April 7, 2010

The Drones' New World

We have good news for drone advocates, but also for those suspicious of where drones are taking the human species. Their natural habitat is the next frontier, the largest humans have conceived.

Space is drone heaven.

Aerospace engineers, astronomers, and government officials have been aware for half a century, meaning space is also a primary genesis of the drones now deployed on Earth. Thus it’s natural for their kind will cycle back into space after undergoing extensive terrestrial testing, while also entering a new phase of utility.

The time is coming for robotics to do more than collect information from the cosmos, and the place is the Moon.

The heart of a drone is efficiency, a factor that weighs more on the Moon than Earth. Though drones are about to go through a decades long terrestrial killing spree, 50+ years from now they will be as necessary to lunar life as water and renewable energy. No area is out of orbit: defense, science, economics, communications, transportation, recreation, tourism.

And drones’ omnipotent potential makes them the perfect virtual tour for lunar expansion.

Drones - moonbots - will likely outnumber the first lunar team, boosting the productivity of its human members as they set up the initial outpost. Parts of this outpost will already be automated to conserve human energy and time. Autonomous rovers will be programmed with ideal travel routes to designated ice sources and scientific locations, while aerial drones scout for new sources of sunlight, water, and points of interest.

Once additional outposts are constructed drones will serve as their link, transporting people, supplies, messages, and experiments between them.

As the burgeoning lunar colony expands human-drone dependence will reach a level so far unseen on Earth. Though a lunar colony has no defined purpose, science will likely take the initial lead and to this end drones will assist in every conceivable task. They will roam and drill, collect samples, explore dangerous terrain, basically anything a human doesn’t have to or shouldn’t do.

Shadows have always been the problem in terms in solar energy, but it seems feasible to program solar rovers that follow sunlight 24 hours a day. Factory-like greenhouses will also be configured to optimal growing conditions. Drones have become a harbinger of death, but their true essence cannot be obscured - automation.

And the essence of automation is efficiency, exponentially more valuable to life on the Moon.

Once scientific research feels the gains and begins providing mineral data to governments and corporations, efficiency will really begin to shine as a lunar economy starts to develop. This economy might be divided into three sections: discovery, extraction, and production. In all areas drones should be the principle actors, guided by a select team of humans.

It quickly becomes evident on the Moon that drones stand a high chance of becoming the 21st century’s engine.

Parallels to the 20th century are particularly found in the assembly line, a mass driver of efficiency. A lunar factory staffed with humans would be ridiculous unless absolutely necessary. Drone factories are the more logical choice, rows of machines extracting minerals, transporting them to other machines for processing, with no pay or needs except solar power.

Humans would then be free to focus on oversight and maintenance, where their hands will be more than full given the potential negative effects of Moon dust.

Crossing back over into science, drones will also be instrumental in operating spaceports, the colony’s vital lines for transporting supplies to and from Earth.

Once the scientific and economic aspects of a lunar colony are staked out it won’t be long before tourists find their way to lunar hotels, where drones will do anything not required by humans. Pure social skills are precious resources, to be directed towards the guests themselves.

Unfortunately lunar driving could be farther away than tourists hope. More plausible is an automated transportation grid in what should be a planned tourist hub.

Overriding these areas of human activity will be the use of drones for social contact, as the Moon will still be a desolate place even with a permanent population of thousands. Whether scientific, economic, or touristic, drones will lend a helping hand and possibly an ear.

Certainly drones will assist in the laboratory, but they could also be programmed with an ideal or romanticized voice, perhaps the voice of someone on Earth. Stylized after ourselves, drones in 50 years might be able to provide a supplemental level of convincing social contact.

Finally, what lunar colony would be possible without a robust defense? There’s no telling what space debris bombards the Moon over an extended period time, but a large and diverse quantity should be the working assumption. Luckily the US military and other major powers are deep into laser technology, driven by Star Wars (both Reagan and Lucas) and Palestinian guerrillas.

Meteors are the same principle as missiles.

Lasers have been testing in Iraq since 2008, somehow keeping a relatively low profile until the Air Force made waves last February by testing an airborne laser. This was ironic because only weeks prior the Navy had beat the Air Force to its own target. In late January Northrop Grumman announced that its Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) system is nearing the final design review and was proceeding to testing.

"These reviews indicate that our MLD design should meet the Navy's objectives in future demonstrations," said Steve Hixson, vice president of Advanced Concepts - Space and Directed Energy Systems for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector. "Next we will finalize detailed test plans and move into land-based, live fire tests."

In mid-March more than 30 US government and National Laboratory representatives attended a design review in Arlington, Virginia.

UPI observed, “Laser weaponry now encompasses all branches of the military with a range of laser-based defense equipment already destined for the inventories of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.”

But what’s critical to understand of laser weapons systems isn’t how far they’ve come from science fiction into reality, but how far they are away from perfection - how much room for improvement exists.

Northrop Grumman, who jointly designed the ALTB with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, explained of the Air Force test, "While ballistic missiles like the one ALTB destroyed move at speeds of about 4,000 miles per hour, they are no match for a super-heated, high-energy laser beam racing toward it at 670 million mph."

Less reported is the fact that ALTB was sent back to the drawing board because it wasn’t good enough. Last May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that the ABL's range was limited to 135 kilometers, short of the minimum requirement of 200 km. This range was unable to be improved upon to a “useful” degree.

“ABL will be used for more tests this year,” reports New Scientist, “but the MDA's (Missile Defense Agency) latest budget documents reveal it will devote the rest of its ‘directed energy research’ budget towards a new kind of laser yet to even escape the research lab.”

Translation: lasers will be thousands, possibly millions of times more powerful in 50 to 100 years, similar to the evolution of nuclear weapons.

The US military has also learned how to transmit data through lasers, which could provide for faster and more accurate tracking. Mounted to a layered system of drones in space and on the lunar surface, theoretically any target, along with its potential debris, can be destroyed simultaneously.

IAF chief Maj. General Ido Nechushtan might as well be talking about lunar lasers when he told his Conference on Energy: The Challenge of the Future, “To win, we’ll have to invent things before we even know them.”

How the Moon might be militarized by drones warrants separate analysis.

Naturally this whole scenario opens new avenues into space weaponry which could in turn be applied back on Earth, completing the cycle and potentially starting a new one. So whether creation or destruction, the 21st century is likely to be the Drone Century, its conquests unlimited.


  1. I've been waiting for more space predictions like you promised. I know the world is a busy place but I hope you can find more time for articles like this one.

  2. Apologies, our research is stretching our capacity. We are admittedly not science-minded yet still wanted to treat space properly, so the flow should grow steadier over time. We understand your impatience though (I knew we were lagging) and appreciate your interest. Space still receives nowhere near the political attention it warrants and we will change that.