Navy researchers refuse to admit chain-of-accidents spy drone delivery system is a joke

Send up a balloon, have it drop a little plane that drops two more planes, that...

You know all those caper movies where the main character outlines some fantastically complicated plan to get into the casino's basement safe or Area 51's super-secret alien-dissection lab or the high school girl's locker room at cheerleader-change-for-practice time?

And, at some point, some idiot always says: "Sure, but getting in is the easy part." (Or "One does notsimply [something] into Mordor."{Google agrees. Bear Grylls doesn't.})

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory obviously believes getting in is not the easy part (or, if it does, no one is interested in helping with the getting out).

The U.S. military is able to keep an eye on friendly countries, potential opponents and an astonishing number of ex-mates using using spy satellites that can read your Kindle for you through three stories of generic light-industrial architecture and office cubage.

It could also use high-tech drones so stealthy and technically sophisticated they can slip undetected through a dense mesh of radar, audio and visual alert systems penetrating deep into enemy territory before flying over villages so primitive they radiate an anti-technology field so strong that any advanced technical systems flying over them are converted briefly into whatever bronze-age technology was its closest equivalent. (In the case of the spy drone that crashed in a remote part of Iran, the closest comparable bronze-age technology was a rock.)

However effective, those systems still have their weaknesses (they haven't cracked the rock thing yet).

So, to try to give the military as many options as possible, and in what appears to be a competition to create the most ridiculous chain of unlikely coincident circumstances that could theoretically accomplish a given purpose, labs like the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) keep coming up with new ways to covertly place cameras in places cameras should not be in order to keep a closer eye on things.

The most recent attempt, from the Rube Goldberg wing of the NRL, is designed like the abandoned-equipment version of a Russian nesting doll to allow tiny spy drones to cross the airspace of countries that are friendly, but not friendly enough to allow U.S. drones to fly through their airspace (meaning Pakistan).

The cluster-drop starts with a huge weather balloon with a smallish Tempest drone tied by its tail to the bottom of the balloon.

The balloon rises as high as 60,000 feet – high enough that even countries with anti-aircraft radar networks will generally perceive them only as space junk, signal interference or a really ambitious flock of ducks.

With careful timing, precise weather prediction and intensive sessions of body english, the drone engineers force the balloon far enough into foreign airspace that it can release the Tempest – a drone with a 10-foot wingspan and 10-pound payload.

The Tempest flies as far as it can – about 30 nautical miles – before dropping its payload of two even smaller drones named Thing 1 and Thing 2.

More properly known as Cicada, the Thing drones fly to the limit of their range of about 11 miles, and set down, in tests, within 15 feet of their target locations. (Cicada stands for Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft.)

Theoretically, they could then use onboard cameras to keep an eye on the long grass and sticks in which they'll find themselves stuck, though they might get a close-up picture of enemy boots or a tank tread before the signal mysteriously disappears.

Not surprisingly, this series of unlikely coincidences has not yet been deployed in the field, though NRL threatens to do so, even mentioning the launch platform could be "manned or unmanned balloons," though who NRL might get to board and pilot the thing remains a mystery.

If the whole thing actually works, and is as stealthy as NRL believes it can be, the whole thing will remain a mystery.

But then, if it doesn't work – far more likely – it will stay a mystery, anyway.

So, take my advice, and just forget about the whole thing. It's too silly to think about anyway.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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