Friday, April 15, 2011

If You Can Tell Boys From Girls, the Air Force May Give You 20 Grand

If You Can Tell Boys From Girls, the Air Force May Give You 20 Grand: "

Updated 8:57 am

The Air Force has problems distinguishing men from women and adults from children. Which means pilots sometimes target — and kill — the wrong people. The air service’s solution: a nationwide contest, to help the military pick out kid from grown-up.

With the “Remote Human Demographic Characterization” challenge, the Air Force is looking for descriptions of a system “that can determine approximate age (adult, teen, child) and gender of small groups of people at a distance.” The challenge “requires a written proposal only.” So if your idea works and you can get the technical details right, you could walk away with $20,000.

The challenge is one of four that the Air Force Research Lab set up with the launch of its new Open Innovation Initiative. It attempts to use models pioneered by Darpa and NASA to use contests to find solutions to hard problems. Other current Air Force challenges include “Design and Simulation of an Accurate Shooter-Locator” for a whopping $50,000 and “Humanitarian Air Drop” for $20,000.

In light of recent reports indicating that the first drone friendly-fire incident may have occurred in Afghanistan, the military will certainly be taking a hard look at how drone surveillance operators are identifying targets and authorizing attacks. U.S. forces usually wear special infrared reflective patches on their uniforms that could have alerted the Predator operators in this incident that they were looking at friendly forces, but these patches are small and might not have been viewable from all angles. And in a high-pressure situation with troops under hostile fire, the Predator operators could well have felt pressure to attack, to support the troops on the ground.

But the issue that many drone operators are facing every day is different: how to pick out combatants from noncombatants in environments where there are no uniforms and where fighters mingle with freely with civilians.

Take Monday’s Los Angeles Times story about how mistaken Predator video analysis helped lead to an inadvertent attack on civilians. It’s a veritable play-by-play of how troops on the ground, drone operators, and other intelligence elements — all literally seeing and hearing different views of the same situation — misinterpreted and miscommunicated different pieces of data to misidentify a convoy of civilians as militants.

The biggest failure of the drone operators? Identifying the woman and four children under 6. It’s incidents like this that are causing the controversies in Afghanistan and Pakistan over civilian deaths from drone strikes.

So if the problem is real, why is the Air Force offering only $20,000 to solve it? Probably because right now it’s a problem that is so hard, the Air Force is just hoping for ideas.

Once it has a few that sound plausible it will take it to the Lockheeds and Northrops and Raytheons of the world to build out. Check back next year and there might be a $1 million challenge or a $10 million challenge — but that might be for a demonstration system a little more complicated than what you can build on your new Commodore 64.

Until then drone operators will continue to face hard choices every day about what they see and about what they should do — and hope that they are right.


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