Micro Drones' Killer Intent

My recent piece on Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) in Wired News> traces a familiar pattern in the evolution of air warfare. When balloons were invented they were first used for observation, then for bombing. The first fragile biplanes flying over the trenches in WWI were unarmed, but within a few years they carrying machine guns and bombs. Unmanned Air Vehicles like Predator were flying reconnaissance for years before they were armed for strike missions.(UAV pedants note: the V-1 doesnt count as it was only ever one-way)WASP.jpgSo its not surprising that British SAS troopers should decide that rather than just spying on Taliban with their WASP micro air vehicles, they should be able to take them out. Sticking a small C4 charge on these toy-sized craft is a relatively crude approach, but one that should effectively convert them from silent spies to stealth assassins. And at $3,000 a time they are by no means the most expensive weapon around.But, as the article explains, the US Air Force has much more ambitious plans for arming MAVs to take out installations, vehicles and people. They might initially be used individually like the SASs WASPs, but the obvious approach is to release swarms of them as I have previously described networked robots forming an efficient single unit.One area I did not have space for was the use of incendiaries, which can be far more effective than explosive pound-for-pound. This is real fire-ant warfare.A single insect-sized MAV carrying a few milliliters of napalm would be a dangerous nuisance, especially indoors or inside a vehicle. Several dozen of them would be lethal, especially when they can locate stored fuel or ammunition. Just program them to look for those distinctive danger inflammable signsSimilarly, thermite could give tiny robots a disproportionate destructive capability. A mixture of powdered metal and metal oxide, it burns at very high temperature (up to over 2,500 degrees centigrade), enough to turn most metals to liquid. It can burn through metal; in WWII, thermite charges were used as a quick way of disabling artillery. It would not take too much thermite to make an artillery barrel hazardous to use; and surface-to-air missile batteries are an obvious target.One armed MAV, or termite with thermite, would not be too much of a menace, but dozens or hundreds could be effective, against even large installations. The small size of the warhead is offset by the extreme precision with which it can be placed by the sort of flying/crawling robot insect which the Air Force has in mind.This should help put the earlier report on swarming robot cockroaches intended to attack underground installations into perspective. Such weapons are too indiscriminate to be used in an urban environment, but in an enemy bunker, everything is fair game. Stamp on one and the thermite will burn through your shoes and keep going...Individual cockroaches can burn through grilles or other obstacles, making a way for the rest of the swarm. With their collective intelligence they can identify the complexes vulnerable points, and by combining together, they can destroy most things. When the lights in your bunker start to go out and the air fills with the smoke of burning insulation, how long would you hang around?-- David Hambling

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