Compared to what?

The Pakistani affiliate of the International Herald Tribune has a great summary run down of recent drone strikes under the Obama administration.  http://tribune.com.pk/story/391839/unmanned-war-on-terror-no-longer-a-covert-war/ It details strike after strike against militants that are operating freely in Waziristan and the tribal areas.  It also produces a summary statistic of civilian casualties which, even if taken at face value, seems to indicate that these strikes exhibit a very high degree of proportionality and discrimination.

I’m out here in San Francisco and I sometimes get some troubled reactions when I tell people that I led a drone unit when I was in the Army.  Eventually telling  these people that my drones were not armed quiets them down, but there is a fundamental misunderstanding about how drones are different and similar from other types of war.  Drones unfortunately have some misperceptions about how they compare to other types of military engagements.

I would like us each to sit in the chair of senior commander or official who has just received intelligence from multiple sources (as it seems these strikes are probably based on) that is really good, but not 100% certain.  There is a militant–who the Pakistanis allow to travel, train, and organize unmolested–who is intent on killing not only U.S. soldiers, but also our civilian allies and females who dare to leave the home to get an education.  He believes that it is his god-given moral imperative to kill all these people.  What would you do?

A)  Nothing

B)  Ask the Pakistanis who have been arming this guy to arrest him

C)  A drone strike

D)  A manned aircraft strike

E)  A commando or sniper raid

Okay, even Marines get this one: when in doubt, Charlie out.  Seriously though, C is the only ethical choice.

Doing nothing means that you have let an evil, violent man go about his plans to kill someone’s son or daughter because he or she believed in a world where everyone has the freedom to make something of themselves.  By the same token, B is even worse, because now you’ve not only let him go free, you’re endangering your sources and methods of finding him in the first place by telling the Pakistanis what you know.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is every probability that any method besides a drone attack would be worse when measured by the standard of proportionality and discrimination.  Drones usually strike using the smallest guided air to ground missile in the U.S. arsenal, meaning they tend not to cause more damage than is absolutely necessary to destroy valid military target.  Would a commando team be as precise?  What if the team itself was attacked by our Pakistani ‘allies?’  Could it or a manned plane follow the target and wait until this small missile was the appropriate munition to use to ensure the destruction of the target?  The answer is no, they could not.

Of most concern to all of us who treasure innocent life is the principle of discrimination which means that you are only attacking legitimate targets.  Although this is where drone are most criticized, this is where they beat all other methods of apply force.  Can you imagine any other weapon so precisely attacking only legitimate targets?  There is no other weapon system where every action of the user is recorded, second guessed, and subject to real time absolute supervision by higher authorities.  Once a pilot is over a target his judgment of the scene and need to protect himself while completing the mission takes precedence over a second guessing boss back at base–and rightly so.  Even more so with a commando team, the commander of that mission has complete autonomy and discretion once his forces are committed.

But let’s be clear, commandos and pilots make more mistakes, not less, by being on scene.  They are affected by all kinds of pressures, are in mortal danger, and are being asked to make snap judgments on their own.  They screw-up.  They drop bombs on the wrong house–or even the wrong army.  Snipers in over-watch shoot civilians all the time–they don’t mean to, they just do.  None of these things are war crimes, they are just mistakes–unacceptable tragedies–but still just mistakes not crimes.  I think that most of us, civilian or military accept this.

Drone operators on the other hand work in secure locations, can loiter over their target, and stalk him for days or weeks until they get a clean shot.  They even have lawyers looking over their video feed as they work!  These are carefully supervised, deliberate operations.  That said, this is still war, where even professionals make mortal mistakes with the best information available.  But even or especially in war, we must do our best to protect those principles we hold dear and every analysis says that drones are the most moral option.  To those who would say that drones are immoral, I would ask in comparison to what?

 

It is well that war is so terrible–otherwise we would grow too fond of it.  -Robert E. Lee

Robotics Coverage is Fluff

So I just discovered this military and aerospace electronics report that gives what is actually a pretty good run down on the recent contracts signed in the UUV space by the Navy in the last year.

http://www.militaryaerospace.com/articles/2012/06/uuv-video.html

Unfortunately, it appears to be written entirely from the press releases that the Navy puts out.  It fails to mention that most Navy unmanned maritime programs are struggling and the ONR research efforts on long endurance UUVs actually represent a Navy retreat from acquisition UUV programs like the cancelled BPAUV and LMRS.

I’ve got a forthcoming article that I hope to publish in Proceedings with a professor at CMU the talks about how the Navy could re-energize its unmanned systems programs.  The real problem is that the Navy is spending its research money on stuff that I’m willing to bet it won’t actually want.

Not that defense coverage is alone in being fluff.  I mean… really?  “Rather than get locked into a single niche where we’d actually have to build a business–you know like find paying customers and stuff–we’ll just put out fluff press releases.”  Who are these guys?

Needless Deaths

Fire season has just begun this year and already there have been two needless deaths that can be attributed to the FAA and Forest Service’s failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technology.  There is absolutely nothing about the fire reconnaissance mission or the tanker mission that cannot be done better, cheaper, and more safely by an unmanned aircraft.  These men did not need to be in that plane.

The crazy thing about it is that the Forest Service/BLM incident commanders are some of the few people in North America that can actually tell the FAA to go pound sand.  They get to put up a TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) over their fire and they control all air traffic in the TFR.  Wildfire response crews do not do any night operations because it is considered too dangerous for them to fly at night.  Still, the powers that be have not allowed unmanned aircraft to play a substantial role in firefighting despite successful demonstrations in 2008.

My most sincere condolences to the families of these men.   They are exactly the kind of people that we need more of in society–people that will take risks to protect us all.  We–as a country and a society–are literally killing these people with our failure to embrace unmanned and robotic technologies.  I don’t want to be unsympathetic to the difficulties of change in government organizations and the good work that I’m sure the employees at Forest Service and BLM are doing, but when we’re making widows and orphans with our crappy policy, we all need to step up to the plate to take action to change it.

If I were the U.S. Congress I would:

1)   Call in the FAA, Forest Service, and BLM and tear them all a new one for their foot dragging on unmanned aircraft.

2)  Mandate the conversion of the whole tanker and most of the fire reconnaissance fleet to unmanned aircraft within 5 years.

3)  Direct the Forest Service and BLM to provide unmanned aircraft support at night in the TFRs to incident commanders this fire season.

4)  Give the BLM and the Forest Service some money to do this.  One of the main problems with wildfire firefighting is that there is a negligible advance procurement budget, but a nearly unlimited budget for reimbursement of labor to fight fires.  This is not a good deal for the country, spend a little bit in advance and lets save lives and money next fire season and every season thereafter.

Incubation in the Clusters

Once again, Silicon Valley is showing the rest of us how its done (see “Incubation” for the data).  Robotics only feels like it is poorly incubated in the Valley, because it doesn’t have incubators with multiple branches in the Valley like biotech and software do.  At least traffic sucks so bad in the Valley that when robotics gets going in the Valley it will need multi-branch robotics incubators just so people won’t have to drive.

All jealousy of California’s good fortune aside, robotics businesses are hard to start.  Not only do they have all the complexities of a software business (with a much more challenging test cycle), but they also have other parts that are equally challenging.  They are a hardware business, a manufacturer, and often a distribution or operations company as well.  I don’t see too many 22 year old college drop-outs running manufacturing and distribution businesses–they are too complex and require too much capital to just let them fail like a VC can do with a mobile app company.  Hence these kinds of companies are run by people who know what they are doing.  How do we create more entrepreneurs who ‘know what they are doing?’

For robotics to take off, we are going to have to find models that produce profitable companies with much less wasted capital than software venture capital does.  Incubation and mentorship are probably going to be really key to making this happen–good job to the Bay Area for getting on this.  If community leaders want to lay the foundation for something really extraordinary in their community, get a robotics incubator going in your community.

Better Coverage for Robotic Stocks

Unfortunately we’re still not a big enough industry that we get good news and analyst coverage on important events.  For instance, Hansen Medical (NASDAQ:HNSN) announced FDA approval of their new surgical device yesterday.  Expected perhaps, but still uncertainty reducing good news for the company, the stock should go up.  It does for a few minutes, then the market goes back to hammering them.   For a company of alumni from Intuitive Surgical, what gives?

I understand they are not growing, but it seems like they have the breathing room to perfect their product and growth does not occur linearly in these kinds of companies.  I’d love to see some good information on what the company should be valued at conditional on success and what the current market discount implies about the probability of success.

Check it out on Google finance:

http://www.google.com/finance?chdnp=1&chdd=1&chds=1&chdv=1&chvs=maximized&chdeh=0&chfdeh=0&chdet=1338964260514&chddm=1955&chls=IntervalBasedLine&q=NASDAQ:HNSN&ntsp=0

Q1 2012 Conference Call Transcript:

http://seekingalpha.com/article/553711-hansen-medical-s-ceos-discuss-1q-2012-financial-results-earnings-call-transcript

USA #1 & #2

For all the wrangling about the future of U.S. spaceflight, the New York Times had an article to remind us today that the U.S. not only has the largest spaceflight program in the world (NASA), but also the second largest space flight program in the world (DoD).

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/science/space/repurposed-telescope-may-explore-secrets-of-dark-energy.html

I think the real consternation comes from the fact that all spaceflight that has a compelling rationale is unmanned.  This rise of the robots in the budget somehow has people confused about what our space programs are capable of.

Cluster Activities (Continued)

The Massachusetts Tech Leadership Council is a really great organization.  I’m not sure how they get their members to pony up for the services that they provide (I’d like to know for my activities in Pittsburgh!), but having a professional cluster organizer like Elizabeth Newstadt and an organizational hub for promotion of the entire industry is fantastic.  I’ve heard that there are some frictions from the fact that the cluster crosses state lines and it is the “Mass TLC” as opposed to a New England-wide organization.  Still, the degree of organization that the cluster centered on Boston has is astounding.  A good deal of credit for this goes to the Mass TLC.  As an example, the survey they do of the robotic cluster is fantastic.  The other clusters should undertake similar surveys which would increase the value of Boston’s survey exponentially.

On the other coast, the San Francisco Bay Area is clamorous and still fairly ill defined–by which I mean there are a lot of people who may or may not be a part of the robotics industry.  Many robotics people think of themselves as being in the medical device industry, software, or electronic hardware–but not necessarily robotics per se.  On top of that, tons of people in the Bay who are not in robotics professionally provide the clamor and enthusiasm.  For example, all of my personal friends that build and fly drones for fun live in California.  I’m from back East, so the selection bias should run against the Bay.  They just love technology, nerdiness, and doing “your own thing” in the Bay–and robots fit the bill perfectly.  In fairly short order, I suspect that Andra Keay and the other folks behind the Silicon Valley Robotics Cluster and Robot Launch Pad will provide some of the rally flags to bring order to this energy–then the valley will be a sight to behold.  The Silicon Valley robotics people I’ve met think that their community needs to catch-up to Pittsburgh and Boston, but this probably only makes them dangerous since my data is starting to show that they are equal anyone.

Pittsburgh is a small community.  It is really great–everyone is super friendly and if you’re in robotics everyone knows everyone.  If you find yourself in Pittsburgh, I would be happy to introduce you to them and they will be nothing but good to you.  Things can happen really quickly because there is high degree of trust and community spirit.  My personal take on the robotics community in Pittsburgh is that there are things that need to be done collectively to get to the next level (VC education, a robotics incubator, more diversity of academic research, etc.).  The personal dealing model is going to be helpful, but not sufficient, to get the Allegheny robotics cluster to grow to the size that the region wants it too.  More formal organizations, supported by bottom-up enthusiasm for things like happy hours, meet-ups, and demos is going to be required for the Pittsburgh robotics cluster to scale.