By Doug Hornig, Senior Editor
This year for Christmas I got something that's been on my wish list for a long time: a golfer's GPS-based rangefinder.
Now, if you've never played, this will likely be a subject of complete indifference to you at best. You may even be openly hostile to the game and agree with George Carlin that golf-course land would be much more useful as sites for low-cost housing. But if so, just bear with me for a moment.
It's still a bit too cold here in Virginia to rush to the links to try out my new Garmin, but just holding this thing in my hand makes me marvel at the astonishing level of technology that's available to us today. This unit stores detailed information about some 15,000 golf courses in the US, including every one I'm likely to play in my lifetime. It has a touch screen that will tell me exactly where I am on the course, show me the best way to the green, note obstacles that I might not be able to see, and provide precise yardage to either the hole or the next spot on the fairway I'm aiming at. All of this in a package that is smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Wow.
The global positioning system (GPS) – a product of the military, designed as a navigational aid – was originally proposed in 1973. It was built out through the '80s, but only became fully operational less than 20 years ago, in 1994. Almost immediately, it was made available for civilian applications. At first, GPS receivers were cumbersome and expensive. They were something you'd buy if you had a yacht and didn't want to get lost at sea.
But that changed very, very fast. Increasing miniaturization and rapidly falling entry level price points meant a steadily widening market. Now the technology that positions our warships is in our phones, our cars… and our golf bags.
Producing this level of information requires a network of at least 24 satellites, each of which orbits the earth twice a day at a height of about 12,000 miles. The satellites transmit signal information to the planetary surface, where GPS receivers take it and use triangulation to calculate the user's exact location. If you're locked onto three satellites, you can see where you are in two dimensions (latitude and longitude); if you're locked onto four, you can add the third dimension (altitude). Once the user's position has been determined, the GPS unit can calculate other information, such as speed, bearing, track, trip distance, distance to destination, sunrise and sunset time, and more.
This is truly amazing stuff. Nevertheless I'm sure that after a few rounds of eighteen holes, I'll start taking my new toy for granted. But in the cold of early January, with the next golf round about two months away, I have a couple of other thoughts. Truisms, I would say. One is that technological advancement cannot be restrained; any given genie, once out of the bottle, can't be returned to its former prison. And the other is that tech is utterly amoral.
In this instance, the former axiom means that GPS will continue to proliferate, both in number and in types of applications (provided only that we are willing and economically able to replace the relevant satellites – something that must be done about every ten years). In general, this is a good thing. Devices that enable us to go about our business in an easier, more efficient, and sometimes safer way are always welcome.
Now, the government could always decide to try shutting down service to "unauthorized" persons, or begin levying some sort of tax on those who use it. But most likely, we're in the unlimited-access GPS age to stay.
It's the amorality issue here that is more problematic. Because, as with much new technology, there is a dark side. Specifically, GPS is the key ingredient that makes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) viable.
UAVs, or "drones" as they're popularly known, have transformed the way in which we fight our wars. Using GPS, they can home in on a target to within a few meters, then send back a video feed and await final instructions from a controller who may be thousands of miles away. Drones have been hailed as lifesavers for US military personnel, since the machines take them out of harm's way. (How that dehumanizes those who wage real war as if it were a video game, or who order long-range kills, is an interesting subject, but one for another day.)
They are also touted for their accuracy. Drones' sophisticated electronics allow for precision targeting and, in theory, this should help minimize accidental "collateral damage," which is the euphemism we hide behind when innocent bystanders – men, women, and children – are killed by our bombs and missiles. This may be true, in a general sense. But drone attacks are only as good as the people programming them. Plenty of mistakes have been made, and we likely hear about only a small percentage of them.
As we draw down in Afghanistan, drone strikes gone wrong will diminish. But the use of them in the assassination of terrorism suspects in other countries, as is being done now, will continue. Furthermore, they are coming home.
This is illustrative of another principle: technology that has been developed for military purposes will eventually be adapted for use elsewhere. You didn't really expect the manufacturers of fighter drones to quietly shutter their businesses after we "win" the Afghan war, did you?
Of course not. Thus, in February of last year, President Obama signed the FAA Reauthorization Act, which includes a provision that the Federal Aviation Administration create a comprehensive program for the integration of drone technology into the national air space by 2015. The agency predicts that there will be upwards of 30,000 drones flying the friendly skies of the US by 2020.
Fact is, domestic drone usage even predates the 2012 Act. Without any explicit legislative authorization, the FAA issued 313 certificates for drone operation over the previous year. The agency is mum on which organizations received the certificates and to what purposes they may have been put. However, we do know that the FAA has already approved drones for use by the Department of Homeland Security and US Customs and Border Patrol, as well as in some state and local law enforcement operations.
Want to be on TV all the time? You may just get your wish.
Many civil libertarians have been raising the roof about domestic surveillance drones (and, really, it's only a matter of time before they become armed), so there's no need to go into any further detail here. If you want to join the fight against them, a modest Internet search will yield plenty of opportunities to do so. But what I would like to do is expose another, sinister side to this technology that has received virtually no media attention as yet. And it dawned on me because of… a burrito.
A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a whimsical video about some guys who decided to build a drone to serve as a Méxican food delivery system. Though these folks clearly have too much free time on their hands, it's cute enough. I enjoyed it.
But it wasn't long before I was hit over the head by the deeper meaning: the age of personal drones is dawning. Think about that.
For example, right now you can go online and buy a Zephyr – proclaimed to have a "stealthy" electric propulsion system, 60-minute flight time, and 30-mile control range – for $9,500, a surprisingly small sum. Or if you'd rather acquire your UAV more anonymously, you can go DIY. Along with their video, the burrito bomber's creators helpfully supply links that will guide you through the construction of one of your very own, from readily available parts.
Flight restrictions? None to speak of at low altitudes. And even if they existed, they would be quite difficult to enforce if we reach a point where there are thousands upon thousands of these things in the skies.
You can see where I'm going with this. Not to mince words: what if someone of more malicious intent than the burrito brothers decided to deliver not a tasty food, but a bomb? To some place he happened not to like, such as City Hall, the police station, or the IRS office. Or to a romantic rival across town. Or to a target chosen completely at random.
Suddenly the video wasn't so humorous anymore. Maybe I am among the more paranoid, but to me it seems that kind of sick usage of DIY drones is inevitable, given the number of people out there with an ax to grind.
As a weapon, UAVs are inching ever closer to perfect: easy and increasingly cheap to build; hard to detect; difficult to intercept; tough to trace, thanks to off-the-shelf parts; and the malefactor can be far from the scene of the crime. No line of sight needed with a small camera. No need to look victims in the eye or figure out escape routes. Someone could wreak an awful lot of havoc before getting caught, just with today's technology.
But consider also the implications as drones get smaller, quieter, and harder to spot, even as their electronics get ever more sophisticated. Go to the Toys & Games department on Amazon.com, and you may be surprised to find that you can buy a $300 quadricopter drone that'll give you 15-20 minutes of flight time, can be controlled by your iPhone, and offers "extreme precision control and automatic stabilization." Its range is severely limited at the moment, but you can rest assured that's a limitation that will soon be overcome.
In the military, it likely already has been. Sparrow-sized and even bumblebee-sized drones – tiny, deadly killing machines – are on the drawing board, if not yet realized. This MicroSTAR prototype from the folks at Lockheed certainly gets us a few steps closer:
The proliferation of microscale UAVs turns this twist on the bomber jet into something more akin to a "smart bullet."
The implications? Try this scenario on for size: You're a disgruntled citizen, hating the "powers that be" for ruining your life. You have no coherent political agenda, just a desire to – in one brief moment of glory – strike back at your perceived tormentors. Maybe like 52-year-old Marvin Heemeyer, who converted his bulldozer into a homebrew tank with some metal and a blowtorch. You focus on the newly elected president. Doesn't matter what party he represents. He's the enemy. So you set your sights on something like inauguration day, where you know his exact coordinates in time and space, and that he'll be standing absolutely still as he delivers his big speech. You beg, borrow, or steal enough money to construct a DIY drone the size of a small bird, and set up a wireless video guidance system for those crucial final yards. You extract a lethal dose of ricin from some castor beans, the recipe for which you got off the 'Net after a little inspiration from Breaking Bad reruns, load a trigger-on-contact syringe from the local CVS diabetes-supply aisle, and duct tape it to your drone with the needle leading the way. At the appointed hour, you launch the bird from a backyard in Maryland or Virginia. You toast it on its way with a can of beer, then sit back in your chair, facing the computer screen, joystick in hand and a big smile on your face…
Of course, with the advent of the modern remote-controlled UAV in the skies, advanced militaries have been quick to develop jamming technologies to combat them as well. It's one of the reasons military strategists love drones for Iraq and Afghanistan, but doubt that they would be effective against an adversary like China or Russia. One must imagine that the Secret Service's paranoid think tank of professional defenders has already thought of this scenario and is already carrying around a more portable version of just such a jammer, or at least working on one.
But of course, that's where the really scary part comes in, with the advent of the autonomous drone – preprogrammed to do its dirty work, with no connection back to its launcher left to jam.
Perhaps we will see the coming drone air corps put only to wonderfully inventive and socially beneficial uses, like remotely delivered Méxican deliciousness. But – if history has anything to say about it –that's probably not the way to bet.
Technology is unstoppable, and it is amoral.
Now, when I see that innocuous burrito falling from the sky, it creeps me out.
The Earth at Night (NASA)
This is so way cool that I couldn't not include it as our #1 Bits & Bytes feature of the week, and at least something of a counterpoint to the gloomy article above. We're all now familiar with what our gorgeous blue planet looks like from space when the sun shines on it. But what does it look like at night? Last year NASA set out to answer that question, and the result is spectacular. Be sure to download the high-res version.
With the turning of the calendar, it's a time for looking back. As we do, it's easy to forget that we often learn more from our failures than our successes, and this is as true in technology as anything else. So herewith, CNN's nominees for the most significant tech failures of 2012.
The PC Phone (BBC)
Do people really want their phones to be full-featured PCs? We're about to find out. The Ubuntu operating system has been adapted to run on smartphones. This Linux-based software will let users run desktop apps on their handsets, allowing them to double for PCs when docked to monitors. We'll see if it catches on.
What's Up for Tech in '13 (CNET)
Finally, no new year's issue would be complete without at least some prognostications. Here, the folks at CNET take a stab at predicting the five biggest stories of the coming year.