Friday, February 6, 2009
By John R. Ghysels, Special to Technology-Report.com
You are in the wilderness, sneaking up on game with senses 1000x more powerful than your own. Or, you could be preparing your own highly trained squad of paintball commados to assault the enemy stronghold, or simply trying to rally your family at Epcot. Either way, cheap toy-grade walkie talkies hardly give you the edge in today’s digital world. Yet, cellular signals stop in rural areas and the big monthly fees for Nextel or regular cellular can really add up once you get a few units going. In keeping with our usual fugal sensibilities here at Technology-Report, we suspect that, for a single work site or family outting, these nifty rigs may fit the bill for both the sensible cheapskate and smart small-business person alike.
These are TriSquare’s latest and most powerful Digital eXRS two-way radios. We spotted these impressive Walkie Talkies at CES, and spent a bit of time interviewing the company president and the friendly, knowledgable team who came in from Kansas City for the show. We plan on some extensive, and challenging, comparison field tests soon.
So far, we’ve seen that these WT’s are built well, with surprisingly advanced technology. These unique radios bring cellular features to the Walkie Talkie market, without expensive cell fees, all for a price identical to most conventional 2 way radio units. Intriguing features include texting between units, offering silent, reliable messaging for fun as well as stealth. They also incorporate real privacy by utilizing “frequency hopping” digital signals, just like most of today’s cellular phones. The bottom line is that these things are impossible to eavesdrop on by typical yo-yo’s with radio scanners, like, say, the staff at TR (and we’ve heard plenty on the open frequencies used by conventional radios).
Like new, Digital (HD) TV, the digital signal is said to be robust and comes punching through even in crowded conditions. It would be nice to be able to get through reliably on the impossibly congested channels TR’s users have encountered in theme parks, large public events or even within the tourist areas of cities like Las Vegas and San Francisco. There, the simple “privacy codes” of conventional radios can’t cope, forcing frustrated communicators to channel hop while fighting through interference.
Military (likely) Grades these an “A”
What’s really surprising is that these radios are nearly military grade in their ability to protect privacy. In a way, it’s a shame we didn’t see more of them during the dark, early days of Iraq (they may have been there, but we didn’t “see” them on the newsreels).
Many folks back home noticed that, during the first couple of years of the conflict, service people quickly and quietly adopted civilian walkie talkies for official convoy work and security details, in place of non-existent and non-issued military gear.
Military commaders became concerned when it was reported that once Soldiers and Marines started sporting FRS Radios on their tunics, many enjoyed them greatly and became noisy chatterboxes, just like us civilians. Radio scanners soon appeared in many AQ hideouts, as the bad guys tracked American convoys and patrols. These inexpensive TriSquare rigs could have easily met soldiers’ needs for security, as many commanders banned the handy, but insecure, conventional GMRS radios, even if it meant using nothing.
Today, the military has finally issued its own digital radios. Still, privacy continues to be a serious consideration in the peace time world for many parents, companies, security firms and others.
No Licence required
Which brings us to another interesting point with these rigs. They require no licence, and the FCC regulations for these channels place no official retrictions on their use, unlike standard GMRS radios. Many folks don’t realize that GMRS radios are limited to family and private, personal use only, and require a $80 licence from the FCC. While many ignore the requirement, it will be a comfort to some, particularly commercial users, that the licence, and its fees, are waived when using these 2-way radios.
We are really looking forward to working with these rigs in the field soon, and will pass along what we find to our readers.
Virgin Galactic’s Scaled Composite WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft is back in the air. The highly unconventional aircraft, which is configured with two structurally identical 78-ft. long fuselages, resumed flight tests at Mojave, Calif. on Feb 5. Scaled remains its usual secretive self, but it is thought the aircraft has been down for 47 days (since first flight on Dec 21) while changes were made to improve handling qualities, particularly at low speeds. It is difficult to see any obvious external differences between these two images (the top one was taken on the first flight, and the lower one on Feb 5), although the outboard upper wing surfaces appear to have sprouted more prominent vortex generators. Hopefully more details will gradually emerge as Scaled Composites gets to grips with the rest of the planned 18-month flight test program.''
The 140-ft. span, twin-boomed WK2 is powered by four Pratt & Whitney Canada PW308A turbofans and is designed to carry Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spacecraft to launch altitude between two structurally identical 78-ft. long fuselages. Initial space tourism flights are planned to start in 2011. Click below to see a computer animation of what lucky participants will one day hopefully enjoy, and (below that) see rare glimpses inside the Scaled Composites Mojave facility as the WK2 and SS2 come together.
(Via On Space.)
It appears DARPA is scaling back ambitions for the Heliplane gyroplane program while taking a closer look at another high-speed rotorcraft concept. The agency'has'awarded Boeing a $7.35 million contract for Phase 1 of the DiscRotor risk-reduction study. The DiscRotor is a compound helicopter'with a rotating circular wing that can extend and retract rotor blades depending on the phase of flight.
DARPA thinks the DiscRotor should be capable of 400kt-plus at 30,000ft, while retaining the hover and low-speed characteristics of a helicopter. The rotor blades are extended for vertical flight and gradually retracted and stowed during the transition from helicopter to aeroplane mode. The disc is stopped and acts as a circulation-control wing in forward flight.
Under Phase 1, according to earlier DARPA documents, Boeing's advanced rotorcraft folks in Philadelphia will conduct windtunnel tests of a small-scale manually extendable rotor followed by a larger automatically operated system. The focus will be on the transition'between rotor- and disc-borne flight. Boeing and teammate Virginia Tech conducted concept definition studies under a previous phase.
Boeing has experience with circulation control from its work on the ultimately unsuccessful X-50A Dragonfly Canard Rotor/Wing demonstrator. A first glance, it looks like it might be easier to get the DiscRotor to work than the stopped-rotor X-50. And what about Heliplane, DARPA's previous best bet for high-speed VTOL?
No-one is saying'anything yet, but while DARPA has awarded Georgia Tech a contract for the next phase of the program it looks likely a flying demonstrator is no longer on the cards. Last July the agency announced plans to shift leadership of the program from struggling Groen Brothers and award Georgia Tech a contract'to close the design and experimentally demonstrate the ability to to control the VTOL gryoplane at speeds up to 400mph.
That is likely to involve a windtunnel test of the rotor system. A key goal will be to demonstrate the reaction-drive rotor can meet tip-jet noise requirements. This is an'area where Georgia Tech came to Groen's aid during Phase 1 of program, which was extended six months to give the team more time to come up with a new design for the blade-tip jets. DARPA thinks they did - the tests will tell."
You can talk all you want about network-centric warfare, P.W. Singer says in his new book, but right now the real revolution in military affairs is not the all-nodes-communicating-with-each-other-in-real-time model that program managers and military contractors can’t get enough of. Instead, it’s happening in the field of robotics, where huge strides are being made in developing drones and unmanned vehicles that—yes—can talk to one another, but that's only part of the story.'
Singer'argues'that while the networks are important, ‘history will care far more about what these linkages enable. That is, these new digital links are important, but hot as much as the platforms they now allow. What will stand out, what is historic for war, and human history in general, are the robotic weapons now playing greater roles on the battlefield.’
Along with the increasing use and sophistication of these ‘bots comes a host of ethical and legal concerns that the military hasn’t yet begun to fully wrap its head around. Chief among them, in Singer’s engaging analysis, is the thorny issue of culpability that arises when these systems malfunction, or as all too often happens in the fog of war, engage the wrong targets, leaving to civilian or friendly casualties.
As an example, Singer brings up the infamous incident in Afghanistan where an American Air Force pilot dropped a 500-lb bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers, mistaking them for Taliban or al Qaeda fighters making their way across the desert at night. In the inquest that followed, the American pilot was rightly found guilty of disregarding orders and the rules of engagement. But what would happen if the Canadians were attacked by an autonomous UAV on a preprogrammed course capable of identifying and engaging targets with limited human supervision? Who would be responsible for the mishap? The military or civilian contractor who wrote the wrong target identification software? The squadron’s commanding officer? The commander who sent the drone out on a mission in the first place? These are issues that we will have to face in the near future, and not ones that have been given a lot of thought.
Singer says that we need to start thinking about the consequences of using autonomous robots to do our fighting for us, and we need to start doing it now.
Before establishing a chain of responsibility however, the military first needs to begin writing doctrine for the use of robotics. The ad hoc way that robotics are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan is not sustainable in perpetuity, and as systems grow in complexity, and are able to act more and more autonomously, rules are increasingly needed. Just as the Brits had no doctrine for how to use tanks in WWI, and thus at times failed to use them to their full potential, no one as yet has devised a doctrine for how to handle increasingly complex robotics on the battlefield, which in the future will rely less and less on a human being ‘in the loop.’
One official at DARPA told Singer that with the increasing sophistication of robotic systems and the ever-expanding autonomy with which they operate, ‘the human is becoming the weakest link in defense systems.’ While that might be true in terms of surveillance or in the simple brute terms of putting steel on target, it also ignores the more complex situations that will arise on any battlefield that require a certain level of emotional intelligence—something only human beings possess. While a robot is great at sensing a threat and taking it out with no hesitation, it’s not as good at assessing the pros and cons of using force to achieve its objectives, something that is crucial in stability and counterinsurgency operations
Given all this, when things do go wrong with unmanned systems—and they will—it’s critical that a chain of causality be established beforehand to ensure that someone, at some level, is responsible for the actions these systems take, since, as Singer writes, ‘by establishing at the start who is ultimately responsible for getting things right, it might hopefully add a dose of deterrence into the system before things go wrong.’ As J.F.C. Fuller once wrote, ‘the more mechanical become the weapons with which we fight, the less mechanical must be the spirit which controls them.’"