Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Eye in the Sky

I watched "Eye in the Sky" last weekend -- a "free" movie addition to my Amazon Prime streaming video account.

The film is very good, and stars Helen Mirren, who is trying to coordinate an anti-terrorist drone strike in Africa.

The problem is that she is a British colonel in one location, the big Predator and Reaper drones are being controlled out of Las Vegas and are owned by the USA, the facial recognition and targeting team is in Hawaii, and the political authorization for the strike is scattered across three governments and five levels of bureaucracy in locations ranging from London and Washington D.C., to Beijing, Jakarta, and Nairobi.

Along with the big drones
that most of us are familiar with were featured small bird-like and insect-like drones that may or may not actually exist in the real world.

All of this got me thinking about the use of trained birds to place listening devices.

From Smithsonian magazine comes the tale, which features Bob Bailey's team doing some of the animal training some 45 years ago:

There would be a rustle of oily black feathers as a raven settled on the window ledge of a once-grand apartment building in some Eastern European capital. The bird would pace across the ledge a few times but quickly depart. In an apartment on the other side of the window, no one would shift his attention from the briefing papers or the chilled vodka set out on a table. Nor would anything seem amiss in the jagged piece of gray slate resting on the ledge, seemingly jetsam from the roof of an old and unloved building. Those in the apartment might be dismayed to learn, however, that the slate had come not from the roof but from a technical laboratory at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In a small cavity at the slate’s center was an electronic transmitter powerful enough to pick up their conversation. The raven that transported it to the ledge was no random city bird, but a U.S.-trained intelligence asset.

... During the 1960s and 1970s, as dancing chickens entertained crowds at the I.Q. Zoo, Bailey and a handful of his colleagues were undertaking intelligence scenarios nearby. “We had a 270-acre farm,” he says. “We built towns. Like a movie set, there’d be only fronts.” Without disclosing who they were working for, Bailey had his team rearranged the town according to photographs they were given.

There were also field demonstrations—including one at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. “‘This is the room we want to get to,’” Bailey says he was told. “ ‘Can you get your raven up there to deposit a device, and can we listen?’ Yes, we can.” The bird would be conditioned, via a laser spotter, to pick out the room.

At Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Bailey created a so-called “squab squad,” pigeons that would fly ahead of a column and signal the presence of enemy soldiers by landing. In tests, the pigeons, says Bailey, thwarted more than 45 attempts by Special Forces troops to ambush a convoy. But, as was so often the case, field operations revealed a problem: There was no way to retrieve the pigeons if they saw no enemy troops....

...Bailey notes that animal intelligence work of the sort he did has been rendered largely superfluous by technology. “Today, all you have to do is illuminate someone with an infrared laser and pick up the scatter back from that, and you can listen to their conversation without any trouble at all,” he says. “You don’t need a cat.”

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