Daily Archives: February 27, 2012

Coldest summer in 50 years for New South Wales Australia

WET, WET, WET: Joe, 11, Finlay, 9, and Eleanor Barnett, 8, at the beach.

theherald.com.au | Feb 28, 2012


THE Hunter’s absent summer has many reaching for the record books, with meteorologists predicting it might be the coldest in 50 years.

With just two days of summer left, Bureau of Meteorology figures show that most of the region recorded only two or three days above 30 degrees throughout the entire summer.


Global warming causes snow and volcanoes

In Lake Macquarie, a dreary three-month run included two days on which the mercury rose above 30 and Nobby’s recorded just three, but Nelson Bay missed out altogether.

Weatherwatch meteorologist Don White said summer was shaping up as a landmark season.

‘‘It’s one of the coolest summers in the last 50 years, if not the coolest,’’ he said.

The absence of north-westerly and westerly winds had kept the Hunter’s coastline free of hot air from inland.

‘‘The north-westerly blows out the sea breeze,’’ Mr White said.

A ‘‘very unusually cool’’ December failed to yield even a single day above 30 degrees at Paterson, Singleton, Cessnock, Maitland, Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Nelson Bay.

Wyoming lawmaker introduces doomsday bill

Star-Tribune | Feb 23, 2012


CHEYENNE — State Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, has seen the national debt rise above $15 trillion and protest movements grow around the country. Wealthy Americans are fleeing the country, he says, and confidence in the dollar has taken a hit around the world.

If America’s economic and social problems continue to escalate and spiral out of control, Miller said, Wyoming needs to be ready. So, he’s introduced legislation to create a state-run government continuity task force, which would study and prepare Wyoming for potential catastrophes, from disruptions in food and energy supplies to a complete meltdown of the federal government.

It would even look at the feasibility of quickly providing an alternative currency in Wyoming should the U.S. dollar collapse entirely.

Wyoming’s Department of Homeland Security already has a statewide crisis management plan, but it doesn’t cover what the state should do in the event of an extreme nationwide political or economic collapse.

The task force would include state lawmakers, the director of the Wyoming Department of Homeland Security, the Wyoming attorney general and the Wyoming National Guard’s adjutant general, among others.

Miller said he didn’t anticipate any major crises hitting America anytime soon. But Wyoming, which has a comparatively good economy and sound state finances, needs to make sure it’s protected should any unexpected emergency hit the United States.

“Things happen quickly sometimes — look at Libya, look at Egypt, look at those situations,” Miller said. “We wouldn’t have time to meet as a Legislature or even in special session to do anything to respond.”

Miller said the task force would look at whether, in the event the dollar loses value entirely, Wyoming should issue its own state currency or rely on old U.S. currency that would still have value.

While Miller said that doomsday scenario is unlikely in the short-term, the dollar has been losing value for years, and a gridlocked federal government has been unable to deal with enormous budget deficits.

“If we continue down this course, this is the way any society ends up — with a valueless currency,” he said.

In recent years, lawmakers in at least six states have introduced legislation to create a state currency, all unsuccessfully.

The legislation, House Bill 85, is expected to be debated on first reading in the House today, Miller said. The original bill appropriated $32,000 for the task force, though the Joint Appropriations Committee slashed that number in half earlier this week.

Miller said he hasn’t heard of any other states that are taking such a step to prepare for the worst. But he doesn’t want to wait for them to act first.

“I don’t represent people in Illinois or New Jersey. I represent people in Wyoming,” he said. “And I want them to be protected from any catastrophic events that may beset the rest of the country.”

Knights of Malta made deal with the United States in 1794

Ovide Doublet, the Grand Master’s sec­retary for the French Langues in Malta. Right: Portrait of James Monroe, US Ambassador to Paris, who negotiated in Paris with the Order of Malta.

Someone – it is still not quite clear who – set in motion secret negotiations to draw Malta of the Knights and the United States of George Washington closer together.

The commerce of the US would find, in the Mediterranean, ports to secure it from storms and pirates; in exchange for which Malta would possess in America property granted forever.

Times of Malta | Feb 26, 2012

by Giovanni Bonello

The French Revolution signalled an irresistible decline in the fortunes of the Order of Malta. That (by then) anachronistic Crusader institution could not have appeared more flagrantly ancien régime had it made a deliberate effort to do so: based on the threadbare virtues of privilege and of aristocracy, gorging itself off the labour of others, shielded by a system of law that placed titles and genes above merit and commitment, the Maltese Order struck out as a foul provocation to the values of liberté, égalité and fraternité ostensibly espoused by the new republic.

With the triumph of the Revolution, the Knights found themselves targets of the victors’ hate and persecution, and by the end of a series of hostile enactments, the Order forfeited virtually all its property and revenues in France, which till then represented the largest spread of its capital assets and source of income. By the time the Jacobins had consolidated their supremacy, the Hospitallers teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

Something had to be done to redress that huge and sudden shortfall – and it was hardly enough for the distraught Grand Master to offer to live, as he did, on a few francs a day. The best brains of the Order set to work to explore alternative sources of prosperity. The financial catastrophe urgently required fresh rethinking, and some of it went in the direction of tapping into the sympathies and resources of a brand new independent state that to the enlightened already showed the promise of becoming the wealthiest world power – the infant United States of America.

The Order of St John, or more accurately, individual knights of Malta and a good number of well-trained Maltese seamen, had contributed remarkably to the struggles of the American colonies to emancipate themselves from Britain and to gain their nationhood. Benjamin Franklin, the first US ambassador to Paris, had acknowledged the Maltese input towards the success of the War of American Independence.

On April 6, 1783, he sent Grand Master de Rohan a specially minted medal coined on his initiative to honour those who had significantly promoted the ultimate victory. This medal, which Rohan cherished and proudly displayed in the Palace ‘cabinet’, could very well have been the one designed jointly by Franklin and Voltaire in 1778. Together with all the other precious objects collected by successive Grand Masters and displayed in the ‘cabinet’, Benjamin Franklin’s medal has sadly disappeared.

In Franklin’s words, that medal represented “an homage of gratitude”, and to the rhetoric he added a broad hint about the desirability of ensuring the protection of US citizens in Maltese ports.

Eleven years before proper bilateral negotiations on these issues started between the US and the Order of Malta, De Rohan had already assured Franklin that “wherever chance or commerce shall lead any of your citizens or their vessels into the ports of my island, I shall receive them with the greatest welcome. They shall experience from me every assistance.”

The former 13 colonies had finally seen their independence from the British crown internationally recognised in 1783, shortly before the Order of St John suffered its debilitating losses in France.

Someone – it is still not quite clear who – set in motion secret negotiations to draw Malta of the Knights and the United States of George Washington closer together, and to work out schemes of co-operation that would be of mutual benefit. Curiously the blueprint was sketched by French Hospitallers in France itself, though the launch of such a high-risk gamble would surely have been submitted for the prior approval of the Grand Master, Emanuel de Rohan.

The private papers of a future President of the United States, James Monroe, tell us a lot about this bold, creative idea meant to link closer together the destinies of the new colossus and of the ancient dwarfling.

Monroe’s letters and other writings, published in 1899, include the correspondence exchanged in 1794 between the Order of Malta and the American ambassador in Paris, the future President.

I am not aware that a copy of these writings exists in the Maltese archives. Historians, including Edgar Erskine Hume in the US and Dr Paul Cassar in Malta, were acquainted with this episode and made good use of it. I propose to trace some unknown contours around their research.

Firstly, who were the two ‘conspirators’? On the Maltese side, a Monsieur Cibon; across the divide, the fifth American ambassador to Paris, James Monroe. I have found it anything but easy to flesh out Cibon. He represented himself as chargé d’affaires at the Order’s legation in Paris.

After the confiscation of the Order’s huge holdings in France in 1790, a trickle of diehard aristocrats still sought to join the Order of Malta, among them featured a certain Jean-François Eleozar Paul de Cibon, who was inducted in the Order on October 13, 1792. But our chargé d’affaires is never referred to as Fra or Frere as all professed knights were, even in revolutionary times, and anyway, the knight Cibon would have been far too young, just three years after his profession, to be placed on the hot seat – acting ambassador to Paris during the most turbulent times in French history and the most dejecting times in that of the Hospitallers. That, I believe, rules the knight de Cibon out.

Ovide Doublet, the Grand Master’s secretary for the French Langues in Malta, in his memoirs recently translated into English, frequently refers to M. Cibon, the chargé d’affaires in Paris, but never gives his full name: “M. Cibon Junior was secretary at the Maltese embassy in Paris during the time when Bailli de Vireu abandoned the capital after the horrible attack on the Tuileries on August 10, 1792. The secretary remained in the capital for his own safety and to protect Malta’s interests. He assumed the title of chargé d’affaires but without any formal delegation of authority from the Grand Master.”

Doublet adds some more details about Cibon whose father had also been employed as secretary of the Maltese embassy in Paris. When the father died, Cibon Junior eased himself into his father’s job. He did that in extremely dangerous times, with the French General Assembly deliberating the abolition of the Order of Malta, the confiscation of all its properties and the repressive forces of the Revolution arresting the Order’s more vocal members.

Cibon believed there could still be room for compromise and manoeuvre, if only the Order negotiated with France its prime negotiable asset: the use of its harbours and hospitals.

Probably rightly but certainly sadly, Grand Master de Rohan felt it infra dig even to think of discussing anything at all with a riff-raff revolutionary administration not as yet recognised by any civilised nation. And the fact that Cibon did not belong to some knightly rank, however lowly, caused Rohan to disregard his counsel and to distrust him – he did not even feel he had to mention Cibon’s proposals to the Council of State or deign to reply to his dispatches proposing negotiating with that ‘enemy’ scum.

And yet, as a mere secretary to a hostile embassy, Cibon had succeeded in obtaining the release of some knights of Malta detained by the revolutionaries.

Only one source I know of gives more details of this brave man’s name: d’Elzear de Cibon – not the same person (the secretary was married with children), but probably closely related by family ties to the freshly-knighted Eleozar de Cibon.

And brave he undoubtedly was, to persevere in his determination to remain living and holding the fort in a wholly malevolent and inflamed Paris, representing an impeccably aristocratic Order whose members were singled out for hate, vendetta and, when the happy occasion arose, for assassination.

We know something more as to how the hot potato of taking care of Hospitaller interests in France landed in Cibon’s hands rather than someone else’s.

Grand Master de Rohan, fully conscious of the rabid anti-ancien régime fury prevalent in Paris, thought it prudent not to name a new ambassador to France to replace the Balì de Brillane after the latter passed away.

De Brillane had abruptly dropped dead, suffering a fulminating stroke on his way out of a meeting with the royalist minister Armand-Marc Montmorin, later duly massacred by the revolutionary mobs.

The Grand Master delegated the interests of the Order of St John in Paris to Commander d’Estourmel, under the guidance of the Balì de Virieu, until such time as the mass turbulence and hysteria would have somehow quietened down.

The Balì de Hannonville arrived in Paris in 1795 as Ambassador Extraordinary of the Grand Master, but when he requested to present his credentials, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles-François Dela­croix, rebuffed him with the news that he was persona non grata and that his presence in Paris was “disagreeable to the Directorate”. (Delacroix featured, officially, as the father of the renowned ‘romantic’ painter Eugène, but… gossips just laughed loud and, in those pre-DNA days, boy, did they snigger and scoff).

In retaliation to the Paris affront, the Grand Master refused to receive a French minister on a visit to Malta. Compelled by adverse circumstances, Rohan allowed M. Cibon Junior to remain in Paris, but only as a low-profile secretary to the legation.

From being a lively and populous embassy, the Maltese one was now reduced to a one-man outfit. Cibon had to cope with the stresses of the Revolution in Paris virtually on his own.

Cibon knew full well that one of the weakest links in the chain of the emergent American power was its inability to protect and defend its commercial shipping in the Mediterranean, especially from the almost daily depredations of the Barbary corsairs and pirates. Just before the Hospitaller secretary’s letter to Monroe, the US had acknowledged the threat to their interests in the Mediterranean and had consequently reached a momentous decision: concrete measures had to be immediately undertaken to lay down an armed fleet in order to protect their Mediterranean lines of communication. The US navy was born in March 1794 with the Mediterranean situation expressly in mind.

However, though the determination was there, the American warships were then few, they could rely on no supply and maintenance home ports in the Mediterranean, and they depended for logistical support on bases thousands of nautical miles away.

The US had, with a gun to their head, concluded treaties with the Barbary rulers in terms of which they paid the turbaned extortionists huge sums in the form of protection monies in exchange for shaky guarantees that US shipping would not be attacked.

In Cibon’s time, this protection racket was costing the taxpayer 20 per cent of the annual USfederal budget. Surely a secure, well-furnished and friendly base in Malta would be an attractive, cost-saving investment for the US against that odious and institutionalised Barbary blackmail?

Was not this the proper time for the Order’s invoice of courage, blood and goodwill raised against America during the war for independence, to be presented for payment?

Picking up the ideas already toyed with by Franklin and Rohan in 1783, Cibon, in a letter written 11 years later, pleaded with the US Ambassador James Monroe to weigh in his mind the reflections he annexed and then to give him his frank reaction to them.

He began by a high-sounding rhetorical flourish: some nations naturally become rivals and oppose each other because of their position, their industry and their courage. Others, for the same reasons of courage and industry, discover their attraction to each other – they “feel a motive to esteem, approach and unite together, to increase their mutual prosperity and to render themselves reciprocally happy by a continual exchange of attentions, regards and services”.

With this introduction in place, the next fanfare follows naturally, and very quotable it is too: “The United States of America and the Island of Malta, notwithstanding the distance that separates them, do not appear to be less bound to cultivate a close and friendly union between them by motives of interest and by those of benevolent amity”.

Cibon then reminded Monroe how attractive the Mediterranean had become to industrious American merchants and mariners, always present in that sea in large numbers “forgetting the dangers to which they are exposed of becoming a prey to the Algerine corsairs who cover that sea”. And here Cibon starts advertising what Malta has to offer to the USA.

The wily salesman lists the obvious pluses: “the island of Malta placed at the centre of the Mediterranean between Africa and Sicily, offers by its position, to all navigators, an asylum, provisions and succour of every kind. Of what importance would it not be for the American commerce to find upon this stormy sea, fine ports, provisions and even protection against Algerine pirates?”

Cibon played with the Americans the same card his gambler instinct would have chanced with the French revolutionaries had Rohan encouraged him to: the offer of the use of Malta’s fine harbours and of other maritime facilities in a bid to regain some of the confiscated Hospitaller properties.

Then Cibon slips in what price the Order of Malta would expect for making available its friendship and its amenities: “In exchange for the succour and protection by means whereof the American vessels might navigate the Mediterranean freely and without inquietude, would the United States consent to grant in full right to the Order of Malta some lands in America in such quantity as might be agreed on between the two governments, placing such lands under the immediate protection and safeguard of the American loyalty?”

Cibon reinforces and clarifies his proposal: “Thus the commerce of the United States would find, in the Mediterranean, ports to secure it from storms and vessels given to protect it against the pirates of Algiers; in exchange for which Malta would possess in America property granted forever, protected by the United States and guaranteed by them in the manner most solid”.

Fine negotiator. Cibon’s proposals ad­dressed the main concerns of either party. US navigation suffered manifestly from a lack of maritime bases and facilities in the Mediterranean, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Order had never stopped hankering after its own centuries-old colonial fantasies – vast lands to be taken over, exotic or otherwise, outside its domestic confines.

Some had been pipe dreams, like the purchase of Corsica, repeatedly entertained by more than one Grand Master, or the colonisation of Abyssinia, or the acquisition of large tracts of Canada like Acadia. Others, like the annexation of the islands of St Kitts in the Eastern Caribbean, had, if only briefly, come to pass.

Monroe, a seasoned and far-sighted politician, knew at once that the Maltese offer was, at least in theory, highly attractive and he did not dismiss Cibon’s “reflections” outright. He was a founding father of the United States and eventually became their President (1817-1825). When still Colonel Munroe, he had been sent as minister plenipotentiary to represent the United States in France in 1794.

He was, by political theory and personal conviction, a strong supporter of the French Revolution, though during his ambassadorship he distinguished himself by opposing, and courageously too, some of its excesses – he succeeded in freeing all Americans imprisoned by the revolutionaries, including Thomas Payne and the Lafayette family.

He must have found himself somewhat torn apart by his personal empathy with the Revolution, and the request of Malta, a small anti-revolutionary state more aligned in political conservatism and regression with his old monarchical British enemies than with his new French friends.

Bombed Norway government building missing from Google Maps

Technical problem: Damaged Oslo office buildings after bomb Photo: Jordan Strauss/Getty Images News

theforeigner.no | Feb 26, 2012

by Lyndsey Smith

It is not known why the building, located at Akersgata 42, has disappeared from the service, but Google have said they are working on fixing the error. The picture on Street View shows what it was like before Breivik struck.

The structure is currently still standing and undergoing repairs to the damage caused by the bomb, and is just shown by a white space with a marker.

Dagbladet discovered the missing building, Thursday, but Google staff was unaware of the problem when approached by the newspaper.

Google’s Emma Stjernlöf told the paper, “It seems like it is purely a technical problem that this building is not in place right now. This means there are no other reasons for this.”

“Our 3D building data is updated regularly and we are striving to make our map service as up-to-date and correct as possible. We are now aware of this technical problem and plan to update as soon as we can.”

Akersgata 42 was still not featured at time of publishing this article.

Science Fiction or Fact: Could a ‘Robopocalypse’ Wipe Out Humans?

LiveScience.com | Feb 24, 2012

By Adam Hadhazy

If a bunch of sci-fi flicks have it right, a war pitting humanity against machines will someday destroy civilization. Two popular movie series based on such a “robopocalypse,” the “Terminator” and “Matrix” franchises, are among those that suggest granting greater autonomy to artificially intelligent machines will end up dooming our species. (Only temporarily, of course, thanks to John Connor and Neo.)

Given the current pace of technological development, does the “robopocalypse” scenario seem more far-fetched or prophetic? The fate of the world could tip in either direction, depending on who you ask.

While researchers in the computer science field disagree on the road ahead for machines, they say our relationship with machines probably will be harmonious, not murderous. Yet there are a number of scenarios that could lead to non-biological beings aiming to exterminate us.

“The technology already exists to build a system that will destroy the whole world, intentionally or unintentionally, if it just detects the right conditions,” said Shlomo Zilberstein, a professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts.

Machines at our command

Let’s first consider the optimistic viewpoint: that machines always will act as our servants, not the other way around.

“One approach is not to develop systems that can be so dangerous if they are out of control,” Zilberstein said.

Something like Skynet – the computerized defense network in “The Terminator” that decides to wipe out humanity – is already possible. So why has such a system not been built? A big reason: Nuclear-armed nations such as the United States would not want to turn over any of the responsibility for launching warheads to a computer. “What if there is a bug in the system? No one is going to take that risk,” said Zilberstein. [What If There Were Another Technologically Advanced Species?]

On a smaller scale, however, a high degree of autonomy has been granted to predator drones flying in the Middle East. “The number of robotic systems that can actually pull the trigger autonomously is already growing,” said Zilberstein.

Still, a human operator monitors a drone and is given the final say whether to proceed with a missile strike. That certainly is not the case with Skynet, which, in the “Terminator” films, is given control of America’s entire nuclear arsenal.

In “The Terminator,” the military creates the program with the objective of reducing human error and slowness of response in case of an attack on the U.S.

When human controllers come around to realizing the danger posed by an all-powerful Skynet, they try to shut it down. Skynet interprets this act as a threat to its existence, and in order to counter its perceived human enemy, Skynet launching America’s nukesat Russia,  provoking a retaliatory strike. Billions die in a nuclear holocaust.Skynet then goes on to build factories that churn out robot armies to eliminate the remainder of humankind.

In a real-life scenario, Zilberstein thinks simple safeguards would prevent an autonomous system from threatening more people than it is designed to, perhaps in guarding country’s borders, for example. Plus, no systems would be programmed with the ability to make broad strategic decisions the way Skynet does.

“All the systems we’re likely to build in the-near future will have specific abilities,” Zilberstein said. “They will be able to monitor a region and maybe shoot, but they will not replace a [human] general.”

Robots exceeding our grasp

Michael Dyer, a computer scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is less optimistic. He thinks “humans will ultimately be replaced by machines” and that the transition might not be peaceful. [Americans Want Robots, and They’re Willing to Pay]

The continued progress in artificial intelligence research will lead to machines as smart as we are in the next couple hundred years, Dyer predicts. “Advanced civilizations reach a point of enough intelligence to understand how their own brain works, and then they build synthetic versions of themselves,” he says.

The desire to do so might come from attempts at establishing our own immortality – and that opportunity might be too much for humanity to resist. (Whowouldn’t want to spend their ever-after with their consciousness walking around in a robot shell?)

Maybe that sort of changeover from biology to technology goes relatively smoothly. Other rise-of-the-machines scenarios are less smooth.

Dyer suggests a new arms race of robotic system could result in one side running rampant. “In the case of warfare, by definition, the enemy side has no control of the robots that are trying to kill them,” Dyer said. Like Skynet, the manufactured might turn against the manufacturers.

Or an innocuous situation of overdependency on robots spirals out of control. Suppose a factory that makes robots is not following human commands, so an order is issued to shut off power to the factory. “But unfortunately, robots happen to manage the power station and so they refuse. So a command is issued by humans to stop the trucks from delivering necessary materials to the factory, but the drivers are robots, so they also refuse,” Dyer says.

Perhaps using the Internet, robotic intelligences wrest control of a society that depends too much on its automata. (“The Animatrix,” a 2003 collection of short cartoons, including some back stories for “The Matrix” movies, describes such a situation.)

Overall, a bit of wisdom would prevent humankind from falling into the traps dreamed up by Hollywood screenwriters. But the profit motive at companies has certainly engendered more automation, and the Cold War’s predication on the threat of mutually assured destruction points out that rationality does not always win.

“Doomsday scenarios are pretty easy to create, and I wouldn’t rule out that kind of possibility,” said Zilberstein. “But I’m personally not that worried.”

Plausibility rating: Military leaders and corporations probably will not be so stupid as to add high levels of programmed autonomy to catastrophically strong weapon systems and critical industrial sectors. We give the “robopocalypse” two out of four Rocketboys.

Pressure builds for civilian drone flights at home

This Sept. 2011 photo provided by Vanguard Defense Industries, shows a ShadowHawk drone with Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members. Civilian cousins of the unmanned military aircraft that have been tracking and killing terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are being sought by police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organizations and others who want a bird’s-eye view. (AP Photo/Lance Bertolino, Vanguard Defense Industries)

Associated Press | Feb 26, 2012


WASHINGTON (AP) — Heads up: Drones are going mainstream. Civilian cousins of the unmanned military aircraft that have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand by police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organizations and others wanting a bird’s-eye view that’s too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to get.

Along with the enthusiasm, there are qualms.

Drones overhead could invade people’s privacy. The government worries they could collide with passenger planes or come crashing down to the ground, concerns that have slowed more widespread adoption of the technology.

Despite that, pressure is building to give drones the same access as manned aircraft to the sky at home.

“It’s going to be the next big revolution in aviation. It’s coming,” says Dan Elwell, the Aerospace Industries Association’s vice president for civil aviation.

Some impetus comes from the military, which will bring home drones from Afghanistan and wants room to test and use them. In December, Congress gave the Federal Aviation Administration six months to pick half a dozen sites around the country where the military and others can fly unmanned aircraft in the vicinity of regular air traffic, with the aim of demonstrating they’re safe.

The Defense Department says the demand for drones and their expanding missions requires routine and unfettered access to domestic airspace, including around airports and cities. In a report last October, the Pentagon called for flights first by small drones both solo and in groups, day and night, expanding over several years. Flights by large and medium-sized drones would follow in the latter half of this decade.

Other government agencies want to fly drones, too, but they’ve been hobbled by an FAA ban unless they first receive case-by-case permission. Fewer than 300 waivers were in use at the end of 2011, and they often include restrictions that severely limit the usefulness of the flights. Businesses that want to put drones to work are out of luck; waivers are only for government agencies.

But that’s changing.

In this Jan. 8, 2009, photo provided by the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Department, a small Draganflyer X6 drone is photographed during a test flight in Mesa County, Colo., with a Forward Looking Infer Red payload. The drone, which was on loan to the sheriff’s department from the manufacturer, measures about 36 inches from rotor tip to rotor tip, weights just over two pounds, and has been used for search and rescue mission, to help find suspects, and to identify hot spots after a major fire. (AP Photo/Mesa County Sheriff’s Unmanned Operations Team)

Congress has told the FAA that the agency must allow civilian and military drones to fly in civilian airspace by September 2015. This spring, the FAA is set to take a first step by proposing rules that would allow limited commercial use of small drones for the first time.

Until recently, agency officials were saying there were too many unresolved safety issues to give drones greater access. Even now FAA officials are cautious about describing their plans and they avoid discussion of deadlines.

“The thing we care about is doing that in an orderly and safe way and finding the appropriate … balance of all the users in the system,” Michael Huerta, FAA’s acting administrator, told a recent industry luncheon in Washington. “Let’s develop these six sites — and we will be doing that — where we can develop further data, further testing and more history on how these things actually operate.”

Drones come in all sizes, from the high-flying Global Hawk with its 116-foot wingspan to a hummingbird-like drone that weighs less than an AA battery and can perch on a window ledge to record sound and video. Lockheed Martin has developed a fake maple leaf seed, or “whirly bird,” equipped with imaging sensors, that weighs less than an ounce.

Potential civilian users are as varied as the drones themselves.

Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows.

Journalists are exploring drones’ newsgathering potential. The FAA is investigating whether The Daily, a digital publication of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., used drones without permission to capture aerial footage of floodwaters in North Dakota and Mississippi last year. At the University of Nebraska, journalism professor Matt Waite has started a lab for students to experiment with using a small, remote-controlled helicopter.

“Can you cover news with a drone? I think the answer is yes,” Waite said.

The aerospace industry forecasts a worldwide deployment of almost 30,000 drones by 2018, with the United States accounting for half of them.

“The potential … civil market for these systems could dwarf the military market in the coming years if we can get access to the airspace,” said Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group.

The hungriest market is the nation’s 19,000 law enforcement agencies.

Customs and Border Patrol has nine Predator drones mostly in use on the U.S.-Mexico border, and plans to expand to 24 by 2016. Officials say the unmanned aircraft have helped in the seizure of more than 20 tons of illegal drugs and the arrest of 7,500 people since border patrols began six years ago.

Several police departments are experimenting with smaller drones to photograph crime scenes, aid searches and scan the ground ahead of SWAT teams. The Justice Department has four drones it loans to police agencies.

“We look at this as a low-cost alternative to buying a helicopter or fixed-wing plane,” said Michael O’Shea, the department’s aviation technology program manager. A small drone can cost less than $50,000, about the price of a patrol car with standard police gear.

Like other agencies, police departments must get FAA waivers and follow much the same rules as model airplane hobbyists: Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, stay below an altitude of 400 feet, keep away from airports and always stay within sight of the operator. The restrictions are meant to prevent collisions with manned aircraft.

Even a small drone can be “a huge threat” to a larger plane, said Dale Wright, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s safety and technology department. “If an airliner sucks it up in an engine, it’s probably going to take the engine out,” he said. “If it hits a small plane, it could bring it down.”

Controllers want drone operators to be required to have instrument-rated pilot licenses — a step above a basic private pilot license. “We don’t want the Microsoft pilot who has never really flown an airplane and doesn’t know the rules of how to fly,” Wright said.

Military drones designed for battlefields haven’t had to meet the kind of rigorous safety standards required of commercial aircraft.

“If you are going to design these things to operate in the (civilian) airspace you need to start upping the ante,” said Tom Haueter, director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s aviation safety office. “It’s one thing to operate down low. It’s another thing to operate where other airplanes are, especially over populated areas.”

Even with FAA restrictions, drones are proving useful in the field.

Deputies with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado can launch a 2-pound Draganflyer X6 helicopter from the back of a patrol car. The drone’s bird’s-eye view cut the manpower needed for a search of a creek bed for a missing person from 10 people to two, said Ben Miller, who runs the drone program. The craft also enabled deputies to alert fire officials to a potential roof collapse in time for the evacuation of firefighters from the building, he said.

The drone could do more if it were not for the FAA’s line-of-sight restriction, Miller said. “I don’t think (the restriction) provides any extra safety,” he said.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, north of Houston, used a Department of Homeland Security grant to buy a $300,000, 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone for its SWAT team. The drone has a high-powered video camera and an infrared camera that can spot a person’s thermal image in the dark.

“Public-safety agencies are beginning to see this as an invaluable tool for them, just as the car was an improvement over the horse and the single-shot pistol was improved upon by the six-shooter,” said Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel, who runs the Montgomery drone program.

The ShadowHawk can be equipped with a 40 mm grenade launcher and a 12-guage shotgun, according to its maker, Vanguard Defense Industries of Conroe, Texas. The company doesn’t sell the armed version in the United States, although “we have had interest from law-enforcement entities for deployment of nonlethal munitions from the aircraft,” Vanguard CEO Michael Buscher said.

The possibility of armed police drones someday patrolling the sky disturbs Terri Burke, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The Constitution is taking a back seat so that boys can play with their toys,” Burke said. “It’s kind of scary that they can use a laptop computer to zap people from the air.”

A recent ACLU report said allowing drones greater access takes the country “a large step closer to a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on civil liberties threats involving new technologies, sued the FAA recently, seeking disclosure of which agencies have been given permission to use drones. FAA officials declined to answer questions from The Associated Press about the lawsuit.

Industry officials said privacy concerns are overblown.

“Today anybody— the paparazzi, anybody — can hire a helicopter or a (small plane) to circle around something that they’re interested in and shoot away with high-powered cameras all they want,” said Elwell, the aerospace industry spokesman. “I don’t understand all the comments about the Big Brother thing.”

Mysterious orbs confound NC county for decades

In this Feb. 25, 2012, photo, astronomy professor Daniel Caton poses for a photo with a low-light video camera at the campus observatory at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. Caton is hoping to use the cameras to capture a phenomenon known as the Brown Mountain lights. (AP Photo/Allen Breed)

Associated Press | Feb 26, 2012


RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Two orange orbs, just about 10 feet off the ground, floated past Steve Woody and his father as they hunted deer more than 50 years ago. The mysterious lights passed them, then dropped down the side of a gorge in the Blue Ridge foothills.

For at least a century, the Brown Mountain Lights have confounded residents and tourists in a rugged patch of Burke County, bobbing and weaving near a modest peak. Are they reflections from automobile headlights? Brush fires? A paranormal phenomenon, or something natural not yet explained by science?

“I didn’t feel anything spooky or look around for Martians or anything like that,” Woody said. “It was just a unique situation. It’s just as vivid now as when I was 12 years old.”

Whatever the explanation, tourism officials are hoping all those decades of unanswered questions add up to a boost in visitors making their way to scenic outlooks around Linville Gorge with the goal of spotting something mysterious.

Unexplained mysteries like the Brown Mountain Lights have been the subject of cable TV documentaries and have fueled vast online communities of amateur investigators. Ed Phillips, Burke County’s tourism director, is hoping to capitalize on that.

Earlier this month, a sellout crowd of 120 paid $20 a head to attend a symposium on the lights at Morganton City Hall, and there was a crowd outside the door hoping to get in at the last minute.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Phillips said. “I could have sold 500 tickets.”

Interest in the lights has waxed and waned since the first known printed reference to the phenomenon appeared in The Charlotte Observer in 1913. John Harden, a Raleigh-based radio personality, devoted an episode of his 1940s series “Tales of Tar Heelia” to the lights, saying they “not only have attracted the attention of the people of this state, but have aroused the curiosity of a nation as well.” There was also a folk song, recorded by The Kingston Trio and others, that posited the lights came from a slave wandering the hills with a lantern in search of his master.

The profile of the lights has dimmed in recent years, although the number of reports doesn’t appear to be falling off. Making the area a destination for fans of the unexplained and anomalous helps give Burke County an edge, Phillips said.

“When you look at everything, you look at what people are really interested in, and the Brown Mountain Lights was something I really wanted to bring back to people’s attention,” he said.

Joshua P. Warren & Team Samples from Recent TV

There are plans for another symposium and a contest with a cash prize for the best photo or video of the lights. There are even T-shirts and refrigerator magnets for sale in the area now.

Also in the works is a regular event tentatively called the Brown Mountain Paranormal Expedition, where people will pay to hear a presentation on the lights at a dinner, then travel by bus to overlook sites where the lights have been reported. The events will be guided by Joshua P. Warren, an Asheville native and paranormal investigator who plans to allow attendees to use equipment like night vision goggles in hopes of spotting the lights.

“The folks who attend will have a true firsthand experience of what it’s like to be out there trying to judge what’s happening with this mountain,” Brown said.

The Brown Mountain Lights have drawn serious scientific interest since the 1920s, when the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report concluding the lights were reflections from automobiles, trains and brush fires.

Daniel Caton, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at Appalachian State University, thinks that’s part of the explanation for what people have reported seeing over the years. But Caton thinks there’s more to the lights, at least in some cases.

Caton said that about seven years ago, he was ready to give up studying the lights when he began hearing from people who said they saw them from mere feet away, not miles across the Linville Gorge. Those accounts sounded to Caton a lot like firsthand reports of ball lightning, a little-understood but naturally occurring phenomenon involving luminous spheres often said to move or bounce about in the air.

Caton hopes to eventually set up cameras at viewing sites that will feed to his website, allowing anyone to watch for the lights at any time. While he’s skeptical, guessing that 95 percent of reports of the lights are something like airplane lights, Caton still thinks there are eyewitness reports worth checking.

“The cool thing is, if ball lightning is preferentially made by nature in the Linville Gorge, at least we have a place to look for the conditions that might create it,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s hopeless to try and study ball lightning because it’s just randomly made and you don’t know where to look for it.”