July 18, 2007


Hatched by Dafydd

Back in August 1989, New Destines VIII published an article of mine titled "Those Greyout Blues." I discussed a program then being pursued by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency... sort of a Department of Defense "skunk works" funding source. The program was called the Pilot's Associate; and the idea was to develop a plane that could take off, fly, engage in combat ops, drop bombs and shoot missiles, then return and land -- all on its own initiative, without a pilot.

I don't know what became of that program; clearly, we don't have any such aircraft. But we have the next best thing: the grim Reaper, which can do all of the above while being piloted remotely from halfway around the world:

The airplane is the size of a jet fighter, powered by a turboprop engine, able to fly at 300 mph and reach 50,000 feet. It's outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting, and with a ton and a half of guided bombs and missiles.

The Reaper is loaded, but there's no one on board. Its pilot, as it bombs targets in Iraq, will sit at a video console 7,000 miles away in Nevada.

The arrival of these outsized U.S. "hunter-killer" drones, in aviation history's first robot attack squadron, will be a watershed moment even in an Iraq that has seen too many innovative ways to hunt and kill.

Of course, the Predator -- our current drone -- already does this, though it carries a much smaller payload than does the Reaper. So what's all the excitement about? The excitement is that the Reaper program indicates that the Air Force finally "gets it": While the Predator seemed a one-shot, a fluke, the Reaper indicates a serious, long-term, future commitment to remotely piloted drones (RPDs)... which will change the very character of future warfare.

First, let's define the problem...

We have long been able to design and build military aircraft that can take far more punishment than the pilot inside. For a simple example, we already push the limits of the human skeleton and internal-organ integrity with modern fighters, which can execute 9-G turns. During such a maneuver, a pilot who normally weighs 170 lbs instead weighs over 1,500 lbs; he can barely breathe, and his heart simply cannot pump blood that has suddenly grown as heavy as lead "up" to the brain, through arteries that are simultaneously being crushed into significantly smaller diameters.

Anti-G suits help, as does a particular maneuver described as trying to overcome constipation by main force. As the subjective centrifugal force builds, the anti-G suit inflates around the thighs and abdomenal areas, squeezing them hard and forcing the blood brainwards, where it is most urgently needed... because once the blood "falls" from the brain back into the body, the pilot loses consciousness -- which most aviation experts consider a suboptimal condition in which to drive an airplane.

Modern fighter pilots have developed a technique for aerial combat maneuvers: They pull turns so tightly that they lose just enough blood to lose color vision and for vision to "tunnel down" to a small-radius circle, inside which they can still see the instrument panel; this condition is called "greyout." The pilot holds the Gs at that point; if he pulls harder, there is a good chance he will go from greyout to blackout... and that's probably lights out, as the plane can go ballistic and tumble before the pilot recovers consciousness.

But suppose pilots were able to take a sustained G-force of 20 Gs, 50 Gs, without having to experience greyout, let alone unconsciousness -- without any impairment of their flying ability at all. Imagine how maneuverable such aircraft would be -- and what an advantage over enemy pilots stuck in clunky Su-37s!

Well, that's exactly what the Reaper promises... by taking the pilot out of the aircraft entirely and letting him (or her) fly the plane from a few miles or thousands of miles away. (I believe that female pilots would be allowed to fly a Reaper in combat, as they would not themselves actually be in the combat zone.) Suppose the connection between pilot and RPD could not be jammed or interfered with, or at least that it was extremely hard to do. And suppose that, if something went wrong and the plane did lose contact with the remote pilot, it had enough AI capability either to finish the mission -- or at least turn around, come back to home base, and land itself.

Make no mistake: Planes like the Reaper, and perhaps future versions that don't even need to be remotely piloted, are the future of military aviation; and this innovation will swiftly spread to warships at sea and armor on the ground.

That last possibility has been discussed in military circles (and even among wargamers!) for decades. So-called "Ogre" tanks that are completely solid, containing no humans and having either a very small profile (hard to hit) -- or alternatively, being as much as a kilometer in size and armed with numerous tiny "Ogrelets" it can deploy as it rolls ponderously along... unstoppable by anything short of a strategic nuclear missile.

Small-sized Ogres could drive into a river, roll up unseen and underwater, only to suddenly emerge already firing on the enemy. But an RPD could also be so tiny it's overlooked... a miniscule RPD shaped like an insect that can crawl and fly, all controlled by a human operator somewhere else. The next "fly on the wall" AQI leader Ayyub Masri sees could contain a camera and microphone and be broadcasting his most secret plans directly to Gen. Petraeus.

(Imagine the paranoia that would produce, were we to let the existence of such RPDs leak to the New York Times... even if we didn't really have them! I envision Masri interrupting a vital AQI strategy session to run around like a madman, trying to squash a real fly with his sandal because he's afraid it's really a spycam. I wonder how long he would last in his leadership position if he declared "jihad" on flying insects?)

RPDs can also be bird-sized, flying overhead as "forward observers," directing equally smart artillery shells, missiles, and bombs onto the enemy's head. At the extreme, RPDs could be turned into "smart bullets," flying around corners and through conduits to kill the enemy. (Again science fiction was there first -- for example, the 1984 Tom Selleck movie Runaway.)

The Reaper's first combat deployment is expected in Afghanistan, and senior Air Force officers estimate it will land in Iraq sometime between this fall and next spring. They look forward to it.

"With more Reapers, I could send manned airplanes home," [Lt. Gen. Gary] North said.

The core idea is this: Human beings cannot take too much acceleration; they cannot be folded into a tiny space; they require air instead of water to breathe; and they can be killed by poison gas, by radiation, by impact, and by intense heat. But we can design machines that are not subject to those same limitations... so long as they don't need to waste precious resources protecting human cargo.

We can already make war machines tremendously more effective than our current stockpile; the only thing holding us back is the need to accomodate the (relatively) fragile human body. So if we remove that soft body, then we have no restrictions other than the physical limits of materials science, remote telemetry, and artificial intelligence. Imagine the scene in one of the Terminator movies where we see the actual battle in the future... then subtract the trite yawner of a science-fiction theme that the machines will seize control and attack us.

The future is nigh, moreso than ever before; and if we believe Alvin Toffler, it will be even more "nigh" next year, changing ever faster, accelerating along an exponential curve, until we all begin to experience "future shock."

But for now, I will bet money that those who live perpetually in the 7th century will be considerably more subject to future shock than those who have at least kept up for the last fourteen hundred years.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, July 18, 2007, at the time of 3:03 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Rovin

Somewhere Jules Gabriel Verne has to be smiling.

I'm thinkin' about investing in the foreign pesticide markets. :)

The above hissed in response by: Rovin [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2007 3:55 AM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

Imagine the paranoia that would produce, were we to let the existence of such RPDs leak to the New York Times... even if we didn't really have them!

It's not hard, Iran is already going after squirrels, at least according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency(IRNA). The Islamic fundamentalists seem quite prone to such paranoid conspiracy theories.

Come to think of it, that's becoming more pronounced on the Left, too. Though I don't think the NYTimes is quite far enough gone to buy into such theories, yet.

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2007 7:27 AM

The following hissed in response by: soccerdad

FWIW a Gregg Easterbrook article on this topic from a few years ago.

The above hissed in response by: soccerdad [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2007 9:23 AM

The following hissed in response by: MikeR

I can't remember the title, but I once saw a book by Robert Ballard, one of the pioneers of deep-sea diving (he discovered the Titanic wreck), and he made this very point. Originally they would pack someone into a heavily armored bathysphere or whatever, to try to explore the bottom of the sea. Eventually they were able to build much simpler, lighter, unarmored vehicles controlled by remote camera.
But more: The author pointed out that even in the original vehicles, the passenger wasn't entirely there. The armor cut him off from what he was exploring, so that he could hardly act; about all he could do was look out the window. The rest of his body was there only because there was no way to avoid it. He is more present via remote control, where the new vehicle is able to carry out his actions more effectively.

The above hissed in response by: MikeR [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2007 11:00 AM

The following hissed in response by: MTF

I love this post! The more technology we can deploy, the better.

The above hissed in response by: MTF [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2007 11:16 AM

The following hissed in response by: DaveR

There are true autonomous aircraft in development:

This plane is NOT flown by a pilot. It is to some extent "operated" and given direction, but it is also capable of completely autonomous missions from takeoff to landing, and multi-plane simulated attack missions have been demonstrated. I don't know if it has been turned loose with live ordinance yet, however.

I also recall reading somewhere about experimental techniques to allow humans to endure much higher G-loads than normal. Among the ideas being pursued was filling the pilots lungs with a fluid that was able to be highly oxygenated, in effect allowing the pilot to breathe without having large air-filled spaces like lungs that are vulnerable to collapse. I also recall speculation about stopping of the breathing reflex via drugs, and pump-assisted blood circulation systems. If the pilot's body can be made to be essentially the same uniform density as water (which most of it already is), and is then suspended in a fluid-filled chamber, the effects of G-forces can be greatly reduced.

Such a pilot would be completely dependant on the aircraft's special environment for survival, but he or she would be a truly formidable opponent in aerial combat!

The above hissed in response by: DaveR [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2007 1:13 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


I think that last part is verging into the territory of Fred Pohl's Man Plus... and I'm quite sure the vast majority of jet jocks would say "nyet" to such rebuilding.

Flight test, maybe; NASA, probably. Ordinary pilots -- no way!


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2007 1:37 PM

The following hissed in response by: DaveR

Dafydd, my point was not to recommend, or to assess feasibility, it was to simply relay information I have heard.

I have also considered such "boosted" humans in conjunction with the astounding performance often attributed to UFOs, and that has been cited as proof they are not human-controlled. Boosted humans, and they might only be temporarily so, could operate vehicles capable of performance orders of magnitude greater than standard jet fighters. Or the vehicles could be remotely operated, of course.

But how could such vehicles achieve the required power-to-weight ratios? It would require only one basic breakthough - the development of radiation sheilding that is lightweight - and a nuclear reactor could be made airborne and supplying enormous amounts of power to an aircraft. Traditional sheilding relies on masses of dense matter like lead to absorb radiation, which argues against using a reactor to power an aircraft. Advanced composite materials, and/or materials with engineered nano-structural characteristics, might also do the job using a resonant-absorbsion approach, rather than the brute-force mass-absorbsion. The Convair NX-2 nuclear-powered bomber of the early 60's was dropped suddenly, and some have speculated that it was because of a sheilding breakthrough that instantly obsoleted the design.

The intriguing aspect of this is that with only a few key breakthrough technologies, we could have aircraft that duplicate the performance of UFOs and pilots that could fly them. If those breakthroughs have already been achieved in secret, we may already have those aircraft.

The above hissed in response by: DaveR [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2007 6:59 PM

The following hissed in response by: MegaTroopX

The "Evil Overlord List" says:

"Don't send hordes of robots or skeletons against enemies that have qualms about killing human beings"

With this technology, we can avoid the corollary:

"Don't send armies of humans against enemies that have no qualms at slaughtering human beings"

Al-Q counts on being able to kill enough of our guys to make the cowards in government run away. In the future, we'll avoid this. We can just say:

"Look, you can't touch us, we can crush you, let's talk about the terms of your surrender."

Now, howzabout those BOLOs?

The above hissed in response by: MegaTroopX [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2007 11:50 AM

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