Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Big Bluebird is Watching You…

Every now and then on this blog I have a little rant. It’s my blog, and I’ll rant if I want to. If you don’t want to read about me ranting, then come back next week when I shall return to being all sweetness and light.

Right. You’re still here aren’t you? Good, because what I am about to talk about will offend everyone from the civil rights movement to the animal protection league.

It seems that the American government has spent a no doubt proportionately ridiculous amount on developing little spy planes designed to look like hummingbirds.

Yes, you read it right. If that is not enough, they are also working on mechanical drones to look like insects and even maple leaf seeds.

I kid you not.

And if that is not enough, they are also fooling around with the idea of implanting surveillance equipment into real insects as they are undergoing metamorphosis. The only aspect of this which seems to be bothering the folks at the Pentagon is that these little guys might interfere with aircraft. Oh and the "legal implications".

This makes me Very Mad Indeed.

But, enough about me, let’s talk about them for a minute. Here’s the Associated Press article in its entirety. It’s worth reading all the way through… (The Silly Comments in bold are, of course, mine.)

AP: The Pentagon has poured millions of dollars into the development of tiny drones inspired by biology, each equipped with video and audio equipment that can record sights and sounds.

They could be used to spy, but also to locate people inside earthquake-crumpled buildings and detect hazardous chemical leaks.

The smaller, the better.

Besides the hummingbird, engineers in the growing unmanned aircraft industry are working on drones that look like insects and the helicopter-like maple leaf seed.

Researchers are even exploring ways to implant surveillance and other equipment into an insect as it is undergoing metamorphosis. They want to be able to control the creature.

The devices could end up being used by police officers and firefighters.
Their potential use outside of battle zones, however, is raising questions about privacy and the dangers of the winged creatures buzzing around in the same skies as aircraft.

For now, most of these devices are just inspiring awe.

With a 6.5-inch wing span, the remote-controlled bird weighs less than a AA battery and can fly at speeds of up to 11 mph, propelled only by the flapping of its two wings. A tiny video camera sits in its belly.

The bird can climb and descend vertically, fly sideways, forward and backward. It can rotate clockwise and counterclockwise.

Most of all it can hover and perch on a window ledge while it gathers intelligence, unbeknownst to the enemy.

(Emphasis mine... That's it! The bird feeder has GOT to go.)

"We were almost laughing out of being scared because we had signed up to do this," said Matt Keennon, senior project engineer of California's AeroVironment, which built the hummingbird.

The Pentagon asked them to develop a pocket-sized aircraft for surveillance and reconnaissance that mimicked biology. It could be anything, they said, from a dragonfly to a hummingbird.

Five years and $4 million later, the company has developed what it calls the world's first hummingbird spy plane.

"It was very daunting up front and remained that way for quite some time into the project," he said, after the drone blew by his head and landed on his hand during a media demonstration.

The toughest challenges were building a tiny vehicle that can fly for a prolonged period and be controlled or control itself.

AeroVironment has a history of developing such aircraft.

Over the decades, the Monrovia, Calif.-based company has developed everything from a flying mechanical reptile to a hydrogen-powered plane capable of flying in the stratosphere and surveying an area larger than Afghanistan at one glance.

It has become a leader in the hand-launched drone industry.

Troops fling a four-pound plane, called the Raven, into the air. They have come to rely on the real-time video it sends back, using it to locate roadside bombs or get a glimpse of what is happening over the next hill or around a corner. (Note: Edgar Allan Poe is saying from the grave: "See!")

The success of the hummingbird drone, however, "paves the way for a new generation of aircraft with the agility and appearance of small birds," said Todd Hylton of the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

These drones are not just birds.

Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or so-called whirly bird, loaded with navigation equipment and imaging sensors. The spy plane weighs .07 ounces.

On the far end of the research spectrum, DARPA is also exploring the possibility of implanting live insects during metamorphosis with video cameras or sensors and controlling them by applying electrical stimulation to their wings.

The idea is for the military to be able to send in a swarm of bugs loaded with spy gear.

The military is also eyeing other uses.

The drones could be sent in to search buildings in urban combat zones. Police are interested in using them, among other things, to detect a hazardous chemical leak. Firefighters could fling them out over a disaster to get better data, quickly.

It is hard to tell what, if anything, will make it out of the lab, but their emergence presents challenges and not just with physics.

What are the legal implications, especially with interest among police in using tiny drones for surveillance, and their potential to invade people's privacy, asks Peter W. Singer, author of the book, "Wired for War" about robotic warfare.

Singer said these questions will be increasingly discussed as robotics become a greater part of everyday life.

"It's the equivalent to the advent of the printing press, the computer, gun powder," he said. "It's that scale of change."

I suppose that what really angered me about this development in robotics was not so much the invasion of privacy (there is far more out there than any of us wee mortal folk will ever know), but the fact that humans could sully nature so much that in order to re-create it we have to use it for our own violent ends. Can you imagine looking at a Blue Morpho Butterfly, or an Owl Butterfly and wondering: Friend or Foe?

I mean really… meddling Monarchs, snooping Salamanders, and terrorist Termites?

Holy Preying Mantis (sic), Batman!

But of course, the article offers by way of reasonable explanation, these drones can be used to BENEFIT humankind. Instead of sniffer dogs in earthquakes, man’s best friend could be a fully automated sparrow. Firemen could keep Great Spotted Whatnots as pets and save on the cost of Dalmatian food. It’s all very practical really and who wouldn’t love to be rescued by a hummingbird?

And you wondered where all the bees had gone…

1 comment:

  1. "Metamorphosis" ... That rang a bell:
    1st (metamorfosis de la piedra) about the restauration of the Pórtico de la Gloria, and
    2nd about Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium — Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam... […] El actual proyecto de restauración, que dirige Concha Cirujano, del Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España (con el mecenazgo de la Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza, que ha destinado tres millones de euros), no pretende devolver la policromía al pórtico, en el sentido de "repintarlo". Se investiga con curiosas herramientas de arqueología futurista como el inclinómetro o el fisurómetro o se entra en las zonas secretas de la piedra del pórtico con la sutileza de la videoindoscopia o la exploración por ultrasonido. Es importante detectar el punto de rocío: cuando se produce una condensación que puede resultar dañina. Localizar colonias de líquenes y algas. Medir la incidencia de la multitud humana. Los trabajos de estudio comenzaron en el mes de julio de 2009 y se prolongarán un año. Es un acercamiento ecologista al pórtico: observar la metamorfosis de la piedra; escuchar su pálpito; merodear su zona secreta. Un periodo que abarca las cuatro estaciones. Conocer el cambio climático del pórtico. La humedad aparece como el principal factor de riesgo. Por las termografías realizadas, parece que la humedad del suelo y de las pilastras no llega al pórtico. La humedad, por decirlo así, trepa en sus momentos más activos unos dos metros de altura. […]

    In Bable Fish translation:

    The present project of restoration, that directs to Shell Surgeon, of the Institute of the Cultural Patrimony of Spain (with the patronage of the Foundation Pedro Barrié of Maza, who has destined three million Euros), it does not try to give back the policromía to the porch, in the sense of " repintarlo". It is investigated with peculiar tools of futurist archaeology as the clinometer or fisurómetro or enters the secret zones of the stone of the porch with the subtility of the videoindoscopia or the exploration by ultrasound. It is important to detect the dew point: when a condensation takes place that can be harmful. To locate to colonies of lichens and seaweed. To measure the incidence of the human multitude. The works of study began in the month of 2009 July and they will extend a year. It is an ecological approach to the porch: to observe the metamorphosis of the stone; to listen to his I beat; to roam its secret zone. A period that includes the four stations. To know the change climatic the porch. The humidity appears like the main factor of risk. By the realised thermographies, it seems that the humidity of the ground and the pilasters does not arrive at the porch. The humidity, so to speak, climb at its more active moments about two meters of height.

    ... 2nd about Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium — Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam – see & hear - Georg Friedrich Händel, Concerto Grosso Op. 3, no. 2, Maria Sibylla Merian

    41 pages with hundreds of marvellous pictures of plants and insects and their metamorphosis:

    60 large painting from her original book:

    Magic! Pure magic! She helped getting rid of old ideas of spontaneous generation. A few decades ago I saw a facsimile reprint of the original (large folio about 75 cm by 50 cm) on sale for Fl. 5.000 and yesterday in an old bookshop I found a pocketbook with 17 of her finest plates for € 3,50.