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Drones take center stage as controversy grows

Washington Times

Posted 2/8/2013

DOTHAN, AL, February 7, 2013 — The buzz over drones is growing louder every day.

The White House just issued a legal memorandum outlining why the President should be allowed to assassinate US citizens if they are determined to be associated with terrorism. Specific details defining how the government would make that determination are deliberately vague.  At least some of the targeting for these supposed terrorists would use drones.

Drones are likely to be at center stage during the Senate confirmation hearing for John Brennan, Obama’s nominee to head the CIA and the purported architect of the President’s drone program.

We can also expect some high drama relating to a just released news story by The New York Times that the CIA has a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia. Apparently the White House pressured some major news outlets, including The Times and The Washington Post, to squash that information for the past year. So much for giving us “all the news that’s fit to print.”

Another growing controversy over drones is their use for domestic surveillance. Police find drones very helpful, but at least 16 states are moving to outlaw using drones to spy on people. In the case of a hostage standoff like we just experienced here in Alabama, it is easy to see how a surveillance drone could be very helpful to provide terrain and movement details. Having a drone hover outside your window watching how many beers you’re having, however, is not such a good idea.

Does the reality of drone technology match the mythos surrounding them? The short answer is, yes it does. The longer answer is that drones are revolutionizing warfare, but they are only as good as the equipment loaded on them or the skill of the remote operator. Overall that does not seem to be much of an issue. Drones can carry a variety of armaments, including the deadly armor-piercing Hellfire missile, and controlling drones may seem second-nature to operators who grew up playing video games.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) is the group that develops all the scary high-tech gadgets and gizmos used by the government and the military. They recently announced a new super high-resolution camera system called the ARGUS-IS (Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System) that uses a 1.8 Giga-pixel camera that can monitor an entire 25-square-mile area from 20,000 feet in the air. That is roughly half the geographic area of New York City. Two ARGUS-equipped drones could be used to monitor eight million people. Wow.

A video provided by PBS Nova shows an amazing demonstration in which any area in the monitor range can be zoomed in on to show live-action shots at street level. The camera clearly shows traffic and pedestrians moving around and can easily identify and track subjects that might be on the run. To someone who grew up using a Kodak Instamatic camera, this seems right out of a science fiction movie.

The interesting aspect of this surveillance system is that it uses the same camera sensors as in your cell phone. It groups 368 lenses together with a telescopic array to capture images, then stitches them together to make a single 1.8 billion pixel image that can be panned and scanned by an operator. That’s a lot of pixels. The system can also record up to 5,000 hours of this high-definition video. That is roughly 4,960 hours more than I get on my home DVR.

One pundit commented that if DARPA is discussing this system in public that it is probably already obsolete by their own standards. One can only guess what the next generation of technology will bring for surveillance. Perhaps they are working on miniaturization, which would in turn enable the use of smaller less vulnerable drones.

Some of today’s drones are as large as small aircraft and occasionally one is lost over hostile territory. Iran just released pictures it extracted from a US drone it captured last year. It is reported they did that to prove their own technological prowess. Judging by their recent space shot using a monkey, it seems Iran’s technology has made it to around 1959. I doubt the folks at DARPA are losing any sleep over that.

It seems ironic that the White House wants to ban guns while using drones as weapons to kill individuals, even US citizens. Perhaps we will soon hear Jay Carney tell us “We shouldn’t ban drones, they are just tools.” It might be very interesting for Congress to respond to the President that if he wants to use drones he has to submit to a background check and be licensed to use them.

It would be even more interesting if the next time President Obama wants to ignore due process he is handed a remote for a drone and told, “here, do it yourself.”

(Be sure to get The Backstory and more at Rick’s author blog site

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