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Air and Space Tech: Space Junk Update, LightSquared’s Alleged Aviation Threat, Using Drones to Enforce Farm Subsidies, Who’s Responsible When Drones Kill?

By Mark Devlin

February 16, 2012


Swiss Developing Means to Cleanup Space

The problem of space junk isn’t out of this world; it’s real and worsening, not only because of dying satellites and other systems, but satellites colliding with both debris and other satellites. The problem’s bad enough when one considers the sheer number of dead satellites in orbit—likely approaching 20,000 by now—but also what happens when objects in space collide. A single collision can result in 2,000 more chunks of space debris.

(This isn’t a new issue for IEN and readers. For instance, we’ve covered the serious problem of space junk here, here, and here.)

NASA’s ramping up their space junk tracking ability. Some have come up with a way to deliver and attach a propellant charge to debris; the propellant then blasts the junk back into the atmosphere for subsequent disintegration. China tried zapping the junk and only made the problem worse by creating considerably more (and smaller) pieces.

Enter the Swiss.

The Swiss CleanSpace One project intends to develop a family of satellites…

…that would chase down and capture small pieces of orbital debris. NASA is currently tracking some 16,000 pieces of junk larger than about four inches diameter, but the agency estimates there are many more times that ripping around the planet at orbital speeds (call it 17,500 miles per hour).

The idea, according to this article at PopSci (Source: EFPL), is to send up a CleanSpace One satellite, grab a junk satellite with it using a bio-inspired gripper, and drag it back to Earth’s atmosphere where both would burn up. Cost of the program? 10 million Swiss francs, or about $10.8 million U.S.

Here’s an interesting, sub-5-min. run-through of the program straight from the horses’ mouths…

Many issues remain. For instance, it’s not very cost-efficient to sacrifice a brand spanking-new satellite every time we need to bring down dead one. Also, satellites from every country are up there, each carrying nation-proprietary and sometimes top-secret technology. So, who has the ‘right’ to target a given chunk of debris, then send it into fiery decaying orbit? There’s also the matter of particularly larger pieces making it back to earth and falling on our heads.

With the enormous amount of high-end engineering going into satellites and space systems, there’s gotta be a better way than to send out sacrificial tow trucks.

FCC Ready to Nix LightSquared’s Cell Tower Project

We’ve talked about this one before, too (Here and here, for instance.). Here’s a clip from the first piece as a memory refresher…

There’s a company called LightSquared that’s been building some next-gen, (4G) LTE cell towers. According to this piece at Info Mobile, their plan was 300 by the end of last year, another 5,000 this year, and they’re upping the ante by 13,000 more in 2012. Presumably, both Verizon and AT&T’s new LTE networks will also be up next year. One of the big differences? 4G-LTE integrates with satellite coverage, and can thus offer terrestrial, satellite, or terrestrial-satellite services, according to LightSquared.

Sounds great, right? Sure, except for one thing: LightSquared equipment allegedly interferes not only with GPS systems, but could also put aviation safety at risk.

The FCC intends to revoke LightSquared’s ‘conditional authority’ to deploy their network. Here’s a clip from Space News

The statement was issued in response to a Feb. 14 conclusion by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that “there is no practical way to mitigate potential interference” to GPS signals caused by LightSquared’s proposed network. Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant U.S. secretary of commerce for communications and information, relayed that finding in a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

LightSquared continues claiming that testing leading to the above decision against their $14B, privately financed network is ‘severely flawed.’

Again, we’ll keep you posted.

Drones to Enforce Farm Subsidies?

It’s not final, but the EU is considering using UAVs to spot farm subsidy cheating as well as violators of Common Agricultural Policy rules, according to this PopSci article. Doesn’t sound like much of an issue? It is. Here’s a clip…

Farm subsidies in the EU cost taxpayers billions of euros each year, and so it’s naturally in the best interests of regulators to maintain tight oversight over who gets how much. For years now, regulators have relied on satellite imagery to help them keep an eye on those claiming subsidies, photographing farmland from above and looking for the telltale signs of subsidy cheats or breaches of environmental rules.

Satellite images are sometimes unreliable due to environmental distortions and the fact that Scotland, for instance, is consistently beneath overcast skies.

Rather than 24/7 surveillance, it’s been suggested that quickly-deployed drones could investigate specific cases. When subsidy fraud potentially ‘costs millions’ of euros in taxpayer funding, deploying such technology seems to make sense. Of course, if it works in Europe, it’ll probably head here.

When Drones Kill…

…who’s responsible?

Most drones in use today are used for military/defense purposes, with increasing application in law enforcement.

Referencing a New York Times op-ed piece, “Do Drones Undermine Democracy,” this IEEE Risk Factor article is a really interesting read, and eventually gets to the question: who’s responsible when drones kill?

Whether remotely-controlled or autonomous, unmanned aircraft carry out lethal strikes on a regular basis. When important questions surface about a given strike, however, who’s responsible for answers and accountability? Here’s a related LA Times clip (in the IEEE article) quoting Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield…

"Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability. This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military's acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?"

All are excellent, valid questions with, at this point in time, few answers—none of which are concrete.

With AI increasing in industrial environments—and autonomy coming soon—this isn’t only a military question. If (or when) someone is hurt or killed in a manufacturing plant employing such technologies, watch for OSHA, lawyers, and insurance companies to circle like sharks. Who’ll take responsibility?

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