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David Kravets | WIRED

On June 30, 1956, two airliners flying over the Grand Canyon collided. All 128 passengers and crew aboard the planes perished. It was the first U.S. air disaster with more than 100 fatalities. The accident made clear that the nation’s burgeoning air-travel industry needed better safety oversight. Citing the “tragic losses of human life,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation creating the Federal Aviation Administration in 1958.

Six decades and a zillion regulations later, the agency that supervises everything from air-worthiness to passenger gadget use has taken legal action for the first time against an on-ground pilot — an operator of a styrofoam, 4.5-pound Ritewing Zephyr-powered glider. The $10,000 levy (.pdf) invokes the same code section that governs the conduct of actual airline-passenger pilots, charging modelerRaphael Pirker with illegally operating a drone for commercial purposes and flying it “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”

Pirker is fighting the citation (.pdf) before the National Transportation Safety Board, challenging the FAA’s assertion that it has the power to supervise the use of unmanned drones. If Pirker prevails, the FAA’s 2007 ban on the commercial use of unmanned drones — a thriving overseas business — may be nullified.

Pirker’s legal battle throws a spotlight on a commercial drone scene in the United States operating in a grey area. The FAA has issued dozens of cease-and-desist letters to operators of commercial model aircraft, forcing some companies to shut down. Others, however, are performing their aerial filming and crop and real estate surveying businesses underground — or sometimes right in the open.

The agency is working on a set of regulations for the budding industry, but those rules won’t be unveiled until as early as 2015. Meanwhile, uncertainty reigns.

Pirker’s lawyer maintains that the 2007 ban on commercial drones is invalid because the FAA failed to hold public hearings before issuing the rule. “There is no enforceable federal regulation concerning the operation of a model airplane,” says the attorney, Brendan Schulman of New York.

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Spencer Ackerman | Wired

Farea al-Muslimi just wants the U.S. drone strikes in his home country of Yemen to stop. Photo courtesy of Farea al-Muslimi

Farea al-Muslimi just wants the U.S. drone strikes in his home country of Yemen to stop. Photo courtesy of Farea al-Muslimi

Powerful Americans are beginning to listen to Farea al-Muslimi, a 23-year-old, California-educated Yemeni who wants to stop the drone strikes in his country. Including some in the White House.

Danger Room has confirmed that before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.

“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. In other words, he shouldn’t count on an Oval Office sit-down with the President — or even a quick meet with Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco. And the meeting isn’t a response to al-Muslimi’s testimony yesterday.

But there’s buzz now around al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy. And that didn’t exist the last time he came to Washington — when al-Muslimi also had a White House meeting. In September, he recalls to Danger Room, al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another — he declines to give specifics — while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones. “It was a taboo,” al-Muslimi says, “like if you’re talking in a conservative society about sex.”

These days drones are sexy. Yesterday, al-Muslimi publicly told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the drones cause “psychological fear and terror” amongst average Yemenis and strengthen the very terrorists they’re supposed to kill. Even James “Hoss” Cartwright, a retired Marine general once in the thick of administration drone-strike deliberations, allowed during the hearing that the drones were costing America “the moral high ground.” A trail of D.C. journalists are competing for al-Muslimi’s time — that’s how rare it is for Americans to even to hear second-hand accounts of drone attacks. And the White House is still willing to meet with a man whose message is, he says simply, “stop this program.” Read More

Spencer Ackerman | Wired

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, visits the command center of the USS Enterprise, January 2012. Photo: Flickr/U.S. Navy

There once was a time, just last year, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta thought the U.S. was thisclose to wiping al-Qaida off the face of the earth, once and for all. That appears to have gone up in the flames of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Now, a more dour Panetta believes that it’s not enough to continue the drone strikes and commando raids in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; they’ve got to expand “outside declared combat zones” to places like Nigeria, Mali and even Libya.That was Panetta’s message at Tuesday evening address to the Center for American Security, an influential Washington defense think tank. Panetta, a former director of the CIA, gave a strong defense of counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids, calling them “the most precise campaign in the history of warfare,” and indicated strongly that they’re only going to intensify in the coming years.

“This campaign against al Qaeda will largely take place outside declared combat zones,” Panetta said in his prepared remarks, “using a small-footprint approach that includes precision operations, partnered activities with foreign Special Operations Forces, and capacity building so that partner countries can be more effective in combating terrorism on their own.” He referenced “expanding our fleet of Predator and Reaper” drones and beefing up Special Operations Forces by another 8,000 commandos in the next five years. Even if combat is ending for most conventional units, those forces — already frequently deployed — aren’t in for any respite. Read More

David Axe | Wired

An MQ-9 Reaper in Iraq in 2008. Photo: Air Force

More secret bases. More and better unmanned warplanes. More frequent and deadly robotic attacks. Some five years after a U.S. Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew the type’s first mission over lawless Somalia, the shadowy American-led drone campaign in the Horn of Africa is targeting Islamic militants more ruthlessly than ever.

Thanks to media accounts, indirect official statements, fragmentary crash reports and one complaint by a U.N. monitoring group, we can finally begin to define — however vaguely — the scope and scale of the secret African drone war.

The details that follow are in part conjecture, albeit informed conjecture. They outline of just one of America’s ongoing shadow wars — and one possible model for the future U.S. way of war. Along with the counterterrorism campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and the Philippines, the Somalia drone war demonstrates how high-tech U.S. forces can inflict major damage on America’s enemies at relatively low cost … and without most U.S. citizens having any idea it’s even happening.

Since 2007, Predator drones and the larger, more powerful Reapers — reinforced by Ravens and Scan Eagle UAVs and Fire Scout robot helicopters plus a small number of huge, high-flying Global Hawks — have hunted Somali jihadists on scores of occasions. It’s part of a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise-missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as Uganda’s.

In all, air raids by manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft have killed at least 112 Somali militants, according to a count by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Fifty-seven innocent civilians also died in the raids, the nonprofit Bureau found. The dead jihadists have included several senior members of al-Qaeda or the affiliated al-Shabaab extremist group. In January, a drone launched three Hellfire missiles at a convoy near Mogadishu and killed Bilaal al-Barjawi, the mastermind of the 2010 bombing in Kampala, Uganda, that claimed the lives of 74 soccer fans.

In an escalating secret war, drones are doing an ever-greater proportion of the American fighting. Read More

Robert Beckhusen | Wired

The A160 Hummingbird chopper-drone during a test flight. Photo: Boeing

This month, the Army planned to deploy to Afghanistan an unusual new drone: an unmanned eye-in-the-sky helicopter programmed to use high-tech cameras to monitor vast amounts of territory. But now the drone might be lucky to be deployed at all, as the Army has moved to shut down production — possibly ending the program forever.

That drone would be the A160 Hummingbird, which the Army planned to equip with the powerful Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System, or Argus. But earlier this month, the Army issued a stop-work order — one step away from termination — to the drone’s developer Boeing. The reason? A high “probability of continued technical and schedule delays,” costs and risks that have “increased so significantly that program continuation is no longer in the best interest of the government,” said Donna Hightower, the Army’s acting product manager for unmanned aerial systems modernization.

The A160 was set to be one of the Army’s most radical new drones. The chopper-drone could loiter for 20 hours at up to 15,000 feet, with a range of 2,500 nautical miles. It could observe up to 36 square miles, thanks to its Argus sensors. Also, Argus has a 1.8 gigapixel camera. Viewed through 92 five-megapixel imagers and 65 video windows for zooming in at ultra-high resolution, the the A160 drone would have been well-suited for spying on enemy fighters in vast and remote terrain like in Afghanistan, where three of the drones were scheduled to deploy this month. The A160 has also been sent on special operations workouts.

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