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If you can play a video game, you can fly a drone

These eyes in the sky are so popular, everyone from farmers to jewellery thieves wants one.

If you happen to be at the London Olympics this summer, look up and smile. You will almost certainly be caught on camera by a Royal Air Force surveillance drone.

A near-perfect storm of GPS, sensor and weapons technology, and a desire to minimise risk to personnel has created a boom in use of unmanned aircraft among the military across the world. Now, with the enormous experience gained over the past few decades, a crossover into civilian use is under way. “The technology is ready,” says Mary Cummings, a former navy fighter pilot who researches robotics interfaces at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Congress has already ordered the US Federal Aviation Administration to work out how to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into US civilian airspace by 2015. Eurocontrol, the organisation responsible for maintaining safety in Europe’s airspace, is engaged in a similar task and is due to issue a report on the way forward in the autumn.

Though these aircraft are not cheap (a Global Hawk UAV costs roughly $210m), their ability to keep soldiers safe from harm has made them extremely popular with defence planners. So much so, that Congress set the military a goal in 2000: make one-third of the “operational deep strike force aircraft fleet” unmanned. The success of this initiative has been extraordinary. In 2005, 5 per cent of the US defence department’s aircraft were unmanned. Today it is 61 per cent. The only remaining problem is recruiting enough human beings to control them.

The US military refers to it as the “UAV pilot crunch”. Rated pilots are not keen to fly UAVs. Sitting in a booth watching a screen and pushing a joystick around is boring to anyone used to real-life flying. The solution has been to lower the bar. While the US air force still uses only experienced pilots to fly remote weapons, the US army sees the need for relatively basic training only. The reasoning is that the military gives rifles to young recruits and allows them to kill people. If those same soldiers can operate a video game as well as they can use a rifle – and that is now part of the entry test – they can fly a drone, and use that to kill people, too.

The strategy works because the control technology is becoming ever more similar to that used in modern video games. A recent recruitment ad for the British army features a soldier explaining UAV use while using an unbranded Microsoft Xbox controller to fly his drone over a troop of patrolling soldiers. Mary Cummings has used her experience as a fast jet pilot to create an iPhone-based control for a drone; last summer, researchers at Boeing’s research and development centre in Seattle used her iPhone system to fly a plane around the MIT campus 2,500 miles away. “We have shown in two different studies that, with only three minutes of training, people can fly a UAV in a surveillance task and not crash,” Cummings says.

Night vision

Despite their deliberately intimidating names – Hawk, Predator, Reaper – drones are little more than sophisticated remote-controlled aircraft. Depending on their size, they take off using a runway, a folding ramp or a paper-plane-style throw from a soldier. Once airborne, the drone uses a GPS satellite receiver to establish its location and receive navigation instructions.

The pilot gets a bird’s-eye view through a variety of on-board cameras. One is a straightforward optical feed, giving a movable view of the ground or the airspace ahead. An infrared camera provides night-vision capability.

A synthetic aperture radar also allows the remote pilot to see through cloud, haze, smoke and fog by using sophisticated electronics to convert radar signals reflected off nearby objects and turned into detailed images of the scene. In certain scenarios, a few of the cameras are swapped for laser sights and range-finders for the on-board missiles.

Military drones are highly portable and essentially disposable. A boxed Predator, for instance, can be delivered to a war zone by transport plane and then put together by a team of four soldiers in roughly eight hours. It can carry cameras and weapons, and even be used as a weapon. In one situation in Afghanistan, a Predator had used up its Hellfire missiles but an important target remained intact. “They turned the Predator into a kamikaze plane,” says Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, an expert in UAV technology and deployment.

And now the civilian use of UAV technology is taking off. “Thousands of people have built their own,” Singer says. The catalogue of applications is impressive. Japanese farmers have been using them for crop-dusting for years now. Fishermen use them to track tuna movements. A group of Taiwanese thieves used a fleet of robot helicopters to carry out a jewellery heist. Polish protesters used a mini-UAV to monitor the movements of riot police deployed to intercept them. “The technologies are here – you can fly a $300 quadcopter using an iPhone app,” Singer says.

Restrictions on the use of airspace are still a hindrance for larger craft, but the military is an important player in moving things forward. Aware of the vast numbers of drones that will soon be coming back to the west after deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has got behind a push for UAVs to be allowed to fly in civilian airspace; it wants to keep its operators sharp. Chris Johnson, who researches safety systems at Glasgow University, is not convinced that opening up the use is a good idea as yet, however.

“There is a host of issues about the procedures and protocols to be used when operating with air-traffic controllers,” he says. “Nobody really knows how to control them when in close interaction with civil traffic. There are numerous stories of the problems that have arisen.” The FAA shares Johnson’s concerns.

It says it will change the regulations only when drones can sense and avoid other aircraft as well as manned aircraft. Until then, large UAV flights are by special permission only. The FAA has granted US Customs and Border Protection permission to fly Predator drones to survey regions where other smuggling countermeasures are ineffective.

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has had no cause to make exceptions: very few police authorities have purchased drones, and the ones that have done seem to have little taste for them as yet.

Small wonder that the CAA says it hasn’t granted any permissions for UAV flights over London in August. “No one has applied for permission, and we’re not aware that anyone is going to,” says Jonathan Nicholson, a senior spokesman for the CAA. But he does add a qualifier suggesting that military deployment – which lies outside the CAA’s scope – is entirely possible: “From a civil perspective, there are no plans to use UAVs.”
UAVs patrolled last year’s Pan American Games in Guadalajara, and Singer thinks that deployment in London is likely. “I remember discussions about a year ago about using RAF Reapers for that role,” he says.

A movement towards using UAVs over cities is a somewhat frightening prospect, when the US army’s road map for 2010-2035 includes equipping drones with non-lethal acoustic, chemical and “directed-energy” (laser or micro­wave beam) weapons. The implication is clear: in future, drones will be used for crowd control. In London, however, they will be used for surveillance only – they’re not going to be firing Hellfire missiles at unruly sports fans. But keep an eye on the skies; they’ll be watching you.

Michael Brooks is the NS science correspondent

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.