Spencer Ackerman / DangerRoom, Wired Magazine – 2012-09-15 01:00:29
(August 23, 2011) — The Libyan revolutionaries are more of a band of enthusiastic amateurs than experienced soldiers. But it turns out the rebels have the kind of weaponry usually possessed by advanced militaries: their very own drone.
Aeryon Labs, a Canadian defense firm, revealed on Tuesday that it had quietly provided the rebel forces with a teeny, tiny surveillance drone, called the Aeryon Scout. Small enough to fit into a backpack, the 3-pound, four-rotor robot gave Libyan forces eyes in the sky independent of the Predators, Fire Scout surveillance copters and manned spy planes that NATO flew overhead. Don’t worry, it’s not armed.
So far, the rebels have just one Scout among them, according to Marni McVicar, Aeryon’s vice president for business development. Working with a Canadian private security company called Zariba, Aeryon delivered the Scout “several weeks” ago to rebels in the Western port city of Misurata who used it, according to McVicar, to hasten their surprisingly rapid march to Tripoli.
The rebels needed barely a day of training to use a technology that many national armies would love to acquire. “We like to joke that it’s designed for people who are not that bright, have fat fingers and break things,” McVicar told Danger Room in a phone interview.
Listening to McVicar’s description, the Aeryon Scout sounds user-friendly enough to be operated by the car dealers, medical students and teachers who formed the impromptu Libyan rebel army in the west. Unlike many minidrones, the Scout isn’t controlled by a joystick.
It’s run by a touchscreen tablet powered by Windows XP. The interface divides the screen among imagery (still or video) that the drone collects and displays in real time, a control dashboard and a programmable map of the area to fly over.
“You simply press on the screen and that’s where the vehicle goes,” McVicar said. “Press where you want the camera to focus on, and you’re done.”
It also gives the rebels another advantage that lots of armies desire: night vision. A thermal-imagery camera aboard the Scout provides an alternative to night-vision goggles, and from arguably a better vantage point. In the video above, released by Aeryon on Tuesday, nighttime images of Libyan artillery positions come into view from the Scout.
McVicar wouldn’t say how much the Libyan rebels paid for the drone. But she noted when asked that the drone retails for $100,000.
How the rebels even got the drone is fascinating as well. Representatives of Libya’s rebel government checked out demos of the Scout in Ottawa, Ontario, a few months ago. They were frustrated with not being able to see the aerial imagery NATO collected from its satellites, spy planes and drones, and wanted their own flying robots — although it’s been reported that NATO has coordinated surveillance with the rebels ahead of the Tripoli offensive.
Some rebels had even taken to strapping cameras onto model airplanes. After being impressed with the Scout, the Transitional National Council decided it wanted something a bit more professional.
So a Canadian military vet, Charles Barlow, brought it personally into Misurata. Armed with a Canadian export license and the backpack-sized Scout, Barlow boarded a retrofitted tuna boat at Malta that was used to send humanitarian aid to Misurata despite NATO’s maritime blockade in late July. As far as Barlow is aware, Canada licensed the drone for sale to the Libyan rebels, but NATO didn’t know that the boat carried it into port, even after multiple hailings by NATO vessels.
Barlow, who runs a Canadian private-security firm called the Zariba Security Corporation, told Danger Room that he spent only about 24 hours teaching Misurata’s rebels how to use the Scout. On the bombed-out airfield near the port, Barlow launched about 10 test flights while Gadhafi’s artillery crashed down only a few miles away.
There was also little doubt about where the Libyan rebels wanted to use it. “The only imagery they wanted loaded on was Misurata to Tripoli, on that coastal road,” Barlow said. “I can’t hand-on-heart tell you it’s in Tripoli, but this was the main front out of Misurata.”
As Paul McLeary at Ares notes, the arrival of drone technology — even in micromachine form — to a band of rebels is yet another example of the rapid proliferation of unmanned vehicles away from the control of powerful state militaries. It was a big deal in 2005 when Hezbollah flew Iranian surveillance drones into Israel. “It’s certainly not the last time a nonstate actor gets its hands on this kind of technology,” McLeary writes.
So did its role in drone proliferation trouble Aeryon? “That was an issue,” McVicar conceded. “The company we work with, Zariba, had vetted this through our [Canadian] government. They got the OK to go ahead.”
Barlow hopes that the men to whom he sold the drone end up in charge in Libya. “I’ve been to warzones, I’m ex-military, I’ve been Afghanistan, Bosnia, Lebanon — but I’ve never seen people who had to fight or else. These guys fighting were not soldiers,” Barlow said, impressed. “I can hope the people who did the fighting are the people who take over. They’re wonderful guys.”
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