Guess that’s not happening…

So I wonder how the EADS shareholders feel about taking a hit for a merger that never happened.  Oddly enough, it seems like the German government is actually looking out for shareholders in blocking the deal.  Most analysts couldn’t figure out why they were trying to do this.   EADS / Airbus does well enough on its own when not making blunders like the A380.  BAE does well on its own because it has access to the U.S. defense market in a way that a partially government owned continental firm would never have (see: tanker competition; see also: special alliance).  I’m still puzzled by the logic of this.

There are great mergers out there in our field.  Pittsburgh robotics firm RedZone has gone on acquisition kick and bought up companies that provide software and solutions for larger diameter pipes to build a complete sewer solution.  iRobot has bought Evolution Robotics when it seems like someone else’s mousetrap had some cool features.  Both of these create value for the company and have clear economic rationales underlying them.

Let’s hope that robotics can keep our business combinations on the path to having economic rationale.

Speaking of management destroying value: EADS & BAE

Might be getting a little out of my wheelhouse today, but BAE and EADS are both unmanned aircraft manufacturers, if relatively small time players thus far.  News of their merger is HUGE in the defense world.  But take a look at what their stock prices are doing (EPA:EAD) and (LON:BA).

With almost a day to digest the announcement, it looks like BAE’s stock price has settled about 2-3% higher (or almost within the range of previous variation) after some initial shenanigans, but EADS’s stock is down about 15%.   The market does not look favorably on this merger.  This is a reasonably common pattern to see the acquiring company’s stock tank, but still I think that it provides a strong comment to those wringing their hands about America’s so-called decline in aerospace.

It appears that the A380 has been a commercial disaster and that being a Western defense contractor without reliable access to the U.S. market (however unjustified the tanker competition rules may be) is not a good idea.  I’m not sure that tying up with BAE will magically fix these problems–though if they really can eliminate €1B / year in overhead, there might be something to do.

However, it seems that the real shortage for creating value is management attention.  I’m not sure how becoming bigger and cutting more overhead is really going to change things at the new B/EADS.  Maybe if they focused on opening European airspace to unmanned aircraft faster than the U.S. is doing and came out with cheap and innovative products with broad military and commercial applicability…  nevermind.

My reflections on #AUVSI North America 2012

I got to spend two days at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) North America 2012 trade show last week.  As a first pass, the industry continues to grow even as defense cuts start to put a damper on things.  Other domains besides air are also starting to look like real possibilities though their manufacturers don’t always see fit to join AUVSI.  There is still tremendous excitement about the FAA’s recent moves that seem to indicate real progress in the last year.  Privacy concerns are being taken seriously, hopefully early enough to nip the issue in the bud, because the safety issues seem to be close to resolved.

  • The show is bigger than ever with more and more companies in attendance.  Based on my entirely unscientific method of walking around the show and looking at the booths at random, it seems to me that there are more companies offering services and software, about the same number offering components and hardware, and many fewer trying a hawk new platforms.  I think this reflects the reality of customer budgets and also the maturity of the industry.  The show didn’t have quite the same clubby feel that I used to remember, but maybe that’s good as well.
  • There was real concern and real awareness of the image problems that our industry has.  AUVSI is still definitely focused on the air side of things, but ground and maritime are definitely on their radar.  There is real determination on the part of the association leadership, both professional and volunteer, to counteract the negative press that the industry has been getting.
  • The Brookings Institution and the American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU) were both in attendance to participate in a privacy forum.  The Brookings and ACLU seem to have a great deal of common ground with the AUVSI membership at large on at least the law enforcement uses of unmanned aircraft.  That is the fourth amendment is still in effect and the same sorts of procedures that govern manned aircraft data collection ought to govern unmanned aircraft data collection.  Further, most people here on both sides of the panel were far more personally concerned about being tracked by cellphone data than unmanned aircraft.
  • The show is still definitely defense centered.  However, there is a feeling in the air that the FAA will actually do something and get unmanned aircraft out in the airspace soon.  Lots more booths are starting to have material that touts civilian use and more thinking is going into what will happen after the FAA starts allowing unmanned aircraft in the airspace.  Personally, I’m still skeptical that FAA is going to meet its deadlines, but I am certainly hoping that they will.
  • Robotics is starting to be used more in the same breath with unmanned systems.  Most of the AUVSI education outreach efforts don’t talk about unmanned systems at all (except maybe in an acronym) but do talk about robotics education.  I think this is a really positive development.  I would like to see AUVSI, the RIA, SAE robotics, and the robotic medical device companies operate under some kind of shared banner.  We all have the same workforce concerns, similar regulatory concerns, and face the same kind of backlash whenever we try to introduce new applications.  I believe that there is strength in numbers and it is always great to get the back-up that the fallacious counter arguments being trotted out against your robotic application are the same ones trotted out against other robotic applications that have gone on to be successful.  Particularly when we go to Capitol Hill to try and get rules changed so that we can compete on level playing field with legacy systems I think that there is value in having the Boeings (NYSE:BA), Intuitives (NASDAQ:ISRG), and Schillings (acquired by FMC NYSE:FTI) of the world support each other.

 

A response to Singer

I must be an Aristotelian active soul, because I have no patience for those who hold themselves up as philosophers but suggest no way to actually live in the world.  I have a new post up on Hizook taking the leading intellectual on drones to task for sloppy reasoning–then I suggest a realistic path forward.

http://www.hizook.com/blog/2012/07/23/pw-singer-wastes-opportunity-atlantic

How many will die before we fix this?

Four airmen died this weekend fighting wildfires.  They died needlessly, compounding the tragedy of their sacrifice.  There is nothing technological stopping drones from taking over the retardant dropping mission.  The hold-up comes down to bureaucratic inertia and a lack of political leadership and attention to this issue.

http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/07/03/3358931/at-least-2-dead-in-crash-of-c.html#storylink=misearch

There have been at least six aircrewmen killed just this fire season!  How many does it take before we collectively figure out how to do this mission with autonomous or remotely piloted aircraft?

_______

(My criticism of a lack of political leadership is not a partisan criticism.  The technology to remotely pilot fire-retardant tankers has been around for at least two administrations and neither party in congress–which is the body that will really have to act–has shown much leadership on this issue.  But seriously, our guys are getting killed.  The robotics industry knows how to fix this problem, let’s get everyone at the same table and get the barriers cleared so we quit making widows and orphans every fire season.)

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

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.