Why doesn't the military have spy 'bots like the WiFI cracking plane at Black Hat?

Lots are in the pipeline; a good one gets demo'd today; the rest aren't ready for life outside the lab

At the Black Hat conference in Vegas a couple of weeks ago, one of the biggest draws was WASP, the radio-controlled hobby plane converted by two Black Hat demo artists into an airborne network cracking platform.

It's not new, not even to Black Hat. An earlier version won prizes at last year's conference.

It was so cool, though it makes you wonder why the military isn't flying tiny radio-controlled robots to observe and eavesdrop on bad guys in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

It's trying to. So far the most successful are the big ones – Predator, Global Hawk, Reaper – small-plane-sized drones that carry cameras and missiles and have quadrupled the missions they fly in Afghanistan alone from fewer than 450 per month in January, 2009 to almost 2,500 per month in October, 2010, according to U.S. Air Force figures.

The next big step in long-range, long-term lurking is Gorgon Stare – a $15 million upgrade designed to improve the sensor systems built in to the U.S. Air Force's MQ-9 Reaper by adding the ability to observe at night and offer 12 different angled views from the observation sensor, all of which are broadcast simultaneously, rather than one at a time, like the previous system.

They're big, though.

Way too big to be infiltrated into a village or urban environment where a leaf or butterfly might not be noticed as it flutters to a landing on a lonely spot with a good view of Al Queda's flagship insurgent-supply store in Kabul, for example, and extends a tiny video camera and starts broadcast of the top-rated reality show Real No. 2 Commanders of Al Queda.

Lockheed hasn't quite succeeded at that, but today in Washington at the military aerial-unmanned vehicle exhibition AUVSI, it will demo a remote controlled video-spy drone about a foot long that uses a propeller to fly but whose body shape is based on those big green maple-leaf seed-pods that helicopter down from the trees by the million in the fall.

The UAV, named Samarai, doesn't look like a maple seed. It looks like a wooden drink cup cut in half from top to bottom and tilted over flat so a propeller could be stuck to its bottom.

It is so small and so maneuverable that it blurs and becomes difficult to see at only 30 feet of altitude and a couple of hundred yards distance, according to the AP reporter who got the interview and saw the demo.

Military robotics designers have been working for years on tiny spy drones that could be controlled by soldiers on the ground to provide a better view of the enemy, or covertly lofted into a spot with a good view of a sensitive target where they could let remote operators keep an eye on things for days or weeks at a time.

Most of the tiny drones are bio-mimetic robots designed to mimic the look and flight characteristics of real creatures, though most are too small or fragile to be practical as spies in a combat environment.

Among the coolest is "Nano-Hummingbird" from AeroVironment, which is designed to look like a real hummingbird, is about the same size but, unrealistically, runs on a single AA battery (real hummingbirds use the same kind of rechargeable Lithium-Ions as an iPod, but have limited life spans because, as with the iPod, the batteries are not replaceable when they wear out).

The faux Nano version flies at 11 MPH, hovers for as long as eight minutes and can carry tiny cameras. The missiles it can carry are too small to matter to almost anyone except deadly carnivorous Afghan Attack Hummingbirds, which have evolved during 140,000 years of continual war in Afghanistan to feed on the technology of invading troops.

None of the flies on the wall have proven practical yet, though the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and other military designers are apparently much closer to fielding drones closer to the size of hobby planes and helicopters that are designed to go with troops into the field for observation and to mark targets with tiny lasers, paint or powder to make a location, vehicle or person easier to observe using drones or satellites.

The Pentagon refers to the marking capability as "Clandestine Tagging, Tracking, and Locating" (TTL), though few, if any flying remote-controlled robots have been developed that can carry them reliably enough to be used in the field.

The closest publicly revealed version was the T-Hawk from Honeywell, a cylindrical R/C that uses ducted fans to fly as long as 40 minutes at a range of up to six miles from the controller and carry cameras able to send pack pictures to the controller.

Nicknamed the "flying trash can" by troops testing it in Iraq, the T-Hawk was nearly killed with the rest of the Army's Future Combat Systems program in 2009, but is still under development at Honeywell and managed to make the list of systems scheduled for further testing by the Army's Increment 1 Brigade Combat Team Modernization crew –which gets to take the new toys into the field and test them in combat.

Of all the Future Combat Systems gear designed directly for soldiers, rather than as smart vehicles, the flying trash can was by far the favorite of troops testing it in the field during 2007 and 2008, far more popular than the helmet-mounted computer-viewing cameras and heavy GPS, soldier-location and communication systems they had to carry themselves.

Lockheed-Martin's Samarai is a different class of beast. It's easily small and light enough to be carried by individual soldiers, but might not have the range or endurance to accomplish much.

It's also far too small to carry laser or paint-marking systems to mark targets for observation or destruction, let alone the micro-Linux system the WASP at Black Hat carried to intercept and crack cell and WiFi signals.

It is light, and is designed specifically to be energy efficient, easy to fly and cheap to produce (possibly in the field) by 3-D printers that could build new fuselages into which the electronics and flight motors can be inserted if one is damaged in action.

The maple-seed design helps with the aerodynamics and saves energy, but the rotor provides the lift, power and control.

There's no word on cost or when the system might be ready for testing by the military, let alone taken into the field, which means Lockheed's effort to publicize a micro-UAV that has been under development for at least three years is as much a marketing tactic designed to impress the big brass attending a robot conference in the hopes of inspiring the military version of Airline Magazine Syndrome for the little Samarai.

It is cool, though, even though you couldn't use it to crack your neighbor's WiFi.

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