Who even knew that Puma was an acronym—Pointer Upgrade Mission Ability— or that it has become the standard small drone of special operations forces? It provides capabilities never before available in small craft, and is significantly different than Raven. All of these small drones have some crucial difference that add range and flexibility, but only as costs increase with newness and then decline as serial production commences.
Little heralded or known, in the actual revolution that brought small drones into virtually every combat unit of all four military services, Pointer was a pioneer. Developed first for the Marine Corps in 1986, Pointer was the first hand-held drone—45 pounds and transportable in a backpack. They were used in Desert Storm in 1990 and ended up being the first drones on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11, later serving in Iraq.
Just because something works, we don’t necessarily need it. Such is the case with Fire Scout, a Navy unmanned helicopter that operates from small ships, though it can fly 115 miles or so from its mother ship. But is there any reason to have an unmanned helicopter that operates at sea? One that, in the era of a fully networked global intelligence system, is redundant. One that would be highly vulnerable in a real war with a peer adversary. Is it just because we can? That unmanned everything is now within reach? There’s nothing wrong with Fire Scout per se, but in its story is an interesting parable: That just because something isn’t attracting Washington enemies bellowing about cost or “fraud, waste and abuse,” doesn’t mean we should keep using it.
Here’s an oddity in the world of drones: The S-100 Camcopter, manufactured by the Austrian company Schiebel, is operated by both the super-secret SEAL Team 6 and the Chinese Navy. Both the Pakistani and Indian armed forces fly it (the video above is courtesy of the Brazilian Navy). One has mysteriously crashed in Somalia (clue, it wasn’t Chinese). The drone has been secretly procured by the Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) and the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) to hunt for roadside bombs in places like Iraq.
Ancient by information age standards, Hunter is an Army drone that’s been in use since the Kosovo War in 1999. At 2,000 pounds, it’s neither sleek nor personal, more of a family car that’s hardy enough to have abundant cup holders than a hot rod. But with a heavy fuel internal combustion engine that allows it to operate from unimproved airstrips, Hunter can fly for over 18 hours, giving it the endurance and range necessary to support ground operations out to some distance.
Buried in the transcripts of a congressional hearing that took place yesterday is fleeting mention of the federal government’s latest and perhaps most outrageous assault on privacy. If you take an inbound flight from overseas, and a suspected terrorist or supporter is flagged by automated name-check systems as being on the same flight—even if (and particularly if) that someone was denied boarding because they were on some no-fly list—the government regards you as connected with that terrorist, and runs a check on you and everyone else on the plane.
If you have a telephone number that has ever been called by an inmate in a federal prison, registered a change of address with the Postal Service, rented a car from Avis, used a corporate or Sears credit card, applied for nonprofit status with the IRS, or obtained non-driver’s legal identification from a private company, they have you on file.