Friday, 16 December 2011

The risks of technology

A couple of weeks ago the US announced that they had lost contact with one of their exceptionally high-tech and modern RQ-170 Sentinel drones. Later the Iranians said that an electronic warfare unit had captured the drone.

The Iranians later showed detailed video of what appears to be an RQ-170. It seemed remarkably intact - although the underside and undercarriage could not be seen, the top seemed nowhere near as damaged as would be expected from a shoot-down or even a crash landing. However the video and pictures are far clearer than would be expected if they were trying to fake the images.

Naturally, some people have been in denial about this. One theory has it that the Iranians had a mock-up ready made, and when the US lost contact with their drone the Iranians used the mock-up to pretend they had captured it. Whilst it is likely that nations may construct mock-ups of aggressor craft - for identification training if nothing else - it would be an embarrassing strategy if the real wreckage was discovered.

Another is that a rogue Iranian agent in the US military had deliberately crashed the plane within Iran. This seems rather unrealistic.

Today it is alleged that the Iranians forced the craft to land. The control protocols for the aircraft are certainly encrypted (although embarrassingly some of the data such as the video may not be) and I doubted that they had actually taken control of it. However today's claim does make sense, at least to an armchair (in)expert such as myself.

The drones are controlled from stations that can be anywhere in the world; for instance Britain's Predator and Reaper drones are flown from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (*). Control signals are encrypted and sent over to the drones, presumably by satellite. If the radio signal is lost then the drones are programmed to fly automatically to a friendly base for landing, using GPS for positional information (**).

The Iranians are claiming that they jammed the 'proper' control signals coming from the US. This is important; they are not claiming to have hacked and decrypted the control signals, just to have blocked them. Without the signals, the drones would have automatically flown back to a base. This is where the Iranians got clever. It is possible to block and alter ('spoof') GPS signals; this is believed to be what is going on when GPS and SatNav users are warned that their devices will not work. The Iranians are claimed to have spoofed the drone's GPS signals so that it thought it was flying back to a friendly base.

Damage possibly occurred to the drone's underside on landing as the strip in Iran had a slightly different altitude to the base the drone believed it was landing at.

This claim is more plausible than the other alternatives. No real 'hacking' in the traditional senses was needed; instead gaping holes in the security logic were exploited. As much as I dislike the Iranian regime, the engineers must be congratulated for a very clever coup. My only question is why they have shown their hand so early; it gives the west time to understand the problems and close the exploits.

Unfortunately this will have serious implications. The obvious one - that the Americans have lost some of their top-secret military technology - might not be the most important. It it alleged that, although new, the RQ-170 does not use cutting-edge technology as they expected to lose one over enemy territory eventually, either through accident or combat. Far worse is the fact that American (and indeed western) commanders will have large doubts about the chances of their drones reaching a target in battle. And that may mean more manned aircraft are needed, and more friendly lives put at risk.

I am less bothered about the Iranian's claims that they will be able to reverse-engineer the aircraft. Although they have very capable engineers - they have allegedly been keeping some F14's in the air despite US sanctions and lack of spares - it would be a major task and money better spent on more useful platforms. It would be much more likely they would learn important lessons about how the drones work and how they can be combated. The Russians or Chinese would be in a much better position to take advantage of the aircraft.

(*) There is a valid debate to be had about how much we really control these drones. We have purchased them; would the US allow us to use them in a campaign that was against US interests? I am amazed that we have not paid to have the control stations here in the UK for a truly independent system.

(**) I would be surprised if they only used GPS for positional information, but it is possible. If so it was a major lack of foresight.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Terraforming Kinder

Kinder Scout has a reputation of being an evil, otherworldly place. Much of this reputation is deserved: navigation is difficult  in the centre of the plateau, especially in poor weather, and the constant climbing up and down the groughs is wearying. Add in the bleak, black landscape and it is easy to see why some walkers avoid it like the plague.

I have written before about my love for the place, yet for various reasons I had not climbed up onto the summit for over four years. For this reason a camping trip to Edale seemed like a good opportunity to see my old friend.

Glorious sunshine bathed the summit, and as I passed Kinder Downfall I was surprised to see a black helicopter flying to and fro with what seemed like a skip hanging underneath. Shortly afterwards a white helicopter repeatedly flew low overhead, dropping white bags of what turned out to be chopped heather over the terrain.

All this activity was part of a scheme to re-vegetate Kinder. Acid rain and other problems have devastated the delicate ecosystem on the plateau, and the lack of vegetation has led to massive erosion (*). In places the peat has been worn down to the underlying bedrock and the presence of walkers and cattle has not helped.

As far as I can work out, the scheme involves tipping lime over the ground to reduce the remaining acidity, then spreading cotton-grass seed over the area. Finally chopped heather is used to act as a binder for the ground (so-called 'brash spreading'); some of the seed will sprout. A new fence has been erected to enclose a large expanse of northwestern Kinder to prevent cattle from damaging the new vegetation.

Some interesting details of the work can be found on the National Trust website.

So far the difference is amazing. The area around The Edge trig pillar has always been a black morass (see this picture); now it is green with sprouting grass. I can only hope that the effort (at what must be massive cost) is worthwhile.

The helicopter dropping off lime 
Bags of heather suspended under a larger chopper

Terraforming The Edge. This was once a black morass.

A green and pleasant land?

(*) Other hills have suffered from a sillier problem: the EU gave grants to landowners to cut channels off the hills to increase the agricultural viability of the land. Unfortunately the increased flow caused massive erosion, and the EU is now giving landowners grants to block off those channels...

Friday, 2 December 2011


The new and old boots
I have had a boot-related problem. My old and (very) trusted Scarpa Trek 2 boots have finally given up the ghost. After 2,000 miles of glorious life, of tarmac, grass, mud and sand, the leather split and the boots went to the great shoeshop in the sky. Despite the rather large split in the leather, they still kept the water out when I waded into the North Sea at Cullercoats.

I went to see the friendly lads and lasses at Open Air in Cambridge to see if I could get another couple of pairs. It was then the problem occurred: Scarpa have replaced the Trek 2 boots with a new model, the New Trek GTX.

Yes, I walk lop-sided
My first question is why it is necessary to produce a new version of a boot every few years: in the last nine years I have got through about six pairs of the original Trek boots and three of the Trek 2. Are the new Trek boots so much better than the original ones? Indeed, I find it slightly hard to keep track of the different types of the Trek boot I have worn over the last ten years - I think the order is Trek, Trek GTX, Trek 2 and now, finally, the New Trek GTX.

The split
This will not matter for many people, but for me it is important. Because I have metal pins protruding from my ankle bone then I am limited in the number or types of boots I can wear - wellington boots are right out as they flex right where the metal is, causing pain on the bad side of intense. For this reason once I get a pair of boots that work for me then I tend to stick with them, buying a few pairs in advance. The injury also means that I hyper-supinate as I walk, causing the outside edge of the soles to wear out quickly.

So I have bought a pair of the newly-styled boots from Open Air; so far, after about one hundred miles, they seem fine. Unfortunately this does not mean that will continue to be the case, as I had to get rid of a good pair of Saloman boots after about eighty miles when the fabric started flexing in the wrong place.

The size of the split
All my previous Scarpa boots have been excellent; on my coastal walk I could just slip on a brand new pair and walk without having to break them in. On that trip they would only last 900 to 1,000 miles; the toll of walking day after day without cleaning limiting their life somewhat.

So another question: many people talk about pairs of boots lasting well over ten years; I can easily get through a pair in a couple of years. Is it normal for boots to split near the toes in this manner with enough (ab-)use, or is it a problem with the Treks? If it is a common problem, is there any way to prevent it happening?