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Military consumerization spotlight: countering the threat of consumer technology in terrorist hands

On this, the anniversary of the events of 9/11, we spotlight how readily-available consumer technology might extend the reach of terrorists in new and disturbing ways. Plus, what DARPA's doing about it.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to work and I could spend all my time on hobbies. I’ve long had a fascination with hobbies like radio-control, model railroading, and even Lego. Unfortunately, I’ve never had much time, and I’ve never been very good at them.

I once built a small N-gauge model railroad in my apartment. I got a loop and a few switches working, but not much more. I didn’t have too much time to tinker with it, and got sidetracked by how much fun it was to get the engine running at top speed, send it around the track over-and-over until the centrifugal force sent it flying off the table. So much for that hobby.

Then I saw my friend fly RC airplanes. I decided to buy an RC helicopter, which I proceed to get up in the air once. I somehow flipped it, and sent it flying directly into the ground, smashing it into a few hundred pieces. Thinking I’d started too big, I bought one of those smaller, anyone-can-fly-them double-rotor RC helicopters and tried flying it in a more controlled environment: my garage. Apparently smashing a helicopter at full speed into the garage door isn’t good for the rotors. Who knew?

A few years later, I took another run at having a hobby, so I bought a Lego Mindstorms robotic kit at Toys-R-Us for about $250. The part that fascinated me was that this kit included a fully programmable processor, servos, and sensors. Plus, for a relatively cheap cost, you can buy a ton of aftermarket sensors that do everything from sense direction to temperature.

Sadly, I never got too far with the Mindstorms kit either. I do quite a bit of programming as part of my professional work and programming Mindstorms seemed a bit too much like the day job. But the idea was definitely neat, and it got me thinking about what you could build, especially if you could combine these technologies.

And that got me thinking about national security issues and terrorism. Back in 2009, in fact, I wrote an article for Counterterrorism Magazine that looked at the question of what would happen if terrorists and insurgents went beyond improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and started to use improvised computer controlled devices (ICCDs).

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, seems to share my concern. According to DARPA's director, Dr. Arati Prabhakar:

The current availability of COTS technologies in computing, sensing, imaging and communications, in particular, have introduced both opportunities and vulnerabilities for our national security.

Availability of advanced technology has placed capabilities in the hands of millions of people worldwide, capabilities that until as recently as 15 years ago were the exclusive domain of the military. The vulnerabilities introduced by this mass availability may be seen in many areas, including electronic warfare systems.

This isn’t just blue-sky thinking. Let’s take a look at what some innovative hobbyists have been working on, and then think about the implications.

First-person view flying vehicle

Our first example is the Spy Hawk, an off-the-shelf remote-control airplane that costs about $300. This device allows you to fly the plane from the plane’s point of view.

I really like the guy in the following YouTube video, but he inadvertently shows how potentially troubling this off-the-shelf technology can be. Watch as he flies the unmanned vehicle right next to a major stadium, then think about the implications of what would happen if this technology were transferred to a model capable of carrying a dangerous payload.

The device even has an automatic, return-to-home feature.

 Computer-controlled autopilot

In the following video, another hobbyist shows how he incorporated a Lego Mindstorms computer inside an RC airplane and uses IR sensors and a compass to provide a rudimentary autopilot capability. The scary potential with this is how it might be used to target a destination, fly, and potentially hit a target, all on autopilot.

The total cost of this system is probably under $2,000. The Mindstorms device is about $250, and a model airplane like the one the hobbyist is holding costs somewhere between $400 and $1,500.

Automatic hover and terrain following

This next video shows a gadget (and yes, this is something I might not crash) that can automatically be set to a hover position and can be programmed to terrain-follow. Although this is a very small device, the potentially destructive uses of such an easily available technology is limited only by how twisted a bad guy's imagination might get. This device runs between about $600 and $900.

Underwater ROV capable of 100-meter depth

Finally, we’ll go from air to sea. In the following video, a “maker” shows how it’s possible to build a relatively inexpensive remotely operated vehicle (ROV) capable of going down deeper than a diver. It’s also capable of carrying a payload. While the OpenROV standard is very exciting from a scientific and geekerly perspective, the potential for terrorists to deliver a payload silently and unseen is terrifying as well.

Technology as a double-edged sword

DARPA’s Prabhakar sees the availability of consumer-grade high-technology as a double-edged sword. She uses the example of GPS jamming:

Warfighters have depended for decades on global positioning satellite (GPS) technology, and have incorporated it into guided munitions and other platforms to meet rigid requirements for guidance and navigation.

An adversary with inexpensive COTS transmitter technology can jam these GPS-based systems, and the inherently weak GPS satellite signals make it impractical to work around the jamming by somehow improving the GPS receivers.

This is becoming a true arms race. Not only do we have to counter threats from nation-state enemies (like we did with the Soviets during the cold war), now we have to counter threats from independent groups using commercial, off-the-shelf technology.

It’s quite the challenge, but DARPA research seems to be looking ahead at countering the threat. Speaking now of countering the GPS jamming threat, DARPA’s Director Prabhakar reports:

DARPA is investing in self-contained internal navigation systems. DARPA's analysis revealed that extending the performance of today's inertial guidance systems by a factor of 20 -- from roughly 1 minute to 18 minutes -- will permit 98 percent of our GPS-dependent weapons to operate at GPS accuracy without a GPS signal.

DARPA's Micro-Technology for Positioning, Navigation and Timing seeks to overcome these potential challenges by developing technologies for self-contained, chip-scale inertial navigation and precision guidance. The program recently developed a micro-nuclear magnetic resonance gyro that uses the spin of atomic nuclei to measure rotation.

This provides the ability to achieve navigation-grade performance with a two orders-of-magnitude reduction in size, weight, and power from state-of-the-art navigation grade gyroscopes currently used in inertial measurement units. This will allow micro-nuclear magnetic resonance gyros to be used in systems for personal navigation, navigation in GPS-denied areas, and on micro-UAVs.

Essentially, what she’s saying is that if GPS can be jammed, let’s build devices that don’t rely on GPS. That makes sense, and self-contained navigation systems also don’t need to radiate signals in stealth conditions, making them more difficult to detect on the battlefield.

Even so, I look at all these devices, all this computer intelligence, the reach of the Internet, and I have to wonder whether or not we are, in fact, building our own Skynet.

Where’s the Governator when you need him?

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