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<nettime> A War of Robots, All Chattering on the Western Front
John Armitage on Mon, 15 Jul 2002 20:12:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> A War of Robots, All Chattering on the Western Front

[For me, the most interesting thing about this piece is that it seems to
demonstrate that the Pentagon remains in 'Fordist' mode: the planners at the
Pentagon (and the current planners of UK military strategy in Afghanistan)
obviously, incredulously, still believe that groups like Al Queda are
actually going to turn up at the other end of something called 'the
battlefield', just like they are supposed to do, while its new drones speed
'around a battle zone at speeds of up to 300 miles an hour'. Of course, in
'post-Fordist war', 'the battlefield' now encompasses the whole of society.
Watch out for those drones speeding around your home fairly shortly ...
July 11, 2002
A War of Robots, All Chattering on the Western Front

SINCE the United States military campaign began in Afghanistan, the unmanned
spy plane has gone from a bit player to a starring role in Pentagon
planning. Rather than the handful of "autonomous vehicles," or A.V.'s, that
snooped on Al Qaeda hideouts, commanders are envisioning wars involving vast
robotic fleets on the ground, in the air and on the seas - swarms of drones
that will not just find their foes, but fight them, too.
But such forces would need an entirely new kind of network in which to
function, a wireless Internet in the sky that would let thousands of drones
communicate quickly while zooming around a battle zone at speeds of up to
300 miles an hour. Such a network would have to be able to deal
instantaneously with the unpredictable conditions of war and cope with big
Designing this network is a monumental task. Consider how poor much
cellphone coverage is in some areas. Now imagine how much worse it would be
with no base towers to direct signals, and with hostile forces trying to jam
calls and blow up phones.
An association of nearly 300 scientists and engineers spread across 45
project teams and coordinated by the Office of Naval Research is about a
year and a half into a five-year, $11 million effort to determine what it
will take to build such a system.
The project is called Multimedia Intelligent Network of Unattended Mobile
Agents, or Minuteman (not to be confused with the nuclear missiles). While
the program is not about to produce anything like the droid army from the
Star Wars movies anytime soon, it has already delivered some important
theoretical breakthroughs.
The most important is the network's structure, developed by Mario Gerla, a
professor of computer science at the University of California at Los
Angeles. The network will deploy the highest-flying of the A.V.'s, a drone
called the Global Hawk, as a kind of cellphone tower in the sky, said Lt.
Col. Douglas Boone, deputy chief of the Air Force's airborne reconnaissance
Soaring above the battlefield at 50,000 feet or higher, the Global Hawks
will communicate with headquarters, transmitting data and receiving
commands. The commands will be passed along to a team of lower-flying A.V.'s
that will relay them in turn to single drones serving as liaisons for
squadrons of A.V.'s.
Despite this basic hierarchy, the network is designed so that any robot in
any of the three levels can become the one to relay information to its
"Besides serving as routers, the drones also have to do reconnaissance and
carry weapons," Dr. Gerla said. "There is no central control - as soon as
you do that you are vulnerable." As a graduate student nearly 30 years ago,
Dr. Gerla did work for the federal government on the Arpanet, the military
precursor to the Internet.
This flexible "network of networks" structure not only allows communications
to stay up when individual drones go down but also enables the network to
reconfigure itself to maximize bandwidth and to meet goals on the
battlefield. Robot planes would constantly shift position to communicate
with one another.
This continuous reconfiguration is part of an attempt by Allen Moshfegh,
director of the Minuteman project, to mimic one of the most elegant of
systems for transferring information: the human brain. In the brain, groups
of neurons quickly form around a particular goal like reaching for a
newspaper, then recombine for the next task, like turning the page.
"A.V.'s will reconfigure in much the same way neurons reconfigure when doing
goal-oriented tasks," said Jeffrey P. Sutton, director of the National Space
Biomedical Research Institute, which is contributing to the Minuteman
The drones will shift the way in which they talk. With "multi-in, multi-out"
radios, they will sometimes communicate over several frequencies at once and
at other times use a single frequency and lower power. With new methods for
the dynamic compression of video under the MPEG-4 standard, the A.V.'s will
send images ranging from high-resolution color video to black-and-white
still photographs.
The goal is to keep communications flowing, no matter what. Current wireless
commercial systems simply drop a connection if congestion builds up or
quality deteriorates. That is not a good option in wartime.
Military and technical experts say they are impressed with what Dr.
Moshfegh's Minuteman team has come up with so far.
"It's an extremely elegant network, and it's feasible," said Ken Dulaney, a
vice president for mobile computing with the Gartner Group
nyt-com/html-companyprofile.asp&symb=IT.B> in San Jose, Calif. "But it's a
dream. There are a lot of challenges."
So far, Minuteman's field tests have seemed more like a hobbyists'
convention than a military operation, with model helicopters hovering above
toy jeeps with laptops taped to their sides.
Dr. Moshfegh and others behind Minuteman are still unsure of how they will
make the jump from motley squads to the tens of thousands of drones that
they foresee. 
A big part of the problem, Dr. Moshfegh said, is that the routers at the
heart of the network are not yet intelligent enough to figure out the right
path and speed for sending the nearly limitless amounts of data that would
be collected by the drones.
But he is optimistic about overcoming such hurdles.
"If we have enough sources for funding, we could resolve all of these issues
in six to eight years," he said, adding, "It's not that complex."
Clark Murdock, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington, said he was not so sure. On whether Minuteman will be
available in several decades or within Dr. Moshfegh's time frame, he said,
"My guess is the former."
If and when it arrives, Mr. Dulaney of the Gartner Group sees benefits
beyond the battlefield.
"This could be one of those situations where the military figures it out for
survivability reasons, and then it goes private," he said of the technology.
"By turning receivers into transmitters, it could make wireless networks
more robust, more resilient than they are now. It could follow the same kind
of path as the Internet."

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