Archive | Drones (UAVs)

RoboticsAlley Expo and a Few Thoughts Re the Regulatory Future of Robotics

I’m in Minneapolis the next two days, taking part in a terrific industry expo show, RoboticsAlley. It covers the broad range of robotics, from industrial robots to health care and assistive robots, along with a number of exhibitors from the electronics industries. Baxter-the-robot is here. It also covers drones and self-driving cars – the UAV industry association, AUVSI, is one of the sponsors – so it is a pretty wide-ranging trade show. Likewise the various presentations, panel discussions, etc. – an excellent panel on self-driving cars, for example. Many of the presentations have focused not just on technology, but on the economics of these machines; Baxter, for example, represents a price breakthrough in a two armed robot with a screen for a face, at $22,000, but, as a panelist observed, it probably needs to be half that price in order to attract medium to small manufacturing or assembly businesses to experiment with it.

Another aspect of the economics of robotics, however, is investment into the companies bringing them from the lab to market. A number of recent news reports in the business press have remarked on falling venture capital interest in certain sectors, particularly medical devices and assistive living technologies. Part of this might be fueled by new taxes on medical devices that depress investment and innovation, but several speakers here suggested that the investment situation is not clear, even in the specific sector of medical and assistive devices. I was interested to see, in regard to the investment climate, the creation of a new Nasdaq ETF (ROBO) that tracks an index of publicly traded robotics and automation companies. Frank Tobe, founder and editor of the Robot Report, a highly regarded industry paper, said that he wanted a way to invest in the public market for robotics as a […]

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Why Engaging in More Counterterrorism “Capture” Ops Makes Them Less Feasible Over Time

(Special note:  Lawfare, where I serve as His Serenity, Book Review Editor, is absolutely delighted VC’s own Orin Kerr has agreed to post there when the Spirit of National Security Law moves him.)

Over at Lawfare, I have a longish post about the declared US government policy of preferring capture operations over kill operations where “feasible.” This has been a constant refrain from senior US government officials for several years, including John Brennan (previously White House counterterrorism adviser and now CIA director) and President Obama in his May 23, 2013 speech at the National Defense University on counterterrorism (which Benjamin Wittes and I analyze closely in Chapter 3 of our e-book on the national security law speeches of the Obama administration, Speaking the Law, just now made available with open access at SSRN).  It is safe to say that these assertions have been widely seen among journalists and commentators as mere pieties, window dressing on a policy of kill over capture if only because the administration doesn’t have any place to hold new detainees.

So there was a flurry of commentary three weeks ago when US special operators, in conjunction with CIA, launched capture operations in Libya and Somalia.  Did this presage the beginning of a new era of special forces capture operations rather than drone strikes? Two days ago, on the other hand, the US launched a drone strike that killed someone it had been seeking for four years as the mastermind of a strike in Afghanistan against a CIA outpost that killed seven Americans, Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban.  What was “feasible” supposed to mean?  In practical terms, a kill operation differs from a capture operation in that the kill operation can be carried out by a drone, whereas a capture […]

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Planning for the Obsolescence of Technologies Not Yet Invented

The automated motor vehicles that I have discussed this week are just one example of the remarkable technologies coming to our roads, skies, homes, and even bodies. A decade from now, we’ll marvel at how advanced these new products are. But a decade after that, we’ll marvel at how anachronistic they have become.

Rapid technological change means that obsolescence is inevitable, and planning for it is as much a safety strategy as a business strategy. Responsible developers and regulators will need to consider the full lifecycle of products long before those products ever reach the market.

Cars of the early 20th Century (JSTOR) were essentially beta products. In 1901, Horseless Age magazine noted that “[i]f a manufacturer finds that the axles of his machine are” breaking, then “the next lot of vehicles are provided with axles of a slightly larger diameter and so on until they begin to stand up pretty well.” In 1910, a GM engineer testifying in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. explained that “the only means” for a designer to get information about a vehicle’s performance “is to use the customers, that is to go over the complaint correspondence.”

As I noted yesterday, it is at least conceivable that a similar approach to modern design could counterintuitively end up saving lives by accelerating safety-critical innovation. But even a more cautious approach to product design and deployment is necessarily iterative.

The general bent of incremental innovation is toward greater safety. The electronic stability control now required in new cars, for example, could save thousands of lives a year if deployed fleetwide. But given the slow turnover in cars–the average age of today’s fleet exceeds ten years–reaching saturation could take years.

At the same time, new products can present new dangers. Most of these dangers are […]

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Domestic Drone Regulation for Safety and Privacy

Today’s (Sunday, Sep 8, 2013) New York Times has a story by Anne Eisenberg, “Preflight Turbulence for Commercial Drones.”  The article combines two crucial topics in connection with drones (remotely piloted aerial vehicles, or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, but my advice to the industry and USAF is that the People Have Spoken, and it’s “drones”): safety and privacy.  The article is interesting chiefly because it focuses on commercial drones (rather than either military drones, law enforcement drones, or hobbyist drones, as so many articles do).  It talks about the likely path of commercial uses of drones:

Companies in the United States are preparing for drones, too. Customers can buy an entire system, consisting of the aerial vehicle, software and a control station, for less than $100,000, with smaller systems going for $15,000 to $50,000, said Jeff Lovin, a senior vice president at Woolpert, a mapping and design firm in Dayton, Ohio. Woolpert owns six traditional, piloted twin-engine aircraft to collect data for aerial mapping; these typically cost $2 million to $3 million to buy, and several thousand dollars an hour to operate, he said.

Gavin Schrock, a professional surveyor and associate editor of Professional Surveyor magazine, says he thinks that surveyors will be among the first to add drones to their tool kits. Aerial systems are perfect for surveying locations like open-pit mines, he said. A small drone can fly over a pit, shuttling back and forth in overlapping rows, taking pictures that can be stitched together and converted into a three-dimensional model that is accurate to within a few inches. Such a system is safer than having a surveyor walk around the pit with traditional tools. “I hate doing that,” Mr. Schrock said. “It’s dangerous.”

For many commercial applications, in other words, the choice will become […]

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Obama’s Speech on Drones and the War on Terror

In his speech on drones and the War on Terror today President Obama made many valid points. But he also continued to elide some key issues. On the plus side, Obama correctly emphasized that the use of drones against terrorists is not inherently illegal nor immoral, that drones are often more discriminating and less likely to inflict civilian casualties than other military tactics, and that US citizens can be legitimate targets when they become enemy combatants.

Unfortunately, Obama also continued to dance around the more problematic aspects of his drone policy: who decides whether a particular individual being considered as a potential target is really a member of Al Qaeda and how much evidence is needed to back up such a determination? I emphasized these issues in my recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee testimony on drones and here. Here are the most relevant parts of Obama’s speech on these questions:

In the Afghan war theater, we must — and will — continue to support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. And that means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. But by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. And even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect

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The Case for Drones

Just in time for President Obama’s big speech Thursday at the National Defense University on counterterrorism policy and strategy, Commentary Magazine has made available early my June cover article, “The Case for Drones.”  (Available free and not behind the subscriber wall.)  It’s a long essay arguing that drones are both effective and ethical, and addressing a number of the objections to each of those propositions.

The article has a particular audience in mind. It is aimed at conservatives and Republican members of Congress especially, to remind them that their sometimes knee-jerk attacks on the “imperial” Obama presidency risks one major piece of national security that the Obama administration has got well and truly right.  There’s no lack of imperial presidency, abuse of power material for conservatives to work with- pick your issue this week – but this particular issue is one where, if conservatives look down the road, they ought to see that any president, Republican or Democrat, will need to have available the national security tools of drone warfare and national security.  It would be a remarkably foolish thing if, by inattention or inappropriate and merely reflexive attacks on the Obama administration’s drone policy, Republicans in Congress wound up permitting drone warfare to be made politically, morally, or legally illegitimate – just as a future Republican president enters office and discovers that, yes, there are terrorist threats best addressed by drones.  Congressional Republicans, in the midst of the many abuse of power hearings, ought nonetheless to be scheduling hearings to invite current and former administration officials to reiterate their legal views on drone warfare, with the express purpose of standing with the President on this tool of national security and its permanent, legal, and legitimate place.

Commentary is a conservative magazine, obviously, and I’m writing there as a conservative […]

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Bill to Be Introduced to Increase Armed Services Committees’ Oversight Over Special Operations

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), member of the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, plans to introduce a bill that would increase Congressional oversight over kill-capture operations conducted outside of Afghanistan by the US military.  University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney discusses the proposed legislation over at Lawfare, and gives a section by section commentary.  Whether this is an important step or not depends on one’s starting point, of course; I agree with Chesney that it is a big deal and a welcome step to regularizing . (Though if one’s view is that all these operations are unlawful, or that  they require judicial oversight, or something else, whether from the Left of the Democratic Party or what we might call the Pauline wing of the Republican Party, then you won’t be much moved.)

Seen within the framework of US law and oversight of overseas use of force operations, this is an important step.  A couple of observations.  First, this (soon-to-be) proposed legislation is with respect to operations conducted by the US military under US Code Title 10; it does not cover CIA activities, which are already subject to oversight and reporting under US Code Title 50.  Second, it covers US military operations with respect to the lines of oversight running back to the Armed Services committees; essentially it increases the role of the Armed Services committees in oversight of US military operations in what it defines as “Sensitive Military Operations” – which in practice means clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) activities.  It does not alter the existing oversight processes of Congressional intelligence committees governing covert action as defined in US Code Title 50, but extends and increases oversight over military operations.  Why this focus on military operations conducted by JSOC?

Counterintuitive as many might find it, […]

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John Villasenor on Domestic Drones, Airspace Safety, and Privacy Protection

John Villasenor – a professor of engineering at UCLA and a Brookings Institution senior fellow – has a new article at Slate on the domestic use of drones.  (The article part of a conference held yesterday at the New America Foundation in conjunction with Arizona State University on domestic drone policy, with many fine participants; well worth checking out.)  The article’s fundamental point is that many features that will likely figure in FAA regulations intended to ensure safety in domestic airspace as drones are allowed to enter it will also be supportive of privacy concerns.  By no means does this make the problems of privacy go away, but it’s important to be aware of the ways in which safety regulation will affect and, in important ways, reinforce privacy.

For most of the 20th century, obtaining overhead images was difficult and expensive. Now, thanks to advances in unmanned aircraft systems—people in the aviation field tend to dislike the word drone—it has become easy and inexpensive, raising new and important privacy issues[PDF]. These issues need to be addressed primarily through legal frameworks: The Constitution, existing and new federal and state laws, and legal precedents regarding invasion of privacy will all play key roles in determining the bounds of acceptable information-gathering from UAS. But safety regulations will have an important and less widely appreciated secondary privacy role.

Why? Because safety regulations, which aim to ensure that aircraft do not pose a danger in the airspace or to people and property on the ground, obviously place restrictions on where and in what manner aircraft can be operated. Those same restrictions can also affect privacy from overhead observations from both government and nongovernment UAS. FAA regulations make it unlawful, for example, to operate any aircraft (whether manned or unmanned) “in

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