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    Slate: Killer drones that can see through walls

    Slate’s William Saletan has an interesting story on emerging technology. Titled, “Nowhere To Hide: Killer drones that can see through walls,” Saletan looks at aerial drones (also known as “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)”) and STTW, “sense-through-the-wall” technology. Saletan states:

    What seems to be happening is that these two projects—STTW and UAVs—are converging. In other words, unmanned vehicles that can see through walls. In some planning documents, the merger is explicit. A 2006 “Operational Needs Statement” from the military’s Joint Urban Operations Office calls for a “STTW sensor mountable on both manned and unmanned vehicles,” including “UAV platforms.” A Navy bulletin calls for the same thing.

    Saletan looked into the backstory of both technologies.

    “Through-the-wall sensing is currently a topic of great interest to defense agencies both in the U.S. and abroad,” says the April [2008 Army research] report. “The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) has been active in all these fields of investigation, approaching these issues both through hardware design and radar measurements and through computer simulation of various STTW scenarios.”

    STTW has been around for a while. A 2006 report from the National Defense University mentions a DARPA system that can “detect the presence of personnel within rooms (stated to be successful through 12 inches of concrete),” as well as a commercially developed system with a “30-foot standoff capability.” The next step, to protect U.S. personnel, is to put the technology on “unattended” mobile devices. Since the initial context is urban warfare, the pioneering client is the Army, and the introductory platform is unmanned ground vehicles. But the goal is to increase “standoff distance” and spread the technology to other platforms.

    Meanwhile, up in the air, drone designers have been struggling with a similar problem: seeing through “darkness, bad weather, and tree canopies.” The crucial contribution drones have made in Iraq—providing instant, on-demand customized video to ground forces—doesn’t work where the drones’ cameras can’t see. So American engineers are developing radar that penetrates outdoor obstacles.

    Saletan’s conclusion is chilling:

    The effect of these devices, according to a former U.S. military official interviewed by the [Los Angeles] Times, is that insurgents, even indoors, “are living with a red dot on their head.”

    Cool, huh? Except that if their walls are now transparent, so are yours. As fozzy astutely asks: “What happens when the government ‘brings this technology home‘?” And do you think our government is the only one merging STTW with UAVs? Heck, even the Canadians are well into it. “We will put the UWB radar on mobile platforms such as robots or unmanned airborne vehicle,” says a 2002 report from Defence R&D Canada. “We are confident that a through-the-roof surveillance capability could be implemented using UWB radars installed on helicopters or small UAV.”

    Congratulations. The good news is, we might win in Iraq and Afghanistan after all. The bad news is, now we all have red dots on our heads.

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