Using only $1000 worth of equipment, a group of researchers hijacked a small drone, highlighting the vulnerabilities of unencrypted GPS signals. Unmanned aerial vehicles have become a fact of modern warfare, and their presence is even making its way into everyday American life: Amateurs already have turned drones into a popular hobby, and law enforcement agencies want permission to deploy them as well. But while the powerful military drones used overseas use encrypted GPS signals, the ones in the United States rely on signals from open civilian GPS, which makes them vulnerable to GPS “spoofing.”
A drone launches from the USS Lassen.
What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear “drones”? Military spy planes—or sophisticated toys cultivated by a growing group of DIY enthusiasts? The ingredients that go into an unmanned aerial vehicle, such as autopilot technology, GPS, and cameras, have grown small enough to fit on a toy plane and cheap enough for amateurs to buy, in part because these electronics are also integral components of smartphones.
On the Wired Danger Room blog, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of the magazine, predicts the rise of the personal drone industry.
Why? The reason is the same as with every other digital technology: a Moore’s-law-style pace where performance regularly doubles while size and price plummet. In fact, the Moore’s law of drone technology is currently accelerating, thanks to the smartphone industry, which relies on the same components—sensors, optics, batteries, and embedded processors—all of them growing smaller and faster each year. Just as the 1970s saw the birth and rise of the personal computer, this decade will see the ascendance of the personal drone. We’re entering the Drone Age.
The number one cause of plane crashes used to be controlled flight into terrain (pdf), accidents where pilots unintentionally collide with an obstacle. A pilot unable to see through fog, for example, could fly straight into a mountain, crashing an otherwise perfectly functional plane. Such accidents killed over 9000 people—until aviation engineer Don Bateman’s crash-avoidance technology changed all that.
Bateman invented the original Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) in the 1970s. Using information from the altimeter. airspeed indicator, and other devices already standard in planes, the original GPWS warned pilots with increasing urgency—first “Caution—Terrain,” then “Pull up! Pull up!”—if the plane was due to crash. Bateman, now 79 years old, still works at Honeywell and he’s still perfecting the GPWS. The modern warning system integrates GPS locations of potential obstacles. In a profile of Bateman for the Seattle Times, Bob Voss, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, says, “It’s accepted within the industry that Don Bateman has probably saved more lives than any single person in the history of aviation.”
Artist’s rendering of AVIATR flying on Titan.
Saturn’s moon Titan is a lot like Earth: it has rain, seasons, volcanoes, and maybe even life. Well, it’s not exactly like Earth: the rain is liquid methane, the volcanoes spew ice, and any life would be based on methane. But still, it’s an interesting and relatively Earth-like place, considering the other planets and moons in our solar system. And University of Idaho physicist Jason Barnes says he has a perfect way to explore this moon: with a flying drone.
Why use a flying machine rather than the rovers that worked so well on Mars? With 1/7 the gravity but 4 times the atmospheric density of Earth, flying through Titan is 28 times easier than on our own planet. In fact, it’s the easiest place to fly in our entire solar system. Drones on Titan can be heavier while requiring less fuel. With these facts in hand, University of Idaho physicist Jason Barnes has proposed AVIATR, otherwise known as the Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance.
Military watchers are all atwitter this week about J-20, the Chinese stealth aircraft that has now taken to the skies in its inaugural test flight. It’s the country’s first radar-evading plane. The question is, what is it for, and should we worry?
The aircraft appears most similar to the F-22 Raptor, the United States’ stealth bomber/fighter and the only one of its kind in the world.
“From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35 [joint strike fighter],” claims Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based security think tank. [Los Angeles Times]
At 70 feet, the J-20 is actually longer than the Raptor by 10 feet. To some, that size would suggest its makers are attempting to maximize range, making the J-20 as much a bomber as a fighter.
On her first true flight as an observatory, NASA’s plane-based infrared telescope (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, aka SOFIA) took a close look at Orion and other star clusters overnight on November 30th.
“The early science flight program serves to validate SOFIA‘s capabilities and demonstrate the observatory’s ability to make observations not possible from Earth-based telescopes,” said Bob Meyer, NASA’s SOFIA program manager. “It also marks SOFIA‘s transition from flying testbed to flying observatory, and it gives the international astronomical research community a new, highly versatile platform for studying the universe.” [press release]
SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner that now includes a 100-inch German telescope (bigger than the Hubble’s!). These early observations were made with a general-use mid-infrared camera called FORCAST designed by a group at Cornell University.
Since SOFIA cruises at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet above sea level, it’s above 99 percent of the atmosphere’s water vapor (which normally blocks infrared light from reaching earth). The camera captures images using these infrared rays, producing detailed pictures that couldn’t be taken from earth.
As the backlash continues against the TSA’s full body scanning and increasingly aggressive pat-downs of those who opt out, the agency has bent a little in one area. The head of TSA today questioned the need to use the added security on pilots. The pilots organization had already told its members to opt out of the scans to avoid extra radiation exposure. Now, the TSA says that as of 2011 pilots will only need to have their airline-issued IDs checked by computer.
“This one seemed to jump out as a common-sense issue,” Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief John Pistole told Bloomberg News on Friday. “Why don’t we trust pilots who are literally in charge of the aircraft?” That’s exactly the point commercial airline pilots have been making for years. [Christian Science Monitor]
What Pistole did not do, however, was back off the policy of using the scanners on the rest of us. And yesterday on its blog, the TSA tried to launch a PR counter-offensive to the tidal wave of bad press this week. (Though you might not be terribly satisfied with their answer to the question of whether pat-downs are invasive, about which Ars Technica quips, “Nowhere in the “Fact” response does the TSA directly answer the allegation of invasiveness, probably because the pat-downs are invasive.”)
Since the TSA appears disinclined to change its mind about scanning or getting touchy-feely with the general public, lawmakers are beginning to make some noise. In New York, councilman David Greenfield proposed rules to bar TSA from using the x-ray scanners in the city’s airports.
August 2nd marked the first human-powered flight of an ornithopter. Wait, a what?
It’s pronounced awr-nuh-thop-ter, and it’s an aircraft propelled by flapping wings, like a bird. First sketched by Leonardo da Vinci in 1485, people have been trying to improve on his design–and build a working model–for centuries. A group at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Aerospace Studies made their own design, and in August, they successfully flew the first human-powered ornithopter. The pilot, a PhD candidate named Todd Reichert, sat in a tiny cockpit pedaling furiously to make the wings gracefully flap.
Reichert explained the world’s obsession with this strange machine:
“It’s the original aeronautical dream, people first looking at birds saying, ‘I want to do that, I want to flap my wings like a bird,'” said Reichert, laughing as he recounted the four years it took for his project to take flight. [Winnipeg Free Press]
Science: It’s best with stuffed fish and a wind tunnel.
When flying fish leap from the water and glide through the air, they appear as streamlined as any bird or insect. But how does one put that assumption to the test? Easy: Catch flying fish from the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, as South Korea calls it), kill them, stuff them, place them in a wind tunnel, and turn on the breeze.
Hyungmin Park and Haecheon Choi did just that. Their study of airflow around the fish, which is out in The Journal of Experimental Biology, concludes that flying fish glide as efficiently as some birds, and perhaps even more so than some flying insects.
The US Missile Defense Agency’s flying laser failed to shoot down a test missile last week. Though in February the same plane successfully destroyed one from 50 miles away, last week’s test at a weapons range off California’s coast was meant to show the Airborne Laser Testbed‘s (ALTB) ability to hit missiles at a 100-mile range.
The laser and jumbo jet combo successfully tracked the missile and hit it, but stopped short of complete destruction, reports AOL News, which broke the story. The agency had not announced the test, which it had rescheduled several times.
“Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to destroy the target missile,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement…. [The test], which was designed to demonstrate the weapon’s capability at ranges twice the distance of the initial test, had been delayed at least four times due to various glitches, including problems with the target missile. At one point, the test was scheduled to take place at the opening of a major missile defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., but was delayed due to a software glitch. [AOL News]