...neighbors had complained about a suspicious chemical smell coming from the building.
- Excerpt from an article about the recent airport attack in Turkey
- A similar complaint was lodged against the Brussels airport attackers.
Chapter Three - The Large Drone Array
Soon after a guy from the government stopped by to visit them in their college dorm room. The university let her use this whole idea as a thesis for her PhD in Environmental Science. That was two years ago.
Her latest news interview, as CEO of DroneView, went like this:
“We are here today with Theresa Wilson, CEO of DroneView. DroneView operates what they call squadrons of drones, assembled in an large array, called an LDA, capable of detecting unique chemical signatures over large metropolitan areas." That's straight from their web site.
Theresa, essentially DroneView technology can locate bomb labs, right?"
"Yes, that is essentially correct. But we don't own the drones ourselves. Our operators bring the drones to us, we modify them for our purposes and teach them how to follow our specific flight paths. Ideally one or more of them detect traces of an illegal laboratory."
"Sounds a little like Uber. You must get quite a few false alarms, huh?”
“Yes, Operators do work sort of like Uber drivers.
So far as false alarms, not really, not for the large areas we cover. Besides, each false positive provides a learning experience for our service. The LDA learns and gets smarter with every survey.
Remember these sensors and drones were tested over the exact same type of operation the bombers use. They are configured to look for three specific chemical traces. Each is precisely associated with the bombs currently being used. ”
“So what happens when one of the drones detects something? Has that even happened?”
“Oh, we’ve detected eight real labs with this same equipment, but that’s because LDAs are being operated in many places all over the world. The deployment here in Istanbul just started a few weeks ago. We found one new lab within four days. Still, governments are pretty antsy about letting these larger drones buzz all over their city. It is not unusual to have people shoot at them.”
“Has one been shot down?”
“No, they are a small target flying fairly high up, a hundred feet or more. Plus we keep ‘em moving fast, usually in straight lines.”
"Can these drones shoot at bad guys, like the one's in the movies?"
"These civilian drones are larger and more expensive than the one pictured but they are not weaponized in any way. No Hellfire missiles. "
“I guess they would be tough to shoot down. Are you filming too?”
“The drone camera is always on, that’s how the pilot sees where it is going.”
“Oh, yea, but do you save that video stream?”
“Yes, of course, video is essential when we get a positive read from one of the sensors. We might cautiously send in one or more drones to look closer, to pinpoint the source. We have to be careful with those 2nd and 3rd passes over a possible lab. We still do quick sweeps but from different directions, to narrow down the source. These drones are also quieter than some less expensive models.”
“What about privacy? You must be peering into people’s back yards with those hi-res cameras.”
“Remember, the drones are moving fast, no lurking about. The video feed, along with all the results, are kept very secure. Nobody looks at 99.9% of the images. Really we only look at the video when we get a positive result from one of the drone’s chemical sensors.”
“This is a real long shot, isn’t it?”
“It used to be, until I found a way to use distributed computing, in real time, to process all the incoming data. Now we can canvas a large city in a week or two. We repeat the survey once each month. Out of 26 cities we’ve found 8 labs.”
“Wow, that’s great! Sort of. What’s the cost of this program?”
“What’s the cost of a bomb going off in one or more crowded markets or airports? I don’t mean to ridicule your question but the alternative to detecting these labs is anarchy and mayhem.”
“Understood. So how much?”
"It runs about $75,000 to survey a medium-size city. Figure $750 per drone per day. 15 to 20 drones flying for five days, optimum.”
“That’s quite affordable.”
“It is amazingly cheap. Most of our drones are flown by owner-operators. This provides good jobs locally. Our city partners really like the local staffing. They bring a suitable drone, we clear and train them. We also mount the sensors on each drone for them.”
"What happens if the bad guys only run the bomb lab at night? You might not detect it?"
"During the first survey the drones learn a safe route. We could automatically run that same survey at night, if we need to. But essentially we don't need to. Bomb making takes time and seems to be a continuous process, they can't make what they need in one night or even one day. It take many days to make enough material to build a big bomb. That gives us plenty of daylight flying time to detect them."
“What if one of your drone operators goes to over to the Dark Side? They could avoid their buddy’s car bomb factory, for example.”
“We considered that. Each operator actually doesn’t immediately know if their drone has detected something. The labs are typically detected and raided before the drone operator ever knows. They do get a bonus later. Plus they get paid for any court appearances needed when the bombers are prosecuted, but that's not usually necessary. Our analysts are ones that really locate the labs. Too risky for our local operators to be in that legal loop anyway.
There’s another way we would know if someone has decided to work for the likes of Darth Vader or a Sith lord. All the drones are configured to be part of an array. Each operator has to follow a flight plan determined by us. They can avoid obstacles but they have to stick to a set route. We survey all areas, industrial and residential. We don't fly over any government complex or military bases and of course not right over airports. We carefully survey residential areas near airports, though.
All this sensor data and video is stored in the drone and but also immediately sent over mobile broadband and processed in real time. If there is poor mobile phone service where the drone is flying it sends us the data later, when the connection is better.
Each sensor must send actual readings or the drone returned for service. They don’t get paid if the drone is not constantly conducting the survey according to the flight plan. The distributed processing brings the cost to analyze the data down too. Essentially we just want to map out all the chemical signatures that match what we are looking for. We do factor in prevailing winds when trying to locate the exact source. The local authorities take any action necessary.
We charge $150,000 per survey and invest most profits back into the operation. We are clear with each city partner about this. Some nations provide funding and experienced operators to us, especially in dangerous locales. Detecting a bomb factory in Aden, Yemen helps protect New York and Paris too. "
"This is going to sound odd but can you detect drug labs too?"
"That is not our mission but production of certain illegal drugs, like methamphetamines, involves very explosive chemicals. Some of the same materials are used in bombs. When you think about it, an illegal drug lab like that is just as dangerous to society."
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“We are not in the business of looking for illegal drugs, period. Just things that blow up. We do have a new division that goes out looking for sources of pollution. We report our findings to the people that pay us, the local authorities. That’s all I’m going to day about that.”
“OK, OK, I get it. Two more questions, do these drone operators need to work under where the drones are flying and is your firm hiring people now? "
“The drones we are talking about are designed to fly up to 15 kilometers from the control source. Additional instructions can be sent to the drone though a mobile phone connection if it flies out of signal range.
Operators must be licensed and work in the same city and sometimes they can even work near home. Most work up on a high rooftop or from higher ground. Like Uber, we are always hiring owner-operators in the cities that use our service regularly. Some cities request regular monthly surveys, some we only do quarterly. Or just once. We are also hiring full time operators and support staff. We expect to grow to 500 full-time employees this year. We have over 10,000 operators enrolled.”
“Is that very effective?”
“We found two labs in just the first survey of a particularly bad region in western Syria."
"Whoa, you have people inside Syria?"
"Some but we hire operators who know how to operate a drone from a greater distance. A few of the drones even have a way more expensive satellite phone connection. In those areas we rely on the Iraqi Army and Kurds as drone operators. Shiite militias have also gotten good at flying drones. We don't care what they learn from the video feed, our concern is with the sensor data.
Operators stay behind their lines for the most part. Like I said before, once the drone has done a route once, it can retrace that route using autopilot."
"It sounds like there too much automatic stuff going on with these drones."
"I thought you only had two more questions?"
"Your answers just invite more. My producer just gave me a question: Are you using artificial intelligence at all?"
"AI is an integral part of the LDA, it is why we are as effective as we are. We cannot depend on people pouring over data in spreadsheets. Of those 8 bomb labs our system detected, only two were actually detected by humans. The chemical amounts were so large they were easy to spot in those two cases. The rest were spotted by an AI routine we run over the data constantly."
"How does that work?"
"I could spend weeks explaining it to you but I'll give one public example. A single drone may only detect a very tiny amount of material produced when explosive materials are created. That tiny amount may have blown a mile or more in the wind. Other drones flying in the same city may detect tiny amounts. The artificial intelligence routines map out all those tiny traces, factor in the prevailing winds, and send the drones over a suspected, smaller region. The same routines are repeated, if something is picked up. Eventually we can narrow it down to a city block or less, sometimes a single structure. The military can usually figure out where the lab is from that point.
The entire system keeps learning and getting better. For example as some bomb makers alter their recipes, the system pretty much adjusts. We feed it the results from investigations into the bombings we don't prevent. We are finding labs that are known to exist in some cities, in far less time."
"You guys worked over Gaza?"
"I can't talk about that, we have an extensive client list but we guard that list closely."
"You do work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? We see that on your web site."
"I can talk about the EPA contract. Yes, we survey major U.S. cities for specific pollutants, especially for dangerous levels. This is an area that is growing, though not as fast as overseas requests for existing bomb lab surveys. The EU is another buyer of our environmental survey product. Everybody likes the way we are able to quickly locate the source of certain chemicals."
"Thank you and DroneView for taking this time to talk with Market News today, Ms Wilson, we do appreciate it. I think some of our viewers may even change their opinions of drones as a result."
"That would be a positive outcome. It was my pleasure."