Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mobile Lasers: HEL MD

The High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, one of the Army's newest development projects, has used directed energy technology to take down mortars and drones in tests. Photo via Army.
The Army continues to develop anti-drone technology, announcing recent successes with the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD). It has reportedly taken down dozens of low-velocity targets such as mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles at its test location in the White Sands Missile Range. Developed by Boeing, the HEL MD uses a radar system to track aerial targets and a directed energy weapon to neutralize them. There are several directed-energy weapons and defense systems being developed by Boeing currently; click here to read more about the Tactical Relay Mirror System, Mk 38 Tactical Laser System, the Free Electron Laser, and the HEL MD.
The Emblem of the White Sands Missile Range, via the White Sands Missile Range.

The HEL MD joins its sibling technology, the LCS-mounted LaWS, and its less-directly-related HPRF cousin, as yet another major development in anti-unmanned systems technology. While all of these technologies can be used to disable explosive devices, the common link between them is that they have all been tested against and specifically reported as being effective against drones and other unmanned systems. The High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility (HELSTF) in the White Sands Missile Range is working on even more powerful directed-energy weaponry, and claims to have the most powerful laser "in the Western Hemisphere" called the MIRACL (Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser). In fact, HELSTF claims that most of its 'demonstration' devices such as the HEL MD are designed for missions that "do not need the full power of the MIRACL." Surely we will see lasers continue to become more and more powerful, and it seems we will continue to see an increasing demand for counter-drone technology.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Eyes in the Sky

Clearing IEDs and preventing terrorist bombings is an area of great technical importance to the military and the world's governments. Air support remains one of the most effective tools for ground troops clearing IEDs in Afghanistan. The country does not have a flat terrain, and the ground force's field of vision is cut off beyond the hills, where an enemy could be waiting to strike from. Air support also gives troops the ability to "see" ahead, and clear the way before having visuals on the road beyond. What the Pentagon Channel's video above implies, however, is a third, powerful advantage in enhanced communication with civilians in war zones.

The situation being filmed in this video illustrates how air support can determine the difference between daily life (i.e. farming) and planting roadside explosives. A task force is called to clear a road of suspected IEDs, and multiple truckloads of specialists and a helicopter are deployed. This massive force travels down a small, dusty road in Afghanistan only to find that civilians are digging holes for agricultural purposes. They are able to determine their intentions because of the helicopter flying overhead, which is able to relay this information without the ground forces having to travel ahead and risk an unnecessary confrontation. Bringing a powerful force into a civilian situation can create feelings of mistrust in the local communities, and US forces rely on strong connections with these communities in order to properly combat real terrorist threats. Therefore, air support aids military operations by providing troops with intel that can improve communications with civilians.

In some ways, this video also shows the clear need for increased unmanned air systems deployment in war zones. If one car had a single UAS, they could have involved a third of the troops sent to the area, and the helicopter would not have been needed at all. The valuable intelligence gathered from unmanned systems in the sky helps not only to cut down costs on aircraft but also on the number of missions troops are sent out on. Sending dozens of military personnel and driving/flying tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment to check a dusty road in Afghanistan, only to find farmers preparing their fields, should become a thing of the past now that unmanned systems can gather information remotely and accurately. In fact, the Department of Defense anticipates this and has plans for it in their Drone Roadmap 2010-2035. We can look forward to unmanned systems cutting military spending in the very near future.

Monday, January 13, 2014

NATO Bomb-Detection

The Stand-off Detection of Explosives (STANDEX) research conducted by NATO Allies and Russia could be the next step forward in technology to prevent transport-system terrorist strikes.

The system involves a multitude of sensors that detect explosive materials. They line the halls of a public area, and as a user sets off numerous sensors, authorities can easily track and apprehend the suspect before they reach their target destination. In conjunction with an HPRF directed energy weapon, this could be the best method of identifying and defusing explosives available. The STANDEX system is rather pricy at the moment, but hopefully prices will be lowered enough to make this a regularly utilized counter-terrorist system inside and outside the NATO Alliance.

It is of importance to note that Russia specifically collaborated with NATO to build this project, as they have been struck with devastating terrorist attacks in the recent years. NATO's other futuristic counter-terrorist technology, the directed energy weapon (or HPRF), will be implemented in 2014. The STANDEX project exemplifies developed nations' continued efforts against terrorism, and the impact terrorism plays and will continue to play in our defense and military spending in the near and potentially distant future.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

EMP Stops Car Bombs & Drones

High powered electromagnetic weapons (also known as high power radiofrequency weapons, or HPRFs) are currently being tested by NATO in Norway for non-lethal disabling of cars, bombs, sea vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. This scientific breakthrough is significant for numerous reasons, one being that it can completely power down almost any kind of vehicle without injuring the driver. That means that even a car packed with explosives speeding toward a blockade can be powered down to a full stop and the driver can be apprehended without a bullet fired. Another reason it is an important military technology breakthrough is that it can be highly targeted,disabling only a particular vehicle or device without destroying all electronics in the area. Unlike other directed energy weapons, they can also be operated in poor weather.

An antenna is used to direct the energy generated from a given power source. That power is absorbed by the electronics inside the target and causes operational failure. Research and photo via George H. Baker, 2011.

The military is taking interest in EMPs and directed energy weapons as they are both a valuable asset as well as a threat to critical operational systems and vehicles. Like NATO's car-disabling HPRF, the Laser Weapons System is another directed energy weapons being implemented by the military as soon as 2014. HPRFs are limited by their antenna, and portability is a concern, but they are simple enough that they can feasibly be built from spare microwave oven parts. The Army has been preparing vehicles such as the Abrams tank to withstand EMPs, and more counter-EMP technology will be researched as this counter-technology becomes a more significant threat to critical systems. Research into HPRFs indicates yet another strong counter-drone technological trend among the military and the international community, as these directed energy weapons can cripple any unmanned system within their range. It also brings the world closer to directed-energy weapons making appearances in modern warfare, and the inevitable need to build technologies that can counter directed-energy blasts.

An EMP device is hung above an M1 Abrams tank to test its ability to withstand EMP pulses at the White Sands Missile Range. Such pulses can be generated by HRPFs or nuclear blasts. Photo via US Army.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Open-Source Microsoft Kinect Physical Therapy

"It works, it's not expensive, and we've seen great results from it." - Dr. Glen House, describing NeuMimic's test trials with stroke patients

Seven Air Force cadets have begun collaborating with Dr. Glen House of Colorado's Penrose St. Francis Health Services on a physical therapy system called "NeuMimic." The software for the program runs on a computer and a Microsoft Kinect gaming camera attached. The camera allows the software to track the trainers movements, which the patient must then follow. These movements are represented by colorful stick figures that are first recorded by a trainer, then followed by the patient; the program tracks the patient's ability to accurately follow these movements, and then send the scores back to the trainer. NeuMimic allows for adjustments to difficulty, and sends the patient's progress reports back to the trainer/physician with information about the highest difficulties that patient could achieve. This creates a new metric for tracking rehabilitative progress. Most important of all, it allows for continued physical therapy training and benefits even when the instructor is not in the room, which increases the overall access to care that patients have to physical therapy training and gives the patient more autonomy in their care.

The Microsoft Kinect, seen here taken apart, has been used for many purposes beyond gaming, including robotics, for its ability to track body movements and positioning. Photo via Hacked Gadgets.
NeuMimic helps cut down on costs because it allows for physical therapists and trainers to work with more patients at a time and provide differentiated feedback without being in the room every time a patient wants to practice his or her therapy. Microsoft Kinect's camera is very low cost, and the program is available for free online. The project is now being considered as a remote physical therapy solution for stroke victims, as it has already demonstrated successful rehabilitative potential with stroke patients. The software is available online and can be downloaded and used with a Kinect device for free on any Windows computer: here is the link to the project homepage. Computer science developers have also been invited to collaborate with the cadets on the project, and can download the SDK kit from the NeuMimic website to improve the technology.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Are ICBMs Outdated?

"Since direct wartime nuclear operations against Russia alone, or Russia-China in combination, were Cold War scenarios that are no longer plausible, and since overflying Russia en route to more southerly targets (in China, North Korea, Iran) risks confusing Russia with ambiguous attack indications and triggering nuclear retaliation, the U.S. ICBM force has lost its central utility." - Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report, May 2012, Pages 7-8
The missile test launched at 4:36 A.M.  on December 17, 2013 from Vanderburg Air Force Base in California. Photo via US Air Force.
The LGM-30G Minuteman III is an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) that can reach targets over 6,000 miles from launch. It weighs roughly 80,000 pounds and travels 15,000 miles per hour (Mach 23). According to the US Air Force, there are currently 450 Minuteman missiles in the US ICBM arsenal. There are a number of difficulties with Minuteman III's silo-based launch tactics, including its flight trajectory toward N.Korea, Syria, and Iran going over Russian airspace; Russia's nuclear arsenal is cited as the only one capable of wiping out the US's weapons, and a launch to strike a more southern target could trigger a retaliation response.

Launch ranges from Minuteman III sites, Malmstrum, Minot, F.E. Warren, and a few others. The team from Malmstrom was involved in the most recent launch from Vanderburg. (Global Zero US Nuclear Policy Commission Report, Page 7)
The Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report, authored by Gen. James Cartwright, Sen. Chuck Hagel, Amb. Richard Burt, Gen. Jack Sheehan, and Dr. Bruce Blair reports that the Minuteman land-based missile systems would be "eliminated." Read the full report here.
Our nation's leadership has shifted its public stances on nuclear weapons over the past decade from necessary deterrent technologies to dangers that must be dismantled, and President Obama's administration has widely promoted a public and international rhetoric of removing nuclear weapons from our arsenal. In the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel even states that the Minuteman III missiles must all be dismantled in the hopes of creating a nuclear-free world. (Page 6) Nevertheless, the military continues to upgrade and maintain Minuteman III missiles; they've been called "the US's prime nuclear deterrent" and are promised to continue being implemented as such "through 2020", according to ATK, an aerospace and defense contracting firm. Despite efforts to lower the number of nuclear weapons, the administration continues to improve the range and destructive capabilities of these technologies, implying that the US is not yet completely ready to give up the Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) thinking of the Cold War era.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

US Army Sends 800 to S. Korea

The entrance to Camp Stanley, South Korea. The camp was established in 1955 as a tent city, and has since become something of a memorial for Korean war veterans. Photo via Camp Stanley Korea.
On January 7, one day after US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, the US Army announced a rotational deployment of an 800-person cavalry unit from Fort Hood, TX to two bases, Camps Hovey and Stanley, in South Korea. The Department of Defense press release states the mission of the "combat-ready" US Army's 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st U.S. Cavalry Division:
"This combined arms battalion, comprised of approximately 800 soldiers and its own wheeled and tracked vehicles, will deploy to conduct operations in support of U.S. Forces Korea and Eighth Army. This action supports the United States' defense commitment to the Republic of Korea as specified by the mutual defense treaty and presidential agreements."
The deployment information released by DoD does not mention any unmanned systems to be deployed in the Koreas, but the release does state that the equipment "will remain in country for use by follow-on rotations" and that the battalion's missions are part of an "enduring rebalancing effort within the Asia-Pacific region" that "allows for greater responsiveness to better meet theater operational requirements." Knowing the DoD's roadmap for increased deployment of unmanned systems in the Pacific Theater and greater Asia, one can only assume that these systems will arrive in the Koreas at some point in the future if they have not been deployed already.

A map of the 22 recorded US Military camps in the Korean DMZ area shows the clear emphasis on the thin border and naval area separating North and South Korea. Image via GlobalSecurity.
Camp Hovey, located in the Gyeonggi Province, is right on the border between North and South Korea, while Camp Stanley, a helicopter refueling and landing base, is only twenty miles from Seoul, South Korea's capital. Each base is currently home to about 2,500 troops and personnel. Before assuming that these bases are solely focused on militarism, consider for a moment the Facebook photos posted by Area I Red Cloud Casey, part of the collective bases that includes Camp Stanley. They feature musical performances, comedy acts, talent shows, and visitations from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Even the cast of Sesame Street came to entertain the families' children on an October USO Tour. The welcome video shown below details the many hospitable aspects of deployment in Area I, including access to frequent entertainment, shopping, dining, and other amenities.

Knowing full well that these are skewed with propaganda in mind, these kinds of resources put into perspective the current situation for troops on the ground in South Korea. If conflict were to arise, these bases could once more become heavily active resupply stations for air forces.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Drone Hunters

"Whereas, many Western communities in rural America provide monetary incentives (bounties) for the killing of predators that are injurious to Man and his interests, the Town of Deer Trail likewise establishes hunting licenses and bounties for the killing of unmanned aerial vehicles, in keeping with the Western traditions of sovereignty and freedom." - Phil Steel, 'Ordinance to Defend the Sovereign Airspace of the Town of Deer Trail, Colorado.'

Deer Trail, Colorado has postponed voting on an ordinance that would award licenses and bounties to citizens who "kill" federal drones flying above their property, or anywhere in the town until spring of 2014. The ordinance was written and proposed by Phil Steel, a resident of the under-600-resident town who hopes to create a system that would grant drone hunting-licenses for citizens to shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles in the "sovereign airspace of the town of Deer Trail, Colorado." There are a number of legal violations involved in shooting down government aircraft, but the ordinance is more of an emotional stand against the invasion of privacy rather than a stand for establishing a viable drone-hunting protocols.

A prototype 'Drone Hunting License' posted online by the Professional Drone Hunters. Image via
The wording of the ordinance is highly emotionally charged, displaying a passionate yet logically flawed explanation for the imminent need for Deer Trail's citizens to "kill" drones. The introduction to the ordinance is a lenghty portrayal of the town of Deer Trail as the last holdout of liberty against tyrannical government forces, non-government organizations, and 'powerful corporate interests'. In the eyes of its author, these evil organizations used covert and aggressive forces to such a point that Deer Trail's residents must now fight for their very existence. Steel, the author, unabashedly claims the citizens of his town "have and maintain a distinctive way of life that emphasizes independence, freedom, and social/political/economic self-determination" that is currently under threat from surveillance and privacy invasion of unmanned aerial systems. He proposes that the motion to pass this ordinance rests on the historical abuse of government abuse of the residents of his town. Steel writes,
"State and federal governmental entities, non-governmental organizations and powerful corporate interests have previously encroached on the freedoms and liberties of the Town of Deer Trail and its citizens, even to the extent of conducting violent armed assaults against targeted members of our community while jeopardizing the lives and safety of members of the community."
It should be noted that there is no mention of any governmental maliciousness or violence toward the town on the Deer Field public websites, nor in any historical references located online. Still, the ordinance continues with even more hyperbolic statements, saying that world governments, and international interests are all threatened by Deer Trail's "traditional American ideas of Liberty and Freedom." Steel even equates the intentions of the government and of corporations to terrorist groups, referring to them all in the same statements that put Deer Trail on the opposite end of the "Tyranny - Liberty" spectrum.
"State and Federal entities, non-governmental organizations, international interests, state and non-state actors, terrorists and others are threatened by traditional American ideas of Liberty and Freedom, and heritage of such principles remains inherent in the common way of life by ranchers, farmers, cowboys and Indians, as well as contemporary citizens of the Town of Deer Trail." (Drone Ordinance)
The practicality of catching and taking down a drone over such a small tract of land seems unlikely, but if Deer Trail is successful, other towns that are equally afraid of unmanned air systems will likely raise their barrels to the sky. Image via City Data.
In an unexpected twist of levelheadedness, Phil Steele's counter-drone ordinance does take into account several safety precautions so that the 'drone hunters' and bystanders are as protected from harm as much as possible. The ordinance calls for public education of drone configuration and capabilities so that citizens may distinguish militarized drones from commercial 'toy' unmanned air vehicles; accidental engagement with toy aircraft will result in the shooter fully reimbursing the toy owner. To control for the spread of pellets and to protect bystanders, gun sizes and ammunition types are limited. Such regulations include:
  • Shotguns 12 gauge or smaller, having a barrel length of 18+ inches
  • Shot sizes between 2 and 7.5 may be used (90-350 pellets per ounce)
  • Shots may be lead, steel, depeleted uranium, or any other metal alloy commonly used in shotgun ammunition
  • Exploding ammunition may NOT be used

Interestingly, the ordinance stipulates that the drone education program's annual funding must not exceed $10,000 and that the majority of efforts must come from volunteer teachers. (DroneShooter ordinance, point f) The limited amount of funds and reliance on volunteer efforts might be effective for the town of Deer Trail, but other towns of larger populations will have to structure counter-drone programs differently in order to sustain their efforts. Considering Deer Trail is only a population of five-hundred, the cost per citizen will be roughly $20 in taxes per person per year, not including the cost of 'drone hunting accessories' such as drone-hunting licenses ($25), gun registration fees, range-finding devices, weapons, and munitions. These are not trivial costs and should be taken into account as each citizen decides how much finance he or she is willing to put into personal counter-drone technologies.

Occupational demographics show that virtually everyone in Deer Trail works in a blue collar industry. The majority of men are truck drivers and mechanics, while women are mostly in 'other management' besides farming. Information via City Data.
When compared with the state of Colorado, Deer Trail's average education level is significantly lower. Information via City Data.

Deer Trail's demographics reveal a side of the story left untold by most media reports on the town. This town has under 600 residents, with an estimated mean household income of $49,000; the town is so small that the number of non-white residents amount to less than 30 citizens. This means that Deer Trail is potentially small enough to raise serious concerns about elected officials being biased toward proposed legislative motions. Though a District Court judge in Colorado recently rejected a legal claim that the town clerk responsible for bringing the drone-shooting law to a vote was 'biased,' it is still entirely possible that this act was used as a political maneuver. The town government consists of a mayor and six trustees, and there are two full-time government employees. Other ordinances in the hands of the eight elected officials include three different medical marijuana prohibitory laws, three nuisance ordinance amendments, a curfew for minors, and fence regulations, to name a few. The town seems to be tackling a great deal of personal initiatives and is heavily concerned with morality- and privacy- centric social issues, while it is less concerned with its clear education gap. When it comes to marijuana or being a minor, the town government of Deer Trail has no problem being heavily involved in peoples' private lives, but when it comes to drones, Phil Steel and certain townspeople fear for their last shreds of privacy.
The town is almost split down the middle when it comes to national party politics, indicating there is a diversity of opinion among this small group. Info via City Data.
The fundamental question for DroneShooter supporters is: even without drone surveillance, how much privacy can you have in a town of less than 600 people?

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Combat Ship Comes Home

After nine months of testing at sea, a new addition to the Navy's family has returned to home port. Littoral combat ships (LCS) are a new class of warship being introduced to the Navy, and they possess several advantages over other ship models in coastal (littoral means coastal) operations. The LCS uses waterjets instead of propellors to move through the water, which will save the Navy roughly $100 million in dry dock costs alone. They are faster than most destroyers, and they are highly customizable. Weapons systems and rescue technologies can be installed, moved, and adjusted to fit mission requirements; these are referred to as mission modules. They can carry two Seahawk helicopters and an assortment of vehicles for deploying forces. The LCS is also adept at minesweeping and deployment of unmanned air and maritime systems, making it an ideal replacement vessel for aging minesweeper ships.

USS Freedom, the LCS that returned to home port in San Diego on December 24. Photo taken by MC1 James R. Evans, US Navy. Hosted by Stars and Stripes.
LCS models have been identified as early candidates for the Laser Weapons Systems (LaWS) designed by the Navy to take down aircraft with high-powered lasers instead of bullets. This makes it a strong counter-drone technology for coastal combat. It is admittedly weaker at surface-to-air combat than most destroyers, but its ability to deal with shallower waters provides more mission versatility than other boats with landing pads.

The USS Independence, the second of the first two LCS in the Navy's ranks. Photo via Wikipedia.
The LCS is cited by the Navy as primarily being a surveillance and anti-access technology. This means that it will primarily take out small vessels, such as speedboats, submarines, and drones. The development of this boat should come as no surprise, as the military has frequently mentioned the need to control the growing development of drone technologies in China and generally in the Pacific Theater. Possessing the ability to deploy its own unmanned systems, as well as the potential for a LaWS installation, the LCS could be the cornerstone to a new counter-drone strategy.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Organs on Chips

Harvard University's Wyss Institute is collaborating with the US Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center to further develop "organ on a chip" technology. These chips are small collections of human organ cells that can mimic the function of human organs; for example, the human lung cells can actually be kept alive with a blood flow, and are able to expand and contract with the help of two vacuum tunnels, further simulating the function of the human lung. Organs-on-chips can potentially be used to test prototypic treatments in a more effective manner than animal testing. 

The human Lung-on-a-chip (top) and Gut-on-a-chip (bottom). Researchers at the Wyss Institute hope to create ten different types of organ chips that will all interact with one another in a way that mimics the human body. Photo via Wyss Institute.
The organ-on-a-chip is see-through, which allows researchers clearer visibility of the interactions between chemicals and cell structures. The organs can experience a wide range of responses seen in the human body, such as inflammation and infection. At the top of the list of potential research benefits, organs-on-chips give researchers the opportunity to examine cellular interactions with harmful chemicals without harming animal test subjects. This offers the hope of developing treatments for soldiers and civilians exposed to chemical warfare in war zones. It is also a "paradigm-shifting" technology as far as the pharmaceutical world is concerned. These companies may one day find themselves partially, if not entirely, rid of the costly process of preclinical and clinical research thanks to organ-on-a-chip technology. Cosmetics companies may never have to use animal subjects for testing again.

A diagram explaining the way the Lung-on-a-chip mimics a real lung's breathing motions. The vacuums on the side chambers expand and contract, causing the tissue to stretch as human lung tissues would. Image via Nature.
As stated by the Wyss Institute, organs-on-chips can be utilized in many different markets, including chemical and nanotechnology industries, cosmetics research, animal health research, EPA and FDA regulatory and toxicity testing, and stem cell and regenerative companies. What has the defense and military industries excited is the opportunity to develop rapid testing of chemical, biological, and radiation countermeasures. The human body is far more complex than just ten chips can define, but the implementation and further development of this technology could one day revolutionize animal testing, clinical trials, and our understanding of the human body.