Send in the drones!

My, my, warfare has changed.  Kind of reminds me of a Star Trek episode where our motley crew came upon a planet that was continually at war.  There were, of course, two sides that kept fighting each other.  However, being technologically advanced, they let a computer calculate the outcome of each virtual battle.  The losing side would throw the assigned number of casualties into a furnace.  Captain Kirk blew a fuse.  He told them that outcomes calculated in advance, by a machine, are the reason that no side was ever able to defeat the other, and thus they've never found peace.  They took his advice, began fighting for real...and the war ended.

Back in 1900, a Croatian immigrant to the U.S. named Nikola Tesla published an article in The Century Illustrated.  In it, he described battles being fought by radio-controlled flying robots, AKA drones.  This was three years before the Wright Brothers.  He ignored, however, the consequence that comes from eliminating the overall human portrayed over sixty years later on a TV show.

It seems that drones have a role to play in modern, high-tech conflicts.  Recent news includes a story about an Irani attempt to kill the prime minister of Iraq, using drones to blow up his house.  Two out of three were shot down, and the one that got through managed to injure a few bodyguards.

Drones have become an off-the-rack consumer item.  Though mostly intended for use in aerial photography, some can be equipped with weapons as well.  This knowledge has not escaped the attention of various craven dictatorships and other miscreants.  And most of the rest of the world is waking up to the realization that they are within the target range of anyone with this hardware and a desire to use it for evil purposes.  The U.S. has very sophisticated drone technology and is on our side (whew!) — that is, except for the benighted family near the Kabul airport that recently got mostly drone-snuffed by a targeting error.

Back in the day, nuclear bombs were all the rage, putting just about everybody in harm's way.  The real technologic challenge then, however, was the delivery system — its continued development resulting from the otherwise pointless manned space program.  Drones, on the other hand, represent a state-of-the-art delivery system in search of all kinds of applications. 

Another technology is developing into a delivery system completely different from drones: hypersonic missiles.  Even if you knew that one of these bad boys was coming at you, there's hardly any time left to get out of its way.  There's also the railgun...a chunk of scrap metal shot through a magnetic accelerator at mach5.  It's really not scrap because it can be steered with a joystick to strike a ship's hull below the waterline.  There's a catch, however: the magnetic pulse that flings the projectile out at hypersonic speed also drags out some of the barrel of the accelerator as plasma.  We've already built the USS Zumwalt, a destroyer that cost almost as much as an aircraft carrier.  It cost so much because it both is stealth (hard to locate via radar) and has an enormous electrical power plant...needed for the rail gun, which is still on the drawing board.

Back to drones, which are very different.  They're not all that fast, but they can hover over a site and fly through an open window, let alone follow someone along a walking path.  Above all, as mentioned above, they are available to anyone who has a few hundred bucks.  Welcome to the modern world.

Image via Max Pixel.

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