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How The Panama Canal Changed The Shape Of War

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 13:15

Enlarging The Canal For Bigger Battleships Click here for a larger image. Popular Science

One hundred years ago, the Panama Canal opened for the first time. A triumph of turn-of-the-century engineering, it connected Pacific and Atlantic, expanding the worlds of maritime commerce and re-writing the sea lanes of the Western Hemisphere.

But with the canal came one major constraint: size. The locks of the canal are only so wide and so long and so deep, and while much of the ocean itself is boundless in what its depths can accommodate, the canal is a finite place. The maximum size for a modern vessel that wants to use the canal is known as Panamax. A Panamax vessel can be no longer than 965 feet, no wider than 106 feet, may extend no more than 190 feet above the waterline or 39 feet 6 inches below it, and no more than 65,000 deadweight tons.

The limitation was seized upon by naval theorists as soon as it was created. In 1916, Commander William Adger Moffet of the U.S. Navy wrote about the possible maximum size of warships, and came pretty close to the Panamax limit. Popular Science reported on it then in “The Thousand-Foot Battleship”:

“In an article published in “Sea Power,” Commander Moffet points out that only the size of the locks of the Panama Canal limits the size of the battleships. That limit applies to the warships of the entire word as well; for no power would sacrifice the advantage of being able to send its fleet through the canal.”

Included with the story was an estimation that the theoretical size limit of battleships was 995 feet in length and with a displacement of 60,000 tons. Moffet’s theorized ship would have been as long as the American battleships Oregon and Pennsylvania, which were in service at the time, stuck together end-to-end.

The Proposed Panama Limit Ship Click here to enlarge. Popular Science

Shortly after the Great War, this limit became less an exciting space to fill and more a cage that impeded ship size. In response to submarine attacks during the war, British vessels attached pontoon boats around the outsides of many vessels (this is what's known as "blistering" a ship). In a 1919 articlePopular Science wondered if blistering American warships would mean forsaking the canal:

That causes the Navy Department of the United States to ponder.

The locks of the Panama Canal are 110 feet wide; the beam of our latest dreadnought, 97 feet wide; and the plans for future dreadnoughts call for a beam of more than 100 feet. Add 16 feet of pontoon --eight on a side--to these ships and they will be wider than the locks!

If our ships are “blistered,” how shall we travel from coast to coast? Shall we change the width of the locks, of the ships, or of the pontoons? Or will it come to sending our largest ships around Cape Horn, as of old?

Panama Canal Limitations For Warships Popular Science

One possible solution to the narrow canal was adding another, larger set of locks. The United States, which completed construction of the canal and retained formal control over the canal zone for decades afterwards, attempted an expansion in the 1940s. The plan? Add a new set of locks at each entrance, and let more traffic traverse the main stretch of canal. “Enlarging the Panama Canal for Bigger Battleships,” in the September 1940 issue of Popular Science detailed this process, and explained the rationale behind it:

Why the new locks? First and foremost, they will assure the U.S. Fleet of unobstructed passage between the oceans, in cases of emergency. Canal authorities long have been jittery over the possibility of sabotage or direct attack on the present locks. A vessel might be blown up, or time bombs might be dropped, in a lock chamber; or the locks might be bombed by raiding planes. If a heavy explosion or a lucky hit from the air happened to destroy two side-by-side lock chambers at once, the entire Canal would be put of out commission. Therefore, for many months, a force of several thousand men has been working night and day to equip the old locks with "special protective devices" of a secret nature.  But the Navy will feel still more comfortable when the new locks are built, from a quarter mile to a half mile away from the old ones, so that both cannot be attacked simultaneously. Every known safeguard against bombing and sabotage will be built into them, from the foundation up.

The project continued until 1942, when the demands of actually fighting the war caused the United States to cancel the project.  

In the years since, most warships have remained within the constraints of the canal, but a few haven’t. The U.S. Navy’s Enterprise- and Nimitz-class carriers are all too big for the canal (at around 1100 feet long and 130 feet wide), and the new Gerald R. Ford class of carriers will be as well, even after the canal finishes its latest expansion project. Commander's Moffet's prediction was almost true: there was just one power willing to sacrifice the ability to send its ships through the canal, and that's the same superpower that built it.

Turning Old Lead Batteries Into New Solar Energy

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 08:30

Used Batteries elizaIO on Flickr

Used car batteries can leech chemicals and create lead pollution when they're incorrectly trashed. A team at MIT believes that this lead can be cut out of the waste stream entirely -- and put to good use creating emissions-free energy.

In newly published research, the scientists show that recycled lead from car batteries works as well as fresh lead when used in solar cells made with organolead halide perovskite film, a compound that is fast becoming competitive with silicon in solar power technology. The process is also cost-effective.

Quoting MIT energy professor Angela Belcher, a study co-author, an MIT press release notes that with time ticking down on lead-acid batteries in favor of lithium ion cells, we need to be thinking ahead on handling a looming toxic waste problem:

One motivation for using the lead in old car batteries is that battery technology is undergoing rapid change, with new, more efficient types, such as lithium-ion batteries, swiftly taking over the market. “Once the battery technology evolves, over 200 million lead-acid batteries will potentially be retired in the United States, and that could cause a lot of environmental issues,” Belcher says.

Today, she says, 90 percent of the lead recovered from the recycling of old batteries is used to produce new batteries, but over time the market for new lead-acid batteries is likely to decline, potentially leaving a large stockpile of lead with no obvious application.

The group's work demonstrates that the perovskite created from the lead in just one old car battery could provide materials for 30 households-worth of solar energy cells. Perovskite solar panels are also less energy-intensive to build compared to silicon-based cells, and the leaded film would be completely contained within other materials.

The research, “Environmentally-responsible fabrication of efficient perovskite solar cells from recycled car batteries,” was recently published online by the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The team has put this video online to demonstrate their process:

Twitter Bot Helps Chicago Officials Find Dirty Restaurants

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 14:45

Food Poisoning From an infographic for Foodborne Chicago by Payal Patel Designs

Those moules frites you had at the French bistro last night were delicious, but now you're feeling kind of funny. Worse than funny. Actually, you're trapped in your bathroom, suffering from food poisoning. Who are you going to tell about this?

Many cities have hotlines where citizens can report getting food poisoning from restaurants, but not everybody uses them. So, in a recent project, the city of Chicago sought food poisoning cases by setting an algorithm to mine Chicago-area tweets for complaints. The Chicago Department of Public Health's Twitter bot, plus a new online complaint form, helped the department identify 133 restaurants for inspections over a 10-month period. Twenty-one of those restaurants failed inspection and 33 passed with "critical or serious" violations. Not a bad haul.

Chicago is now working with the health departments of Boston and New York to see if its system could work in those cities, according to a report city researchers published with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, Twitter isn't the only social media platform cities are looking to mine for public health violations. In May, New York City's department of health reported on using an algorithm to spot Yelp reviews that point to food poisoning cases. New York's Yelp project led the city to discover three restaurants that had multiple violations. All the Yelp cases the city inspected had otherwise gone unreported, New York officials wrote in their own CDC report.

The Chicago bot was pretty simple, as Twitter-reading computer programs go. It searched for tweets geo-located to Chicago and its surrounding suburbs that mentioned "food poisoning." Human staff then read the tweets to determine if they were relevant. (Sounds fun.) Staff marked tweets as relevant or not relevant, to give the algorithm data to better learn what tweets to pull in the future. Then staff members responded to relevant tweets themselves. Here's a sample tweet and reply:

@BillWest5 Sorry to hear you're ill. The Chicago health department can help.

— Foodborne Chicago (@foodbornechi) August 15, 2014

The link leads to a new online form, called Foodborne Chicago, where city residents can report problematic restaurants.

Between March 2013 and January 2014, the Chicago bot culled 2,241 tweets, of which 270 were relevant and staff replied to them. Thirty Twitter users went to Foodborne Chicago directly from the link the health department sent them. An additional 163 people submitted complaints to Foodborne Chicago, but staff don't know if they learned about the site through Twitter or someplace else. Overall, Foodborne Chicago complaints contributed to four percent of the restaurants the city shut down for violations during the study period.

The city likely would have never caught the majority of those complaints without the Twitter bot, officials wrote to the CDC.

The city has made its Twitter bot open-source. You can see the code on GitHub.

NASA's Greased Lightning Tests Vertical Takeoff

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 13:20

NASA's GL-10 Greased Lightning Vertical Takeoff Test Drone Click here to see a larger version of this image. NASA Langley/David C. Bowman The space missions get all the credit, but the Aeronautics branch of NASA does really cool stuff. Today is National Aviation Day, and to celebrate, NASA shared a picture of their GL-10 Greased Lightning drone. Consider it the little sister to the military's V-22 Osprey. It has a ten-foot wingspan and boasts ten electric engines all on tiltwings. Seen here, the wings are pointed up, letting the drone take off and land like a helicopter. Once airborne, they'll tilt forward, making the plane much faster. It's a best-of-both-worlds configuration, and NASA wants to make it better.

Greased Lightning is part of a NASA program to make efficient hybrid-electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft. It's one of four concepts, and is the most conventional of the bunch. According to NASA, it recently flew while tethered, and untethered flight tests are planned for this fall.


DARPA Thinks Less Armor Could Make Tanks Safer

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 08:52

DARPA's Ground X-Vehicle Technology Program More protective layers of jargon = safer future tanks. DARPA

The heavy, treaded, gun-swinging battlefield behemoths know as tanks haven't changed much since their invention a century ago. Using a crapload of armor, the tank is meant to keep soldiers inside safe from bullets and other projectiles, while shooting a cannon at anything that poses a threat. But the problem with all this armor is that it makes vehicles slow and therefore more vulnerable. DARPA wants to change that. Their new Ground X-Vehicle Technology (GXV-T) initiative aims to get vehicles beyond armor, figuring out new ways to keep the people inside safe without sacrificing mobility.

Here's how DARPA describes the project's broader aim:

GXV-T seeks to investigate revolutionary ground-vehicle technologies that would simultaneously improve the mobility and survivability of vehicles through means other than adding more armor, including avoiding detection, engagement and hits by adversaries. This improved mobility and warfighting capability would enable future U.S. ground forces to more efficiently and cost-effectively tackle varied and unpredictable combat situations.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because the Army had similar goals with an expansive vehicle project in 1999. "Future Combat Systems" was a major vehicle design program, aimed at created 18 vehicles and a network that tied them all together. Ambitious in scope, it was ultimately canceled a decade later. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops faced deadly IEDs that tore apart fast, lightly armored vehicles, made a whole vehicle system built around that concept untenable.

The idea that lighter, more mobile vehicles are better for the future of war persists. GXV-T is an attempt to explore that concept, not in a sweeping 18 vehicle system, but with smaller, simpler prototypes. DARPA is assembling interested groups in Arlington, Virginia, for a Proposers' Day on September 5th. Afterwards, teams will develop technologies over the next 24 months designed to meet some or all DARPA's GXV-T objectives:

  • Reduce vehicle size and weight by 50 percent
  • Reduce onboard crew needed to operate vehicle by 50 percent
  • Increase vehicle speed by 100 percent
  • Access 95 percent of terrain
  • Reduce signatures that enable adversaries to detect and engage vehicles

What might such a vehicle look like? Here's DARPA's concept art about possible GXV-T entries:

GXV-T Concept Art The future of tanks is apparently robot dune buggies. DARPA

Autonomous X-47B Flies In Formation With Fighter Aircraft

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 15:00

X-47B Lands Aboard The USS Theodore Roosevelt U.S. Navy photo taken by Mass Communications Specialist Seaman Apprentice Alex Millar

If the latest tests are any indication, humans and robots will soon fight alongside one another, against other humans and maybe other robots. Yesterday, the U.S. Navy announced the first "successful manned & unmanned aircraft flight operations" of its experimental X-47B drone. The tests were performed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt

The exercise was operationally simple: the unmanned X-47B took off from the carrier's deck, followed by a manned F/A-18 Hornet. Then the X-47B landed on the deck, folded up its wings, and an operator on the deck steered the drone aside, while the Hornet landed on the same deck. It might be a simple concept, but successfully integrating both manned and unmanned aircraft into the same flight patterns, especially on the confined space of an aircraft carrier, is essential for future operations. It's similar to the challenge of making sure driverless cars can safely avoid cars with human drivers, but doing so at high speeds in three dimensions on a rocking platform in the middle of the ocean with airplanes worth millions of dollars.

The X-47B has earned a pair of nicknames: "Dorito" from its wedge-shaped body, and "Cylon" from its incredibly sophisticated robotic brain. Unlike most drones, which have a pilot dictating their every move by remote control, the X-47B is largely autonomous, calculating its flight paths. Last summer, the X-47B successfully landed on an aircraft carrier twice. (It aborted a third landing, but it did so to avoid crashing into the aircraft carrier, and safely landed on an airstrip elsewhere.)

Here's a short video from the Department of Defense showing some of the X-47B's latest flights: Please enable Javascript to watch this video

X-47B On Deck Of The USS Theodore Roosevelt Next To An F/A-18 Hornet U.S. Navy photo taken by Mass Communications Specialist Seaman Apprentice Alex Millar

South Africa's New AHRLAC Fighter Is A Drone Alternative

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 11:01

AHRLAC In Flight Its name is an acronym that means "Advanced High‐performance Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft." Aerosud & Paramount Group

Powered by a pusher propeller, covered in pixel camouflage, and furnished with stadium-seating for its two crew members, the Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft (AHRLAC) looks like an alternate history version of a World War I fighter. The result of a collaboration between South Africa's Aerosud aviation firm and the Paramount Group, the AHRLAC is designed as a cheap alternative to the big name in military surveillance right now: drones.

The AHRLAC is designed for flexible roles, depending on how it's equipped. These range from surveillance to light attack, which could make it a useful tool for border patrol, some forms of counter-insurgency warfare, and, perhaps most relevantly, anti-poaching activities. The pusher propeller design -- in which the propellers are mounted behind their respective engines -- helps the plane fly slowly, an important task for surveillance aircraft. (Pusher propellers were also used on the infamous Predator drone.) AHRLAC's maximum speed is about 310 mph, and it can fly for up to 7.5 hours. It's made to carry everything from surveillance cameras and radar to rockets, flares, and some missiles. 

The manufacturers boast that AHRLAC is the "first ever aircraft to be fully designed and developed in Africa." Several features make it well suited for rural use: A short takeoff distance of only 1,800 feet and high wings mean it can even take off from fields with some underbrush.

Watch a video of it below:

The Week In Drones: Lollapalooza Lollygaggers, Archaeology Aids, And More

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 14:45

A Hexarotor Drone This drone is similar to that purchased by the San Jose Police Department, though it isn't the specific model. Adrian Michael, via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news, designed to capture the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.


A drone was spotted in the skies above Chicago, specifically above the Lollapalooza music festival. The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into it. According to the drone's pilot, the aircraft only flew to 230 feet in elevation, well below the 400-foot ceiling recommended for model airplanes. The FAA instead will investigate, not for the altitude, but for the danger of the setting: over a populated area.

Watch the drone's footage, including a shout-out from Skrillex, below.

Model Airplane Day

Tomorrow is National Model Airplane Day, sponsored by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The day is designed to celebrate the hobby and its history. In support, the FAA released a statement on safety that strongly alludes to the criticism the FAA has received in its handling of drone regulations.

“Safe model aircraft operations bring the joy of recreational or hobby flying to more people than ever before,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We commend AMA for its outstanding work. AMA’s detailed procedures promote safe model operations and serve as an excellent resource for AMA members and non-members alike."

This quote is then followed by a link to the "Academy of Model Aeronautics National Model Aircraft Safety Code," which emphasizes the 400 foot ceiling recommendation.

Farmers Excited Over Robots

At the Farmfest tradeshow in Morgan, Minnesota, farmers were treated to a seminar on the agricultural benefits of drones, sponsored by none other than John Deere. Some of the low-hanging fruit in agricultural drone use is simple photography of farmland, allowing farmers to see anomalies in the land  by the coloration of their plants. At a vineyard in California, the vintners found a section of grapes getting more water than they anticipated, allowing them to harvest that section sooner. Besides photography, there are other potential benefits from drone use. Sweetener company Stevia First plans to fly light-shining drones over their stevia crops at night, goading the plants into growing faster.

Protectors Of The Past

In Peru, a technology of the future can save the past from the pressures of the present. As people claim more and more land they encroach on unprotected historical sites. To balance the needs of the people today with a desire to preserve the past, archeologists with the Minister of Cultural Heritage are enlisting drones as a cheap and fast way to photograph the ruins, and a computer program stitches the images together into 3-D models of the sites. By knowing they're there, it makes it that much easier to preserve the ruins for future generations.

Watch video of it below:

San Jose Police Disputes FAA On Drone Use

The San Jose police department acquired a drone in January and then kept it secret, according to recently released documents. While there are other police departments that fly drones, that drone use is subject to prior FAA approval. Previously hobbyists have disputed the FAA's authority over private drone use, and it's possible that the San Jose Police Department could challenge that ambiguity as well. It doesn't look like that's the case, however.

Weirder is that the grant to buy the drone came from the Department of Homeland Security, which means one part of the federal government funded the drone before another granted the police department approval to fly it.

San Jose Police Department's own logic hinges on a semantic debate: According to a memo circulated among police in March, they reasoned "The UAV is not a drone. Drones are regulated by the FAA. The FAA doesn't regulate our device."

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at

A Machine That Sniffs Out American Cash

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 11:16

Dollar Bills iBid, State of Illinois

You know that unique smell of money. You're not imagining it, either; it's real, produced from a combination of the paper and ink it's printed with, and it's even detectable by sniffer dogs.

Now, one California company is hoping to build a portable machine that can smell out money as well as a dog can. KWJ Engineering is developing something it's calling the Bulk Currency Detection System, to detect fat stacks of laundered American cash as it's carried across national borders, Newsweek reports.

Law-enforcement dogs do that job now, but KWJ Engineering hopes to make the Bulk Currency Detection System cheaper than the cost of training a dog. Of course, there are many challenges for the company to overcome before a cash-sniffing machine becomes a viable alternative to a cash-sniffing canine. The machine will have to be small and light enough for a security officer to carry. It also has to analyze the air it samples quickly. The system is based on gas chromatograph-mass spectrometers, which are common in chemistry labs, but are normally slow-working and about the size of a baby bathtub.

To scientifically define the smell of money, KWJ engineers analyzed a hundred $1 bills in all life stages, from crisp and fresh to worn and oily, the BBC reports. The engineers sought a chemical profile that was common among all the bills, in spite of their differing histories.

It turns out the common profile is there, but it consists of just a tiny handful of chemicals among the thousands that the machine would encounter as it sweeps over people's suitcases and taped-up boxes. So distinguishing between the true smell of money, and the stink of everything else in life, will be a big challenge for KWJ, too.

[Newsweek, BBC]

Extreme Rainfall Is The New Normal, And We're Not Ready For It

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 09:30

Detroit Flood. On August 11, more than 4 inches of rain fell on Detroit in less than a day. Drivers abandoned their cars as many metro area highways turned into lakes. The Detroit News

Six weeks worth of rain fell on greater Detroit on Monday, much of it during afternoon rush hour. Local drainage systems quickly topped out, and the deluge transformed highways into lakes studded with hundreds of stranded drivers and submerged cars. Flooded roads and highways in greater Detroit began to reopen on Wednesday, two days after the storm, according to The Wall Street Journal, but the cleanup and repair is likely to take months.

The flooding came about, most directly, due to very high humidity on Monday combined with a low pressure system from the southwest. The resulting storms moved so slowly (sometimes even reforming after initially raining themselves out) that the rain was concentrated across a small geographic area.

This is weather common to tropical regions of the world, not temperate Michigan. But it's in line with the National Climate Assessment, which found that over the past six decades incidents of extreme precipitation have increased across the continental U.S. due to human-propelled climate change. Rising temperatures increase the evaporation of water into vapor, and warmer air can take on greater amounts of water vapor than cooler. When all that vapor finally condenses into rain (or snow), there's more of it to dump onto the communities below.

This new normal of extreme precipitation is hitting Northeastern states the hardest, followed by the upper Midwest, as this map from Climate Central shows:

Extreme Precipitation in US Increasing Data from the latest National Climate Assessment shows that brief, heavy downpours are increasing across the United States, with the Northeastern and Upper Midwestern states hardest hit. Climate Central


There's another thing that's changed since the 1950s: the built environment. There is a lot more of it.

Officially Monday's rainfall in Detroit totaled 4.57 inches (some areas saw up to 6 inches), just missing the one-day rainfall record of 4.75 inches set in 1925. “But as bad as that Prohibition-era deluge must have been,” wrote WXYZ's Chris Edwards, “it fell on a city with a lot less paved area than we have now.”

The large amount of pavement in Detroit, or any large urban area, allows less rainfall to soak into the ground and creates more runoff during intense storms. So when considering how the metro area has changed since 1925, this may have been the most serious flooding event ever recorded in Detroit.

Much of U.S. highway system was planned and built in the mid-20th century with historical rain and snow conditions in mind. Now these same systems are decades-old, under-maintained, and failing under the new normal we've created of extreme precipitation.

Much of Detroit's infrastructure is due for major renovation, replacement, or re-imagining. While many civic leaders and engineering visionaries imagine a bright future for the Motor City, in the present the city's near-bankruptcy has meant tens of millions of dollars in neglected maintenance on basic urban necessities like water mains, as Michigan Radio reported in February. 

But it's unfair to single-out Detroit. Failing infrastructure and flash flooding are big problems for the entire U.S.

A day after the Michigan floods, these factors came together again in Tuesday's torrential downpours along the East Coast. A low pressure storm system crawling up the mid-Atlantic seaboard dropped several inches of rainfall within 24 hours on communities from Maryland to New York. A near-record 6.3 inches of rain fell at Baltimore-Washington International Airport –  trumped only by the amount of rain that fell during a 1933 hurricane, Climate Central reports. Some parts of greater Baltimore saw over 10 inches of rain before the storms moved off.

Baltimore Flooding Sudden heavy rains swamped parts of the Baltimore area on August 12, including this parking lot at BWI Airport. @1stChoiceWeathr on Twitter

By 9:30 am Wednesday, the system was moving over the New York City metro area. Long Island recorded 13.26 inches of rainfall in less than a day, according to the National Weather Service, breaking the New York state record set during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Severe roadway flooding trapped many drivers on roadways, and cut off parts of eastern Long Island from the rest of the state. 

Flooding on Long Island On August 13, 2014, torrential early morning rainfall flooded roads and highways in Long Island, New York, turning this parking lot at the Long Island Rail Road station in Islip into a lake. Water quickly rose in many areas, closing roads and highways and breaking the state's record for rainfall in a 24-hour period. MTA

By Wednesday night the storm system was hoving over southeastern Maine. Over 4 inches of rain fell on Portland between 9 and 11pm; by midnight the deluge officially hit a record-setting 6.44 inches, according to the Portland Press Herald. (By some unofficial weather radar estimates, it topped 8 inches.) Thousands lost power as streets and basements flooded all over southern Maine.

And just so the U.S. heartland doesn't feel left out, here's a video of flash-flooding in Kearney, Nebraska shows a 9-foot-high wall of storm water breaking through tall glass doors to engulf a hospital dining room:

Kearny historically has averaged barely two inches of precipitation per month. But from Friday into Saturday, as nearly 4 inches of rain poured on Kearney in a few hours, spurring floods that "overwhelmed the city's storm sewer system and broke through the two-story ground-to-ceiling windows of the dinining room at Good Samaritan's Central Cafe," reported the Omaha World-Herald. "The hospital basement flooded, and there was water damage in other portions of the main building."

On Facebook the hospital expressed relief that no one was injured in the flash flood:

It’s hard to put into words exactly what Saturday’s conditions were like and just how seriously our facility was impacted. And to say that we’re emotional about the whole situation is a bit of an understatement. This security camera footage is just a glimpse into the series of events that unfolded Saturday.

A Spotter's Guide To Military-Grade Gear Now Being Used By Police

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 07:00

Virginia Beach SWAT team members ride the running boards of an armored van to get into position to assault Building 1155. NASA/Sean Smith Following the fatal police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last Saturday, a protest movement broke out in the small town. Police from St. Louis County responded, showing up with body armor, gas masks, rifles, camouflage uniforms, armored cars, and tear gas. This excessive show of force, combined with gear that looks very military, has lead to widespread outcry against police militarization, including some objections from veterans themselves. Here's a look at some of the gear on the ground in Ferguson and how it made its way from military service to police armories. Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD)

Disgraceful. MRAP mounted LRAD = Afghanistan-grade gear MT @PDPJ #Ferguson: high powered rifles trained on protesters

— Thomas Chappelow (@tomchappelow) August 14, 2014

What it is: A powerful sonic cannon, the LRAD blasts beams of sound at people up to 3,200 feet away.

Original Military Use: An alternative to shooting a bunch or making something explode, LRADs have found a use on both land and sea. For naval or commercial vessels, they're great at deterring pirates. At military checkpoints on land, LRADs force vehicles to slow down or stop, and they do so more calmly than shooting would.

Ferguson Use: Keeping protesters away from police armored vehicles.

Grenade Launchers

Smh RT @MacAndCheeks: grenade launcher. because ya know...Ferguson protesters are just that violent.

— Extra Grams Sam (@Boy4rmdaBart) August 14, 2014

What it is: A gun that hurls a canister of some type.

Original Military Use: Lobbing small explosives further than troops can throw them. In some situations, less-lethal ammunition is used.

Ferguson Use: Firing flash-bang grenades, tear gas, or other less-lethal munitions to try and forcibly disperse a crowd. Worth noting that while these are less-lethal weapons, they can still cause serious harm. During a SWAT raid in Georgia, a flash bang grenade fell into a toddler's crib and put the infant into a coma. The toddler appears to be recovering.


#Ferguson police officers wearing desert, jungle combat camouflage. Is that really necessary?

— Sam Gustin (@samgustin) August 14, 2014

What it is: Pants that look like plants.

Original Military Use: Making it harder for enemies to see troops, as they blend into the surrounding environment.

Ferguson Use: Looking like the military. Because police are not expected to come under hostile fire from an enemy force at any moment, there's very little need for them to dress like their surroundings.  According to both journalist Radley Balko and a report on police militarization by the ACLU, the major effect of military uniforms is an ego boost for the cops wearing them. Balko quotes a letter to the editors at Washington Post from retired police sergeant Bill Donelly: "One tends to throw caution to the wind when wearing ‘commando-chic’ regalia, a bulletproof vest with the word ‘POLICE’ emblazoned on both sides, and when one is armed with high tech weaponry."

Armored Personnel Carriers

@JustinRaimondo Another picture of LRAD on APC in #Ferguson #FergusonRiot

— Bobstar (@BobbyMageroski) August 14, 2014

What it is: A relatively bulletproof vehicle. About half of these in police use are retired Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles once used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are plenty of other models from older wars in use, as well as some specifically made for police purposes.

Original Military Use: Keeping troops safe in gunfights, by providing a sturdy and armored way to either get more troops to the fight or get wounded people out of danger.

Ferguson Use: There are situations in American policing where an armored car might be needed in a gunfight between law enforcement and criminals. That was not the case in Ferguson, where the largely peaceful protesters were armed mostly with signs and chants.

Scoped and Leveled Rifle

5. ... This, for example, is not a policeman who is about to win the trust of his fellow citizen:

— Andrew Exum (@abumuqawama) August 13, 2014

What it is: A tool that puts holes in people.

Original Military Use: Killing people far away, doing so accurately, and with a minimum number of shots fired. If a crowd situation turns into a battle, snipers can pick out more threatening people farther away from where they are.

Ferguson Use: Intimidation? It's hard to imagine a scenario during nonviolent protests, or even minor rioting, that necessitates the use of a scoped rifle.

Rare are the situations where it's advantageous for police to have armored cars, camouflage, grenade launchers, crowd control weapons, and sniper rifles. Such a show of tactical equipment isn't just excessive, but it can escalate a relatively calm demonstration into something more volatile and unsafe.

Test Space Medicine In Zero Gravity

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 15:19

Students fly on 32 parabolic arcs, each with 20 seconds of microgravity in which to conduct experiments. NASA/Microgravity University

Three Stanford University students float weightless about 30,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, as they wiggle a probe into a mannequin’s esophagus and try their best not to vomit. The undergrads hope to learn whether a portable ultrasound machine can take useful images of the heart—in this case, the lifeless heart of a $26,000 dummy—in zero gravity. 

The parabolic flight is part of NASA’s so-called Microgravity University, which gives students the opportunity to design experiments that will help determine the future of space flight. Stanford’s ultrasound machine (donated, like the dummy) seems well suited to a trip to Mars. It’s light and compact, requires little medical training to use, and the probe can remain in the body for 72 hours while recording images of the heart. But no one knows whether it would function correctly in space. 

The Boeing 727 pulls out of a dive at the bottom of its parabolic arc and begins to climb again. The students slam to the floor, smiling; they got the images they needed. Later, team leader Paul Warren sends two sets—one taken on Earth and one in flight—to a cardiac anesthesiologist, who finds no significant differences. Once more doctors review them, the team hopes to publish their results. 

Through Microgravity U., students are tackling the hurdles to space exploration one experiment at a time. “Before we make long-duration space flight a reality,” Warren says, “we need to have the type of medical equipment in emergency rooms on Earth available in space.” 

Check out more coverage of Microgravity U.'s parabolic flight.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Read the rest of Popular Science’s education feature.

Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 15:15

A Navy Performance During Boston Harborfest, 2007 This is very much not the Boston Calling concert, but it's at City Hall Plaza and surrounded by the same brutalist architecture. Dave Kaylor, U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

The Boston Calling Music Festival in May 2013 had a great lineup: Fun., Dirty Projectors, and Of Monsters and Men, to name a few. The event also included ten cameras that recorded over 50 hours of video surveillance footage on the thousands of concert goers at Boston's City Hall Plaza. An investigative series by the Boston area free weekly DigBoston recently unearthed this surveillance, which was done on behalf of the city. 

Of course, video surveillance is nothing new. What's particularly interesting about this footage is that it was used in conjunction with a new type of "people-parsing" software. For these concerts, IBM provided the city with a software dashboard for surveillance, and it went beyond just recognizing faces. A "people search" tool available in the dashboard shows that the software recognized and categorized a number of searchable facets about concert attendees. These include "'baldness,' 'head color,' 'skin tone,' and clothing texture," making it possible to search the footage for images of everyone by outfit as well as by race.

According to Boston officials, the tests at both the May and September 2013 Boston Calling concerts were to evaluate the new software for managing large public events, and they used both existing cameras and existing data storage technology. Saying the tests were just for evaluating software is a tad misleading. With the right software, an off-center picture of a face can be reconstructed into a 3-D image accurate enough for police use, and facial recognition software is increasingly sophisticated. New software isn't just a part of how surveillance is done -- it's what transforms video from an formidable 50 hour block of time into a database of searchable images.

Courtesy of DigBoston, watch a small slice of the surveillance footage below, taken from the concert's beer garden, below:

Read the first part of the revelations at DigBoston, and look for Part Two there tomorrow.

Edward Snowden Reveals NSA's MonsterMind Program

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 10:15

NSA's Utah Data Center A view of Monstermind's physical lair, photographed from an Electronic Frontier Foundation airship Parker Higgins, Electronic Frontier Foundation

In the high desert near Bluffdale, Utah, there lurks a creature made entirely of zeroes and ones. Called "MonsterMind", the project is an automated cyber weapon, perched atop the data flows into the National Security Agency's Mission Data Repository. According to recent revelations from former government contractor and NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Monstermind is both tremendously powerful and easily fooled. Here's the skinny on the biggest revelation from Wired's recent profile of Snowden. Author James Bamford writes:

The massive surveillance effort was bad enough, but Snowden was even more disturbed to discover a new, Strangelovian cyberwarfare program in the works, codenamed MonsterMind. The program, disclosed here for the first time, would automate the process of hunting for the beginnings of a foreign cyberattack. Software would constantly be on the lookout for traffic patterns indicating known or suspected attacks. When it detected an attack, MonsterMind would automatically block it from entering the country—a “kill” in cyber terminology.

Programs like this had existed for decades, but MonsterMind software would add a unique new capability: Instead of simply detecting and killing the malware at the point of entry, MonsterMind would automatically fire back, with no human involvement. That's a problem, Snowden says, because the initial attacks are often routed through computers in innocent third countries. “These attacks can be spoofed,” he says. “You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital. What happens next?”

As described, MonsterMind is a brute force approach to covert cyber war embodied in one program. In order to function, it scans a huge amount of electronic communication, all passing through the 247 acre facility, and looks for attacks. That's the scary part. The dumb part is how it automatically decides where to strike back. Spoofing, as Snowden mentioned, is a relatively simple technique for hiding where an attack comes from. It's the online equivalent of throwing a pebble to distract the prison guard while the plucky protagonist runs away. 

Bamford describes this attack as Strangelovian, in reference to the Stanley Kubrick film about nuclear war. In the film, the Soviets develop a nuclear deterrent system that automatically attacks America if Russia gets hit first. The deterrent fails in part because the Americans didn't know about it, and the film ends with a montage of nuclear explosions, as an accidental American first strike triggers the apocalypse. The automatic strike-back mechanism and obscurity of Monstermind resemble this device, but the stakes are at least an order of magnitude less severe than all-out nuclear war.

Cyber attacks at present are mostly the theft of private data or bank information, with the occasional rare instance of actual industrial sabotage breaking a machine. None of this makes an automated strike-back system great, but it's still a far cry from the world-ending threat of thermonuclear war.

Read this and other revelations, including one about a contractor router that broke Syria's internet, at Wired.

The Bomb That Ends The World, Dr. Strangelove Still image from Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. Stanley Kubrick

Google Can Now Delete Your Past -- But How Much Should Be Erased?

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 13:05

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is part of a new advisory board formed by Google that will help establish new guidelines for removal requests. Wertuose via Wikimedia Commons In the late 1990s, Mario Costeja González ran into financial trouble and a bank foreclosed on his house in Spain. Eventually he put the situation behind him, but more than a decade later, newspaper notices of the subsequent auction still popped up in Web searches for his name. So in 2010, González filed a complaint against the paper and Google, arguing that the foreclosure had been long-since resolved and should be scrubbed from their sites. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in May that González can’t compel the paper to remove any accurate information, but he and other private citizens may request that search engines remove erroneous, inadequate, or irrelevant links from their results. The landmark decision granted Gonzalez what’s known as the right to be forgotten. 

This legal doctrine asserts that people should be able to leave their past in the past. Although the concept has roots in centuries-old French law, the growth of the Web and social sharing in the last decade has prompted legal experts to reexamine it. The ease with which Google serves up a de facto profile of any private citizen is enough to make many people leery of how their lives look online. The ECJ ruling, however, is a major overcorrection. It could allow individuals to revise or censor their histories at will. 

Google received more than 41,000 removal requests in the first four days it accepted them, and began deleting links in early July. “The court has handed Google a gavel and given it lower-court status,” says Meg Ambrose, assistant professor of international technology policy at Georgetown University. To help establish guidelines and processes for this new digital gray area, the company formed an advisory board that includes Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and former Spanish Data Protection Agency director José-Luis Piñar.

The ease with which google offers a profile of anyone makes many people leery of how their lives look online.

One likely suggestion from the committee: Make search results more timely and relevant. Google has been making those types of refinements for years; in 2011, for example, the company placed an increased value on timeliness. This June, it boosted the mobile-search rank of sites with designs responsive to mobile browsers—a revision that could bury outdated hits. Lesser-known search engines have pushed this idea even further. NowRelevant, for one, only shows results posted in the past 14 days. 

Still, this doesn’t get to the root of the problem: How do we best deal with outdated content? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, who’s been called the godfather of the right to be forgotten, has suggested that publishers assign content-expiration dates based on the lifespan of the information’s relevance. He envisions a new profession focused on the proper handling of data—each company would employ one such handler, the same way it would have an accountant or office manager. In essence, he wants a set of standards that leave the decisions about how data is used to its publishers. This would curtail censoring from individuals guided only by self-interest, and eliminate the prospect of sweeping, arbitrary deletions by Google, which should never have been given final say to begin with.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Watch This Panthera Airplane Spin Under Control

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 10:00

A Pipistrel Panthera In Flight Pipistrel

An important part of plane design is making sure the plane still works even if the pilot doesn't. In this flight test video from Slovenian aircraft maker Pipistrel, two crew members and two passengers ride a new Panthera plane through a series of spins. Waving calmly to a camera on the port wing, the crew then hang on tight while the aircraft rotates 10 times. In addition to the one on the wing, cameras in the cockpit and one on the tail capture the spins, showing the nerve-wracking and nauseating experience from multiple angles.

Spin tests are recommended for pilots, and there's a long-running debate if they should be required. For airplane makers, certain kinds of acrobatic airplanes are required to recover from a series of six spins. In the video, the Panthera and pilot pass with flying colors. Really, the only thing underwhelming about this performance is the soundtrack. If they're going to send a plane into a wicked spin and then recover, they should set it something far more metal. For future Panthera tests, I recommend Pantera.

Watch the spin test below:

The Week In Drones: Virtual Cities, Paparazzi, And More

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 10:13

A Flock Of Red Knots These birds migratory paths delayed drone testing off the New Jersey shore. Dick Daniels, via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news: the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.

Birds Delay Drones

In December, the FAA selected New Jersey as one of six drone test sites. Those tests will have to wait for the original unmanned flyers to pass first, though: Piping Plovers and Red Knots are both threatened bird species, and their migratory paths, like that of many creatures, take them through the Jersey Shore. The tests were delayed out of concern from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the drones would collide with the birds in mid-air. The New Jersey Institute of Technology will likely attempt the tests again in the fall.

All Flying Blades, No Human Runners

"City of Drones" is a collaborative art project/game-like immersive experience soundtracked by legendary experimental musician John Cale. Users navigate the urban canyons between skyscrapers. It's a beautiful, austere world, and an interesting tool for imagining the flow of objects in a future city. From our coverage:

The world itself was constructed by Liam Young, a self-described speculative architect, and the London-based digital art studio FIELD. The world of City of Drones is peopled, as it were, only by buildings and flying objects. Many of these drones take on familiar shapes: flying wings, rotund cigar-like blimps, and the matchstick-with-wings body type common to military drones like the Predator. Others are abstracted further– shiny diamonds, matchstick mutants covered in wings at all angles, discarded origami drifting through space. The drones seem to fly in lanes, keeping neat lines along x, y, and z axes. It's a world that operates in rough imitation to something real, like a first rendering of a Coruscant cityscape background in the Star Wars prequels.

Busy Skyway, City Of Drones Screenshot Liam Young, City of Drones

New Drone In Old War

Israel is both a major maker and user of military drones. During "Operation Protective Edge," the Israel Defense Forces latest counter-rocket war in the Gaza strip, an observer captured an IDF drone overhead, equipped with something new. As Popular Science noted earlier this week:

The Aviationist reports that, for the first time, Israel is deploying a modified Elbit SystemsHermes 450, with a new antenna on top and carrying underwing pods, over Gaza. The pods could be fuel tanks for longer flights, though speculation exists that they instead contain either light missiles or guns. According to the brochure from the drone's manufacturer, it doesn't carry any weapons itself, instead using only surveillance and targeting equipment. Many American drones function that way too, providing information and targeting coordinates for other, armed parts of the military. 

Down In Smokestacks

The 680 foot tall smokestacks at the Poolbeg power plant dominate the Dublin skyline. Inactive since 2010, an enterprising drone pilot flew over the smokestacks, capturing the towers and staring into their smoke-stained emptiness. Watch the exploration below:

K-Maximum Damage

The K-Max helicopter is an optionally manned cargo carrier used by Marines in Afghanistan. It can be flown remotely, making it a "sometimes" drone. One crashed last summer when it encountered a contrary wind while carrying 2,000 pounds of cargo. Recent investigations into the crash highlight one of the major challenges for unmanned aircraft: Onboard pilots can often comprehened the danger of a situation immediately, but that cockpit understanding doesn't always translate to the remote control consoles used by distant pilots. 

Yellow Stone, Sunken Drone

The National Park Service banned drones in June, but that hasn't stopped tourists from putting robots in places they shouldn't be. On Wednesday, one crashed into Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring. Now park officials need to figure out how to find and extract the drone from the 121-foot-deep, 160-degree-Fahrenheit water.

Grand Prismatic Spring As Seen From Above Jim Peaco, National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons

Law Of The Low Sky

Los Angeles is considering limiting hobbyist drone use after a private citizen flew a drone over the parking lot of LAPD's Hollywood division and recorded the police officers' activity. The rules regarding private drone use, especially for small, model-airplane-sized drones flown within eyesight of the pilot, are somewhat vague, and in the absence of clear direction from the FAA, LAPD wants to set boundaries on their own. In this fight they may have an unlikely ally. International superstar Kanye West is worried that a paparazzi drone might fall into the pool where is one-year-old daughter North is swimming and electrocute her. If a paparazzi drone does electrocute North West, expect things to go south fast.

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at

Drone Drowns In Yellowstone Hot Spring

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 13:01

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park James St. John, via Wikimedia Commons

According to the National Park Service, a tourist crashed a camera-equipped drone into Grand Prismatic Spring, the park's largest geothermal hot spring. In May, the National Park Service banned drones from Yosemite National Park, and in June that ban expanded to include all national parks. The Prismatic Spring crash is not the first drone crash on a national park, and it's unlikely to be the last.

Civilian drones are cheap and getting cheaper, are easily controlled by smartphone or special remote control, and potentially operate in a legal gray area under American law. The park service's ban is at least clear, and promises that the ban is temporary until a service-wide regulation is adopted. It also has exceptions for "search-and-rescue work, fire operations, and scientific study," providing specific uses get prior approval. Ultimately, a new policy will address the needs of visitors, conservation, and animal protection better than both a blanket ban and a laissez faire approach.

In the meantime, park officials need to figure out how to find and extract the drone from the 121-foot-deep, 160-degree-Fahrenheit water. Perhaps they might want to use another, more stable drone for the search.

From The Archives: Debating The Hiroshima And Nagasaki Bombings

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 15:30

Bom Effects From the September 1945 issue of Popular Science. Popular Science

On August 6th, 1945, the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima, Japan. It was the second atomic weapon ever detonated, and the first used in actual war. A few weeks earlier, Manhattan Project researchers detonated the first atomic weapon in a remote New Mexico desert, but it was the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ushered in the nuclear age with a blinding flash . Here's how Popular Science covered the attack.

An important piece of context: this was a cover story in the August 1945 issue of Popular Science [warning: contains ethnic slur]:  

August 1945 Magazine Story While touted on the cover of the issue, the story came with a disclaimer that this was a controversial opinion, and the editors would welcome letters from readers in support or against it. Popular Science

Despite the appearance of "Major" before his name, George Fielding Eliot wasn't a serving member of any military at the time of publication. Instead, he was a retired officer, who worked as a naval correspondent and wrote science fiction, as well as military commentaries. He was famously wrong in 1938 when he wrote a piece titled "The Impossible War With Japan," published at the American Mercury. Not only did the piece declare such a war was impossible, but in it, Eliot specifically said "a Japanese attack upon Hawaii is a strategical impossibility." In "Should We Gas?," Eliot's argument foreshadows one commonly used in defense of the atomic bombings, highlighting Japan's perceived inability to see its own inevitable defeat, and the high casualties that come with land invasions. President Truman, who ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, echoed this when explaining his rationale in a letter to Professor James L. Cate. He wrote:

I asked General Marshall what it would cost in lives to land on the Tokyo plain and other places in Japan. It was his opinion that such an invasion would cost at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties, and might cost as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy. The other military and naval men present agreed. I asked Secretary Stimson which sites in Japan were devoted to war production. He promptly named Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among others. We sent an ultimatum to Japan. It was rejected.

Ultimately, gas was not the weapon of mass destruction used against Japan. 

In the September 1945 issue of Popular Science, following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the editors published a statement titled "Annihilation Bomb: Friend or Foe?" It focuses heavily on the science of the weapon and the long term implications of using it, while curiously ignoring the considerable number of people who died (estimates near 200,000 dead and injured). "Annihilation Bomb" compares the power of the bombs to that of a star; it touches upon the effects of radiation, both through cancer treatments and as a harmful after-effect. There's even a suggestion of deriving energy from nuclear power: "Popular Science's editors are confident, nevertheless, that scientists can learn to control this new source of power as they have controlled fire and electricity." It ends, optimistically, with this:

"A door has been opened in the world of science, and what may be on the other side is still to be seen," says Sir John Anderson. Popular Science Monthly hopes to describe that scene to its readers as rapidly as developments make this possible. Its editors hope, too, that readers of this magazine will be stimulated to contribute to the new era of science that dawned on August 6th, 1945. By splitting the atom, man may have united the world."

Read "Annihilation Bomb" below: 

Annihilation Bomb, Page One From the September 1945 issue of Popular Science Popular Science

It continues, paired with an advertisement for a wrench:

Annihilation Bomb, Page Two Popular Science


Navigate Robotic Smog In City Of Drones

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 10:45

Screenshot From City Of Drones Pictured: ambient drones, ambient skyscrapers. Not pictured: ambient sounds. Liam Young, City of Drones

It's a weird sensation, being born in midair. Within seconds, users exploring Liam Young's conceptual art project "City of Drones" find themselves staring out the eyes of an unmanned robot, falling gently towards what appears to be something like the ground. "City of Drones" is as much statement as game, an artful exploration of a world filled only with robots and obstacles.

The project is soundtracked by musician John Cale, who brings a sparse touch to the world, evoking a mechanical wind on a desolate plain, like a Spaghetti Western filmed in an abandoned city. Voices chatter through static, air traffic controller technobabble speaking into a robotic void.

The world itself was constructed by Liam Young, a self-described speculative architect, and the London-based digital art studio FIELD. The world of City of Drones is peopled, as it were, only by buildings and flying objects. Many of these drones take on familiar shapes: flying wings, rotund cigar-like blimps, and the matchstick-with-wings body type common to military drones like the Predator. Others are abstracted further– shiny diamonds, matchstick mutants covered in wings at all angles, discarded origami drifting through space. The drones seem to fly in lanes, keeping neat lines along x, y, and z axes. It's a world that operates in rough imitation to something real, like a first rendering of a Coruscant cityscape background in the Star Wars prequels.

Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, uses the term "robot smog" to describe this kind of future. He writes:

I recently heard the C.E.O. of a domestic drone company describe the vision that inspires her: she wants a drone to deliver bottles of water as she completes her morning runs. Imagine the scene as joggers scatter through the park with their drones humming overhead, jostling for position, sounding like a dozen leaf blowers. This melange of visual clutter and noise pollution, what I’ve dubbed “robot smog,” will transform the worst effects of digital devices into real-world annoyances that cannot be silenced or hidden in a coat pocket. Today, interactions with machines generally occur on our own terms—toasters, microwaves, and even smartphones do what we tell them—but soon, we could be looking up at a quadrotor drone hovering in the park, wondering whether to walk underneath it or cut into the grass to avoid its downdraft. Autonomous robots will displace our sense of control precisely because they are out of our control, but occupy the physical world and demand our attention.

In City of Drones, there is no such interaction, because there are no people. It's the smog without the people breathing it in, the pollution without the ecosystem it's disrupting. It's a fanciful world, and an empty one. If this is the future of drones, what is the future of people? One guess: they're all hiding out in drone-proof cities.


Skyscrapers And Drones In City Of Drones There's a reflection of the sky on these windows, but no sky visible to the player's electronic eye. Liam Young, City of Drones