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My Dad got into the drone business early, and I grew up watching a lot of unofficial testing of guidance systems on our boat on the bayou.

There are some things that people should know about them to make informed decisions.

First off, drones are built with the assumption that they will crash and may fall into enemy hands. There are steps taken to ensure that isn’t a major problem. The stealth techniques used on the RQ-170 are available from open sources on the Internet. The advanced features used on the B-2 and F-22 are not on the drone. Data is not stored on the drone, it is sent ‘home’ via a communications link. The drone has sophisticate sensors, but Russia and China both have sensors with the same capabilities. The Iranians now have some really nice lenses, but nothing beyond the capabilities of several countries. We expect to lose reconnaissance drones and aircraft, so we don’t put super-secret stuff on them.

It has been suggested that the drones should self-destruct. The people who suggest that don’t work at the bases where drones land. Drones are controlled today via satellite links, so there is a delay between control input and a response by the aircraft. Drones get pranged a lot on landing. because of this problem. You don’t want to blow up your own airstrip by installing a ‘bomb’ on returning aircraft.

Landings are difficult for drone pilots because the video screens don’t provide them with all of the information they would get from actually being in the aircraft. You can’t ‘feel’ the aircraft, and the delay between what you see and the aircraft responding to input is critical during landing. There are many more landing ‘incidents’ with drones than make it into media.


1 Badtux { 12.16.11 at 7:33 pm }

Dunno about drones, but I can verify that landing RC aircraft is a beach. Luckily, like drones, they’re mostly made out of balsa wood, styrofoam and plastic so it’s usually easy to put them back together (perhaps with some new wood struts or somethin’) once they smack a wing into the ground and do a cartwheel down the “runway”, leaving little pieces of RC plane behind them.

Wired has a fanciful story where they claim the Iranians jammed the satellite signal and then sent bogus GPS signals to guide the drone back “home”, apparently these things have a “limp mode” where in the absence of a control signal, they go back to a given set of coordinates and land on a beacon. I dunno, GPS guidance for unmanned vehicles is nothing new, but the landing usually involves big booms, and that drone that the Iranians trotted out for the media sure looked pretty much intact to me…

– Badtux the Baffled Penguin

2 Bryan { 12.16.11 at 10:39 pm }

The older drones had a parachute deploy when the engine quit and they floated down, because landing was such a pain to do right.

All you have to do if you can locate it is send a blocking aircraft to a higher altitude to block the signal from the satellite and feed the GPS coordinates to it. it’s not a big deal, and there is an automatic landing program build into the drones. If you set up a landing strip with the same orientation as the drone’s home field, it will make a semi-reasonable landing.

They have been doing this long enough that the Iranians have had time to prepare, and to learn how to track the little suckers. They have someone alert them when one takes off from Afghanistan, and they can launch their ECM aircraft to deal with it.

A few recordings from the satellite transmissions when the drones are operating near their base in Afghanistan, and you have what you need. It isn’t that difficult with the total lack of real security that the program uses because they don’t respect the capabilities of the Persians.

3 Badtux { 12.17.11 at 12:55 am }

Yah, not up to date on the latest drones, way back in the day I was a student intern of sorts for one of the teams that was doing the first GPS guidance for cruise missiles. We landed those suckers just fine on exactly the point we wanted to land them, but it wasn’t exactly a clean landing, if ya know what I mean :twisted:.

At one point in time it was impossible to spoof military GPS units because there was an encrypted signal for use by the military. You could jam it, but you couldn’t spoof it. Then the civilian leadership in the White House (some dude named George W. Bush) decided that no enemies of ours would ever know how to spoof GPS, and the next batch of GPS satellites they launched had no encryption and they turned it off on the other satellites since it was useless at that point (since anybody spoofing could just spoof the satellites that didn’t have the encryption). Yay, GWB! (Actually, it was that idiot Rumsfeld who wanted to save money on the next batch so he could send more money to Vice President Halliburton’s company, but we all know how that works).

4 Bryan { 12.17.11 at 9:21 pm }

Well, it also made the government funded resource available for exploitation by corporations so the Free Market could make it more efficient.

I took a network security class with some guys who were active duty, and they didn’t seem to have any experience with even the basics that were routine in most business networks. Given all of the problems that have come up, it is obvious to me that the military leaks like a sieve, and is no longer the extremely security conscious operation that I left towards the end of the Cold War.

It is very possible they aren’t even encrypting the data streams, which would have been unimaginable when I was in the service.

The simple solution for data loss would be to have the vehicle climb to its upper altitude limit and circle until communications was re-established, or it ran out of fuel and crashed. No explosives would be necessary, but the destruction would be extensive.

5 Badtux { 12.18.11 at 3:50 pm }

My best guess is that the next time there is data loss, the drone will turn to magnetic south and just fly until it either gets signal again or runs out of fuel and crashes into the ocean.

GPS used to have both clear (for commercial use) and encrypted (for military use) data streams. But like I said, Rummy sent up a batch that didn’t have the encrypted subcarrier because he viewed the encrypted subcarrier as a waste of money, so… (shrug). We’re stuck with unencrypted military GPS until those birds die and get replaced by birds with encryption.

– Badtux the Flightless Penguin

6 Bryan { 12.18.11 at 10:20 pm }

That whole ‘return to base and land’ makes sense if you are using a test site like Edwards, but doing it in a mission environment is really a bad idea.

Yeah, that would work better than circling in place, and leave less evidence. Make them shoot it down if they want to, but don’t make it easy to capture, which it was.

Rumsfeld did a lot of ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ things to the military when he was in charge. Unfortunately, no one seems to be interested in fixing them. The defense budget keeps getting larger, but the actually capabilities of the military are being reduced as more and more military functions are being transferred to contractors.