% efficiency boost over a regular trailer for the rest of the trip, simply through the energy it can capture and release through regenerative braking.


And then there’s “shopping cart mode” – which uses a similar control approach to let you disconnect a fully-loaded trailer from the truck and push it around manually like a hand trolley, with the electric motors helping all the way.

Losing one drone for one submarine was a good exchange rate

Monday, November 27th, 2023

In the late 1950s, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), the latest sonar could detect a submarine more than twenty miles away, but the best anti-submarine weapons only had a range of a few miles:

The US Navy wanted to bridge the gap with a Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter or DASH. This was a small helicopter capable of carrying a single weapon and dropping it at the required spot, guided by a controller back on board ship.

The DASH was based on a one-man helicopter called a “Rotorcycle” built by Gyrodyne Company. This had two rotor blades rotating in opposite directions for lift, and a propeller for forward motion. The drone version was the size of a small car and weighed just over a ton. By 1963, the US Navy had eighty of them.


DASH was designed to be expendable; when it dropped a Mk57 nuclear depth charge it would be within the lethal radius of the resulting explosion. The powerful warhead, from five to twenty kilotons, guaranteed that the sub would be destroyed, and losing one drone for one submarine was a good exchange rate. The idea that DASH should carry a non-nuclear homing torpedo and come back afterwards was a case of mission creep; according to the original design it was only supposed to make one flight.


Executive Officer Phil King of the USS Blue modified a DASH, adding a television camera for reconnaissance and gunnery direction. Known as SNOOPY missions, these involved the DASH flying out to find targets. The operator identified them via the television link, and the destroyer then opened up with its battery of five-inch guns. The drone operator could see where the shells were landing and tell the gunners how to adjust their aim.

Further developments followed, including NITE PANTHER and BLOW LOW versions equipped with additional fuel tanks for longer range, night-vision systems and airborne radar.

The next logical step was to convert the DASH from finding targets to attacking them. NITE GAZELLE, GUN SHIP, and ATTACK DRONE were all individual modified aircraft with a range of weaponry including a six-barreled minigun firing four thousand rounds a minute, grenade launchers, bomblet dispensers and bombs, as well as a laser designator for directing smart bombs. The idea was that drones with guns would deal with the ground defenses, leaving the way clear for the bomber drones to hit targets with pinpoint accuracy.


“It became quite evident that the Navy no longer wanted DASH and wanted to move onto LAMPS manned helicopters.”

LAMPS was the Light Airborne Multipurpose System, a new manned helicopter that would operate from destroyers and take over the role of DASH. Removing DASH from the picture meant there would be no competition, and nobody would be able to argue that LAMPS was unnecessary.


The LAMPS project became the SH-60 Sea Hawk, now a multibillion dollar success story.

Drop a howitzer on them

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2023

The GBU-28 is a 5,000-pound laser-guided “bunker busting” bomb:

It was designed, manufactured, and deployed in less than three weeks due to an urgent need during Operation Desert Storm to penetrate hardened Iraqi command centers located deep underground.


The GBU-28 is unique in that time between the finalized design being approved to its first use in combat test took only two weeks between the 13th and 27th of February 1991.

The name apparently refers to the fact that this Guided Bomb Unit was designed, built, and ready to drop in four weeks:

The initial batch of GBU-28s was built from modified 8 inch/203 mm artillery barrels (principally from deactivated M110 howitzers), but later examples are purpose-built with the BLU-113 bomb body made by National Forge of Irvine, Pennsylvania. They weigh 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) and contain 630 pounds (286 kg) of Tritonal explosive.


It proved capable of penetrating over 50 meters (164 ft) of earth or 5 meters (16 ft) of solid concrete; this was demonstrated when a test bomb, bolted to a missile sled, smashed through 22 ft (6.7 m) of reinforced concrete and still retained enough kinetic energy to travel a half-mile downrange.

It looks more like a missile than a bomb:

F-15 Dropping GBU-28

The Navy has disposed of 142 reactor compartment packages

Tuesday, November 21st, 2023

For more than a decade, the US Navy has considered the former Enterprise — CVN-65, not NCC-1701 — no longer operational:

In fact, since 2018, the 1,101-foot behemoth has been mostly floating pier side in Newport News, Va., awaiting final dismantlement and disposal.

Ships come and go in the Navy, but their disposal is not usually such a prolonged and complicated affair. They can be used as target practice for what the Navy calls a “SINKEX” or handed over to scrapping and salvaging companies, among other options.

But for a host of reasons, those routes are non-starters for the service’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.


The Navy is not going into this process blind. It has decades of experience rendering nuclear-powered submarines and cruisers safe. Since 1986, the service has disposed of 142 reactor compartment packages, according to Navy spokesman Alan Baribeau.

The traditional process for disposing of a nuclear-powered sub begins with defueling the boat and towing it to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., where workers cut out the section of the ship containing the propulsion plants. The spent fuel, reactors and reactor compartments are packaged and sent to various Department of Energy facilities, which specialize in long-term storage and disposal of nuclear materials, in the Pacific Northwest.

“That was a lot easier with submarines and cruisers,” said Steven Wills, an analyst at the Center for Maritime Strategy. “These [carriers] take up too much space and affect operational units that are based in Bremerton.”

Compared to modern submarines that house just one reactor, Enterprise has eight, a remnant of the early stages of nuclear technology when construction began in 1958. The Nimitz-class, which the service started building in the 1960s, has two reactors per ship. (Baribeau noted that the design differences between Enterprise, the Nimitz and Ford-class carriers will be taken into consideration when the latter classes are prepared for disposal, but added that “lessons learned” from Enterprise will inform the Navy’s choices for its successors.)

Even just finding a place to dock a carrier can be challenging.


Clark noted the Navy’s original nuclear propulsion programs predate the civilian nuclear energy sector, meaning it was an imperative at the time for the Pentagon to have the expertise in-house to see the technology’s lifecycle through from start to finish. But, unlike when Enterprise was being built, there are now private companies capable of dismantling nuclear power plants.

The television technology was a limitation

Monday, November 20th, 2023

America’s first attack drones date back to World War 2, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers):

Lt. Commander Delmar Farhney worked with the US Naval Research Laboratory in the 1930s building radio-controlled anti-aircraft targets for the Navy. It was an exciting era to be working with radio, and Farhney was convinced that unmanned aircraft would be devastatingly effective. By 1941, he had extended his work to aircraft capable of accurately dropping torpedoes and depth charges. Incidentally, Farhney was the first to officially refer to his aircraft as “drones,” a usage the military has since tried to suppress.


He could not use metal, so the TDN-1 was made from plywood.


Some of the work was carried out by organ makers Wurlitzer, with their long experience at shaping plywood. The TDR-1 had a wingspan of forty-eight feet, a speed of almost a hundred and fifty miles per hour, and awkward tricycle landing gear to give space for a 2,000-pound bomb or torpedo slung beneath the fuselage

As an airplane, the TDR-1 was unremarkable, but it was equipped with a remarkable technological breakthrough: remote control by television. Dr. Vladimir Zworykin of RCA was one of the inventors of the television, and he was keen to put it to use in drones. The prototype cameras weighed over three hundred pounds including the transmitter, but this was shrunk into a miniature system weighing ninety-seven pounds, packed into a box the size of a carry-on suitcase. The picture was monochrome with a respectable resolution (350 lines) and a refresh rate of forty hertz, but the image was poor by modern standards. The drone operator had to work under a black cloth to see the green, five-inch screen clearly in daylight.


It was controlled from a modified Avenger torpedo bomber flying up to eight miles away. The special Avenger had a crew of four, with pilot, radio operator, and gunner joined by a drone operator. The latter had a joystick, a television screen, and a rotary telephone dial. The dial controlled altitude and released weapons by dialing specific numbers, and the television gave a real sense of being in the drone.


The drones were eventually allowed to attack a derelict Japanese freighter called Yamazuki Maru off Guadalcanal. Three out of four drones hit the target, and, after some hesitation, the unit was sent into action.

The STAG-1 drones successfully attacked anti-aircraft sites, gun positions, ships, and even a lighthouse. Many of them were used in suicide attacks against challenging targets; the Japanese, not knowing they were unmanned, called them “American kamikazes.”


The commander of the STAG-1, Lt Commander Robert Jones, was convinced that their successes would prove the value of the drone concept. He believed drones would be an important weapon in the assault on mainland Japan. But the Navy top brass did not agree. The drones might be good for precision attacks, but what were needed were formations of heavy bombers. After the drones were all expended, STAG-1 was reassigned. Commander Jones watched unhappily as the thirty Avenger control planes were dumped overboard in Reynard Sound.

The television technology was a limitation, as anyone who has worked with monochrome images can appreciate. Targets that had a clear silhouette, like a ship on the water, showed up clearly and were easy to hit. But any target surrounded by jungle tended to be invisible on the small screen, as they blended in with the confused background.

(Meanwhile, experiments with larger radio-controlled aircraft as suicide bombers against major targets had limited success. In the most famous disaster, Lt Joseph Kennedy Junior was killed when a “robot” PB4Y-1 bomber blew up prematurely in 1944. This left his younger brother John F Kennedy as the family heir.)

Both Farhney and Jones continued the struggle to get drones recognised, and during the Korean War, unmanned attack planes were tried again. In 1952, six obsolete F6F Hellcats were converted to unmanned operation. They were controlled from nearby AD-2Q Skyraiders, with a television system developed from the one on the TDR-1. Flying from the aircraft carrier USS Boxer, the drones successfully hit a power plant, a railway tunnel, and a bridge. Jones wanted to continue operations and attack the Yalu River bridges, which had survived repeated attacks by US heavy bombers.

Farhney went on to become a Rear Admiral and headed the Navy’s guided missile research effort — and in the 1950s he made a number of public statements about UFOs, which he believed to be craft of extraterrestrial origin.

As charge is stored, an electrocaloric material will heat up

Friday, November 17th, 2023

Heat pumps — refrigerators, air conditioners, heaters — consume 30 percent of the world’s electricity, but capacitor-based heat pumps could “pump” more efficiently:

Compressing a gas will heat it up while lowering the pressure cools it down. However, various other materials undergo similar heating and cooling in response to other external influences, including physical stress, magnetic fields, or electric fields. In many cases, these materials remain solid despite experiencing significant changes in temperature, which could potentially simplify the supporting equipment needed for heating and cooling.

In the new work, done by researchers mostly based in Luxembourg, the researchers focused on materials that change temperature in response to electric fields, generically known as electrocalorics. While a variety of configurations have been tested for these materials, researchers have settled on a layered capacitor structure, with the electric field of the material changing as more charge is stored within it. As charge is stored, an electrocaloric material will heat up. When the charge is drained, they’ll draw in heat from the environment.

This has a significant advantage regarding the power needed for the device to operate since the current generated when draining the capacitor can just be used to power something. There’s a little energy lost during the round-trip in and out of storage, but that can potentially be limited to less than one percent.

The thing that uses power is the fact that the capacitors are entirely solid-state—on their own, they’ll just sit in either the source or sink environment. So, you either have to expend energy to physically move the device between the environments or transfer heat from the electrocaloric device to some other material that does the moving. In this case, the researchers simply exchanged heat with the source and sink by pumping a liquid through the electrocaloric material.

For the electrocaloric device, the researchers created a multilayer capacitor using a lead/scandium/tantalum oxide material. This was crafted into a series of parallel plates with gaps in between them, which allowed fluid to flow through the device.

The hardware worked by adding charge to the capacitor, which would heat the fluid in its immediate vicinity. That fluid would then be pumped to exchange heat with one environment, warming it up. While that was happening, the charge was drained from the device, cooling the fresh fluid that had been pumped into place. That cooled fluid was then pumped out to exchange heat with a separate environment, allowing the cycle to be repeated. Over time, this would gradually cool the first environment while heating the second.

And it worked. Heat was effectively transferred between the two environments, and measurements suggested that the device itself was capable of changing temperature by as much as 21° C. That’s a 50 percent improvement over the best electrocaloric device previously demonstrated. The cooling power is the equivalent of 5.6 watts, which works out to be about 116 W/kg of material.

It was also quite stable. The researchers built up a voltage difference of 400 V across the capacitor without any sign of breakdown, and performance remained steady across 100,000 cycles tested for this publication. Based on accelerated aging tests, the researchers estimate that one of these devices would last over 30 years in typical conditions.

The researchers also calculated its Carnot efficiency. This was higher for tests where the total temperature difference was relatively small. Assuming the power stored in the capacitor was put to use, the hardware can reach 64 percent of the maximum theoretical efficiency, which is considerably higher than any previous electrocaloric device.

Their inventors were not scientists

Thursday, November 16th, 2023

Was science really the key to the Industrial Revolution?

Most of the significant inventions of the Industrial Revolution were not undergirded by a deep scientific understanding, and their inventors were not scientists.

The standard chronology ignores many of the important events of the previous 500 years. Widespread trade expanded throughout Europe. Artists began using linear perspective and mathematicians learned to use derivatives. Financiers started joint stock corporations and ships navigated the open seas. Fiscally powerful states were conducting warfare on a global scale.

Nobody wants them when the war is over

Monday, November 13th, 2023

David Hambling opens Swarm Troopers with a history of drones — which is not a history of steady progress:

History shows that drones tend to be ruthlessly terminated by a military establishment that harbors a ferocious antipathy to anything that dares to compete with manned aircraft.


The cavalry officers who could not see the advantages of switching to motor vehicles at the start of the twentieth century were making a rational assessment based on the available evidence. Horses had centuries of successful service, while their motorized replacements had always been clumsy and unreliable, especially on rough going.


Even when they have proven successful, nobody wants them when the war is over: “The great broom of victory swept all new projects into the ashcan of forgotten dreams,” as Commander Delmar Farhney put it.


Drone prehistory goes back to 1849 and the use of bomb-dropping balloons in the siege of Venice. These were devised by the ingenious Lieutenant Uchatius of the Austrian army. It was not possible to bring siege artillery close enough to the city. Uchatius, better known to history as a photographic pioneer, rigged up hot-air balloons to release small bombs by remote control via a copper wire. About twenty of the balloons were launched. Austrian news reports suggested the bombs would turn Venice into rubble, but it seems that only one or two hit the city. The rest fell into the waters of the Venetian Lido or outside the city entirely.


In some ways the true inventor of unmanned warfare was Nikola Tesla, who demonstrated a miniature boat controlled by radio waves at Madison Square Garden in 1898. Tesla believed that a version armed with torpedoes could sink battleships and lead to a new age in which wars were fought between machines with no human combatants. As with many of his projects, Tesla never developed the idea beyond the initial demonstration.

Both Britain and the US developed their own drone aircraft in WWI. The British effort was headed by “Professor” Archibald Low — he used the title even though he was not actually a university professor. Low had a tremendous enthusiasm for remote control and was repeatedly distracted from one project by another. His project was known as “AT,” short for Aerial Target, a designation to mislead the enemy into thinking the device was simply a target for anti-aircraft practice. This name proved to be strangely prophetic.

The AT was a wooden biplane with a fourteen-foot wingspan and an explosive warhead, intended for use against both ground targets and zeppelins. It flew well initially, but the program was terminated after an unfortunate incident in 1917 when it was being demonstrated to a group of generals.


The first AT to be launched in the demonstration suffered engine failure during take-off and flopped into the ground. A Major Bell delivered the verdict quoted at the head of this chapter: “I could throw my bloody umbrella further than that!”

The second machine fared even worse. The operator lost control and the AT flew right at the audience, scattering them before veering off and crashing a few feet away. As a demonstration of controlled flight, it was unconvincing. Nobody present can have thought that it was advisable to put high explosives on drones.


By 1918, Sperry’s Aerial Torpedo was able to fly along a preset route and dive on a target, delivering a thousand-pound bomb or releasing a torpedo. The weapon was too late to be used in action, and after the war, the US Navy thought drones were useful only for gunnery practice.


Even when relegated to the ignominious role of targets, drones developed a knack for embarrassing humans. In the 1930s, the British Air Ministry decided to test the claim that battleships were vulnerable to air attack by flying a radio-controlled Fairey Queen target plane against the British Mediterranean fleet. After more than two hours of sustained anti-aircraft fire and numerous passes, the drone was undamaged.

The Royal Navy accepted that its air defenses needed upgrading. Large numbers of drones were built as a result — but only as targets. Nobody thought the test showed that an unmanned aircraft might be an effective weapon.

A drone is simply a smartphone with wings, and the wings are the cheap part

Monday, November 6th, 2023

When it became clear that drones were playing a significant role in Ukraine, I decided to finally catch up on the topic, and I noticed that David Hambling, whose articles seemed reasonable and well written, had written a book on the topic back in 2013, Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world.

One of the first points he makes in the book is that the Pentagon used to always be 20 years ahead of the private sector:

Smartphone sales have accelerated from zero in 2006 to over a billion smartphones shipped in 2013.


Billions of dollars are spent annually on advancing technology just for small electronic devices.


These days soldiers are less likely to be awestruck at the gadgetry they are issued than shocked by how clunky it is compared to the sleek lightweight devices they have at home.


Selling to the military means extensive testing and certification, with the related delays and costs. Add to this a military bureaucracy that can take years to agree on the specification it wants in the first place, overseen by a political leadership that may cancel, delay, or divert any project depending on the shifting sands of expediency, and you have a recipe for a long time between generations.

Each generation of electronics roughly translates to a doubling of processing power, memory, pixels, or other relevant metrics. If a commercial product goes through a generation every two years, and the military cycle takes six years per generation, then in twelve years the military product goes from being four times as powerful as the competition to a quarter as powerful.


A drone is simply a smartphone with wings, and the wings are the cheap part.

Sergei Brin’s airship has received FAA Clearance

Thursday, November 2nd, 2023

Sergei Brin’s airship has received FAA Clearance:

Expect traffic on the 101 highway in Mountain View, California, to be even worse in the days or weeks ahead, as motorists slow down to watch Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s 124-meter long airship Pathfinder 1 launch into the air for the first time.

IEEE Spectrum has learned that LTA Research, the company that Brin founded in 2015 to develop airships for humanitarian and cargo transport, received a special airworthiness certificate for the helium-filled airship in early September.

That piece of paper allows the largest aircraft since the ill-fated Hindenburg to begin flight tests at Moffett Field, a joint civil-military airport in Silicon Valley, with immediate effect.

The certificate permits LTA to fly Pathfinder 1 within the boundaries of Moffett Field and neighboring Palo Alto airport’s airspaces, at a height of up to 460 meters (1500 feet). That will let it venture out over the south San Francisco Bay, without interfering with planes flying into or out of San Jose and San Francisco International commercial airports.


Twelve electric motors distributed on the sides and tail of the airship, and four fin rudders, allow for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and speeds of up to about 120 kilometers per hour. A tough layer of laminated Tedlar material contains 13 helium bags of ripstop nylon, which contain lidar systems to track the gas levels within.

Pathfinder 1 has a hybrid propulsion system, with two 150 kilowatt diesel generators working alongside 24 batteries to provide power for the electric motors, according to a recent presentation by LTA’s CEO, Alan Weston. He said that LTA has plans to use hydrogen in later versions of the airship, perhaps as fuel for future fuel cells or turbogenerators, and possibly even as a lifting gas.

LTA’s Pathfinder 1 carries bigger dreams than hovering over a sports stadium:

Pathfinder’s cigar-shaped envelope is just over 120 meters in length and 20 meters in diameter. While that dwarfs Goodyear’s current, 75-meter Wingfoot One, it’s still only half the length of the Hindenburg. LTA expects Pathfinder 1 to carry approximately 4 tonnes of cargo, in addition to its crew, water ballast, and fuel. The airship will have a top speed of 65 knots, or about 120 kilometers per hour—on par with the Hindenburg—with a sustained cruise speed of 35 to 40 knots (65 to 75 km/h).

It may not seem much of an advance to be building an airship that flies no faster than the Hindenburg. But Pathfinder 1 carries a lot of new tech that LTA is betting will prove key to an airship resurgence.

For one, airships used to be constructed around riveted aluminum girders, which provided the highest strength-to-weight ratio available at the time. Instead, LTA will be using carbon-fiber tubes attached to titanium hubs. As a result, Pathfinder 1’s primary structure will be both stronger and lighter.

Pathfinder 1’s outer covering is also a step up from past generations. Airships like the 1930s’ Graf Zeppelin had coverings made out of doped cotton canvas. The dope painted on the fabric increased its strength and resiliency. But canvas is still canvas. LTA has instead built its outer coverings out of a three-layer laminate of synthetics. The outermost layer is DuPont’s Tedlar, which is a polyvinyl fluoride. The middle layer is a loose weave of fire-retardant aramid fibers. The inner layer is polyester. “It’s very similar to what’s used in a lot of racing sailboats,” says Taussig. “We needed to modify that material to make it fire resistant and change a little bit about its structural performance.”

But neither the materials science nor the manufacturing advances will take primary credit for LTA’s looked-for success, according to Taussig—instead, it’s the introduction of electronics. “Everything’s electric on Pathfinder,” he says. “All the actuation, all the propulsion, all the actual power is all electrically generated. It’s a fully electric fly-by-wire aircraft, which is not something that was possible 80 years ago.” Pathfinder 1 has 12 electric motors for propulsion, as well as four tail fins with steering rudders controlled by its fly-by-wire system. (During initial test flights, the airship will be powered by two reciprocating aircraft engines).

There’s one other piece of equipment making an appearance on Pathfinder 1 that wasn’t available 80 years ago: lidar. Installed at the top of each of Pathfinder 1’s helium gas cells is an automotive-grade lidar. “The lidar can give us a point cloud showing the entire internal hull of that gas cell,” says Taussig, which can then be used to determine the gas cell’s volume accurately. In flight, the airship’s pilots can use that information, as well as data about the helium’s purity, pressure, and temperature, to better keep the craft pitched properly and to avoid extra stress on the internal structure during flight.

Although LTA’s initial focus is on humanitarian applications, there are other areas where airships might shine one day. “An airship is kind of a ‘tweener,’ in between sea cargo and air freight,” says Taussig. Being fully electric, Pathfinder 1 is also greener than traditional air- or sea-freight options.

The longstanding U.S. base is a radar facility

Friday, October 27th, 2023

Two months before Hamas attacked Israel, the Pentagon awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to build U.S. troop facilities for a secret base it maintains deep within Israel’s Negev desert, just 20 miles from Gaza:

Codenamed “Site 512,” the longstanding U.S. base is a radar facility that monitors the skies for missile attacks on Israel.

On October 7, however, when thousands of Hamas rockets were launched, Site 512 saw nothing — because it is focused on Iran, more than 700 miles away.


The $35.8 million U.S. troop facility, not publicly announced or previously reported, was obliquely referenced in an August 2 contract announcement by the Pentagon.


“Sometimes something is treated as an official secret not in the hope that an adversary would never find out about it but rather [because] the U.S. government, for diplomatic or political reasons, does not want to officially acknowledge it,” Paul Pillar, a former chief analyst at the CIA’s counterterrorism center who said he had no specific knowledge of the base, told The Intercept. “In this case, perhaps the base will be used to support operations elsewhere in the Middle East in which any acknowledgment that they were staged from Israel, or involved any cooperation with Israel, would be inconvenient and likely to elicit more negative reactions than the operations otherwise would elicit.”

Since I recently read The Puzzle Palace, I can’t help but notice that this sounds like a SIGINT collection facility.