Blog Archives

Science Fiction Problems: Drone Ideas

Hello everyone! Last week I talked about thinks you need to consider when adding significant drone warfare to your science fiction story, and this week I’ve got a bunch of different articles and videos that can give you some ideas for different kinds of drones you might want to use. These fall roughly into three categories (Air, Land, and Sea) and represent both combat drones and drones that could be used in war situations.

Air (Not Just Unmanned Planes)

This is a form factor we’re all familiar because it’s the one currently being put to effective use. The other form factors are struggling to find a place in modern warfare, but unmanned air vehicles have already proven useful in a support role to existing human forces. First, let’s cover the basics.

US military drone types CBO Publication 4083

These are the basic types of US military drones, drawn to scale, courtesy of the Congressional Budget Office. Not shown is the Navy’s new stealth fighter drone, the X-47B, which is still in testing. This diagram gives you a sense of scale, where the biggest drones are almost as big as their manned counterparts, and the smallest are man-launched hobby-plane sized.

Here are some non-traditional form factors for your consideration:


I cannot imagine a more terrifying sound for a drone, can you? I think this is an incredibly creative design taking an obvious hint from nature. The “boomarang launch” shown in the video makes me think this could be a really easily man-launched vehicle, and if someone decided to take the project’s acronym literally (ignoring the Geneva Convention), you could have a particularly deadly anti-personnel weapon on your hands.

I know I’m putting a lot of videos in this post, but with some of these, you really have to see it to be able to understand what makes these drones unique. In this case, the concept is rather simple: it’s basically a prop plane that flies propeller-side up. But look at the way it moves! It can drift and loft like a helicopter and then tip and zip away, using its fins as wings to generate lift. As a scout drone, this is an ingenious design for urban settings.

Land (Over Hill, Over Dell, Etc.)

Land-based drones have not been typical in modern drone warfare simply because it’s hard to come up with something better than foot soldiers and normal ground vehicles. Instead, the US military has relied on aerial drones in a support role to ground forces, coordinating airstrikes, gaining perspective on the battlefield, and generally making soldier’s jobs easier and less dangerous. There are, however, several ground-based drones in the works (and in some cases already on the field) that are intended to operate in combat situations. Here are some examples to get your creative juices flowing.

This is the APD (Autonomous Platform Demostrator), a remote weapons platform being developed by TARDEC, a firm of the US Army (similar to DARPA). As you can see from the video, it’s pretty quick could act in many support roles on the battlefield (just stick a gun on it first). Vehicles like these are fairly basic ideas (it’s pretty much just a giant remote-controlled tank), but remember that with these, you don’t have to make room for passengers and pilots, and you can drive it into battle without the risk of human lives.

Here are some other less typical form factors:


I’ve featured BIGDOG in other posts and should point out that it is technically a robot, however, I think it’s a perfect example of muli-legged drone from factors. The extra legs give it added stability and carrying capacity, as the purpose of the ‘bot is basically just to haul 400 pounds of baggage across rough terrain. Legs, as opposed to tracks or wheels, can handle terrain types that would otherwise be unmanageable, and can self-right and self-balance if they fall. Before adding legged drones to your story, however, think hard about whether or not wheeled or tracked drones wouldn’t be more practical. Star Wars-esque walkers just for the sake of having walkers is pretty cliche.

DARPA Petman posing

The non-skull-crushing version of the pose pic, obviously photoshopped to make us squishy humans more comfortable.

I couldn’t talk about land-based drones without talking about DARPA’s latest Terminator-prototype! Again, I’ve featured PETMAN before, but this is the best example of intentionally combat-oriented bipedal ‘bot I could find as an example. Granted DARPA claims it’s just supposed to used for testing chemical suits (a claim somewhat undermined by the announcement of their new bipedal robot competition), but there’s no doubt that having something like PETMAN to breach the door of a terrorist den or pop its non-brain-filled camera head up to check for snipers would be a great boon for any soldier.

Sea (Because Sailors Need Robots Too)

To cover my bases, I went and looked up as much as I could on water-based drones used for combat, and while I turned up loads of evidence that they are even now being widely used, there don’t seem to be that many articles detailing them. However, I did manage to find this pretty goofy (but apparently real) promotional video for RAFAEL’s Protector USV (Unmanned Surface Vehicle).

So basically, a remote-controlled boat with a gun on it. Eh, works for me. They’re actually very tactically useful (especially against an invading squadron of bull sharks, apparently). When the coast guard confronts pirates and smugglers, sending USV’s like this in first shows that they mean business. The intimidation factor of not actually having soft targets to fire guns at makes it hard for any criminal to hold out for long.

However, there are several other non-standard form factors to think about:

Ok, they don’t blow up or anything, but they look pretty much exactly like torpedoes. The Seaglider, designed by iRobot (the same makers of Roomba and several safety/disposal drones), is capable of 10 month long data-gathering missions up to a 3300 foot depth, tracking temperature, chemical traces, and other information. They’re currently being used to monitor the Gulf of Mexico after the Horizon oil spill a while back. As far as combat usefulness, having a bunch of these swimming around patrolling the ocean would make it almost impossible to sneak into a country’s borders unnoticed, and hey, you could make them blow up like real torpedoes too, if you want (why wouldn’t you?).

Looking more like an invasion of tiny alien death pods, these little sensor drones were invented by Jules Jaffe at the Scripps Institute to be scattered over areas of interest in order to track anything from aquatic life to  chemical pollution. They are designed to work in vast networks with larger, soccer ball-sized units out in the open sea. They might look like bouys, but they have a special balast system that lets them rise and sink as needed. An alternative to the moving torpedo-type drone, smaller, networked drones have the benefit that if one of the smaller parts is damaged or destroyed, the overall effectiveness does not suffer, as the network rebuilds itself dynamically.

Well that was a lot of information! I hope you will find this useful  as a reference (or at least an interesting distraction). There’s a lot I didn’t cover, but I think this is a good mix of standard and unusual  types of drones to get your ideas flowing. I’m not on the roster for next month, but I’ll pop in every now and then for updates!

Until then, what do you all think? What are your favorites, or which ones do you think are the most practical? Do you think that legged drones will ever come into widespread use? Let me know in the comments below!

Science Fiction Problems: The Pros and Cons of Drone Warfare

Hello everyone! I’m finally back with another Science Fiction Problems, where I take an issue that writers of sci-fi tend to struggle with (or with which I myself struggle) and offer handy advice for tackling the issue. This often comes in the form of debunking myths (like “space is cold!”) and attacking cliches that appear in books, movies, and video games that many writers take for granted.

gray eagle drone air force unmanned plane

I've actually always thought these looked kind of creepy

This time around, I’ll be addressing an issue that I haven’t actually read or seen much of in sci-fi recently: drone and robotic warfare. Even if you’re not from the States, I’m sure you are well aware that the American military makes very effective use of remote-operated bombers in the middle east. This is the most well-known form of drone warfare, and has been the center of a lot of contraversy as people consider whether or not such a method is ethical.

Specifically, I Don’t Mean The Terminator


I find this as ironic as I find it disturbing

Now, there have been movies and books about robot soldiers and planes (like that horrible Stealth movie), but there’s an important difference there: drone warfare specifically involves a human controller, not artificial intelligence (that almost always becomes self-aware and goes on rampage). This creates a real ethical problem, because the cold calculation of war is not left up to a computer, but still very much in humanity’s hands. Does this dehumanize the controller? Does it create an ilusion of separation between the decision and the operator that makes it more like a video game than real war? These are some of the many questions that are asked about real life drones.

If you plan on using drones in your sci-fi, even in a limited sense, there are many points to consider. While I’m labeling them Pros and Cons, this more reflects the real-world perspective. Any one of these points could be a “good” point to leverage in an interesting way in your story.


  • Reduced Casualties: proponents of drone warfare be quick to point out an obvious benefit, which is that many (friendly) lives are saved. This is a boon no matter who is using them, whether the military using them cares more about public relations image or the lives of the soldiers themselves.
  • Tactical Superiority: American bomber drones are so effective because they can pop in and out of warzones, do some quick reconnaisance, and perform precision sneak attacks. And that’s just the bomber drones! In Sci-fi, we can have anything from tank drones to submarine drones, and any size or shape that is needed for a job.
  • Retaining Skilled Pilots: in times of war, highly trained personnell are essential. Often, skileld pilots in the field will be killed or captured if their vehicle is destroyed. Not so with drones! If a drone is destroyed, the pilot is fine, and could be piloting another one immediately.


  • Potential Costs: War is always expensive, but the more sophisticate your approach, the more costly is can be. Often, there is a tradeoff between casualties and investment per soldier, but in this case, assuming a large proportion of your fighting force is robotic, then the cost per “soldier” shoots through the roof. If a nation is fielding mostly drone forces, if they start doing badly, the sheer financial burden could accelerate easily out of control (which could turn into a Cold War style ending for a country, if that’s what you’re going for).
  • Dehumanizing Factor: This may or may not be true of real-world drone warfare, but in the case of science fiction, there is a real potential for abuse. In a culture already inundate with violent video games and media, it would be easy for a less-than-ethical government to turn particularly good gamers into ruthless drone pilots, making it more about their score than fighting for your country. Orson Scott Card did this in Ender’s Game (I won’t spoil it for you, though! Go find out how!), and offers an example where the players didn’t even know what they were doing was real. This is the extreme logical end of the ethical problem, and could be a great plot point.
  • Diminishing of the Reality of War: It is already difficult today to feel that war is real, but think how hard it would be if no one in your country even really went to war. Especially if the government of a nation was actively concealing the reality of the war from its people, any sense of preparedness and attitude of prudence would be extremely difficult to maintain. Greece-style riots would likely break out at the first pressure of rationing or rising costs, because the populace would have no connection to the hardship’s necessity. This would be a logical consequence of how the nation handles its war, whether it decieves its people or not.

Well there you have it! That’s quite a lot to think about, and next week I’ll get into some ideas for different kinds of drones you might use! Until then, what are some other pros and cons for drone warfare? Is there anything that I overlooked? Has anyone seen any good books or movies that handles this well? Let me know in the comments below!

Science Fiction Roundup: Hunger Games for Robots, Cloning Mammoths, AR Glasses, and a Parrot

Hello everyone! I know last week I promised an analysis of the writing mistakes in the ending of Mass Effect 3, but seeing as I haven’t quite finished it yet (Spring Break wasn’t quite long enough), I thought I should probably save that for next week. So, instead, here’s a roundup of a bunch of sci-fi-related articles that are both great story material, and stuff I thought was pretty cool.

The Hunger Games Arena, Now With Robots

With the new Hunger Games movie coming out this Friday, it’s not surprising that this article coming from LiveScience made the comparison of the US Navy’s recently opened Laboratory of Autonomous Research and the sadistic death arena of Suzanne Collins’ bestseller. The facility, a multi-environment testing center complete with wave beach, forty-one foot deep ‘ocean’ tank, jungle, and desert areas, is designed as a testing center for robots and soldiers alike (although the story claims these are strictly not pitted against each other in a battle to the death). Check out the link for more details, and some less-than-thrilling pictures. Honestly, couldn’t they have at least painted the walls or something?

Navy Opens ‘Hunger Games’ Arena for Military Robots (LiveScience)

Cloning Baby Mammoths ‘Jurrassic Park’ Style

mummified baby mammoth

Picture courtesy of Singularity Hub

Ok, so the mammoth-mummy is kind of creepy, but cloning an ancient breed of enormous prehistoric elephants couldn’t possibly be a bad idea, now could it? Some Korean scientists don’t think so! It’s actually a joint venture with a bunch of different groups, all attempting to figure out a way to fertilize the egg of a modern-day elephant with the DNA of the extinct variety (to what purpose I have no idea, except SCIENCE!). Check out the link below for more details!

Korean and Russian Scientists Trying to Resurrect Mammoths (Singularity Hub)

Augmented Reality Glasses Are A Thing Now

Augmented reality, the superimposing of computer-generated images and information on the environment, is one of my favorite technologies, much more so since Google’s recent project came to light. Well, it seems a few other companies aren’t willing to let Google take the consumer AR market for themselves, as Microsoft has recently filed a patent for their own prototype, a device that actually fires low-powered visible lasers into the retina of each eye to form the images. It might sound scary and dangerous, but it’s actually a very clever way of getting around the focusing issue of having a screen so close to the eye, since the image will now be in the eye. Also, it seems a year ago Sony had a prototype 3D tv headset at the CES, which they are developing for movie and videogame entertainment. Not actually AR, but I just know someone’s going to stick a Kinect on that thing and turn it into a proper setup. Check out the links below!

Google’s AR Glasses Expected by Year’s End (PC World)

Microsoft Patents Laser-Based Display Technology (Ars Technica)

Sony’s Head-Mounted 3D Display (from last year, Ars Technica)

The Parrot AR Drone 2: Twice the Fun and None of the Molting

I’ve talked about how drones are likely to become very common in both military and civilian life, but before now there haven’t been any practical and affordable civilian drones available. The original Parrot drone, in fact, was too expensive and far too fragile to be reasonable, but since the quadricopter’s recent reboot, I’m betting there will be a new market surge of competition. The Parrot AR Drone 2 uses four propellers and a specialized balancing setup for stability, making it easy for even novice pilots to control with their iPhone or iPad (sadly, no Android devices), and a built-in camera that sends a live feed through a 3G internet connection to the controlling device. Check out the link below for more information!

The Parrot AR Drone 2 in Action (Singularity Hub)

That’s all for now! Next week I’ll have my analysis of Mass Effect 3′s writing issues. Until then, how well do you think the AR glasses popping up will actually do once they’re on the market? Are we looking at another 3D tv non-craze in the making? Let me know in the comments below!

The Robots Cometh: Cool Robots for your Science Fiction

This week, I decided I wasn’t going to start into another series (although I always think that), and would simply offer up some neat examples of our future robot overlords for your admiration. These are real robots either currently in use or under development, and what I think are unique examples of science fiction meeting reality. So, without further ado, here’s my pick for this week.

The Quadrotor: 4 Times the Rotor, 4 Times the Nightmares

I’ve seen something like this example in a lot of science fiction movies and games (Manhacks, anyone?), and they have to be some of the scariest ideas for killer robots I’ve ever seen. Imagine it: You’re on the run. The enemy is everywhere, but you think you’re safe in your hiding place in the warehouse, when suddenly you hear it- that humming noise- like a cloud of enormous bees. You stare in horror as the buzzing drones zip in through the broken window and train their little camera right on you. *shiver* If the world ever does end with the robots in charge, these ‘Quadrotors’ are going to make The Resistance’s job a heck of a lot harder. Check out more creepy videos for these 4-prop’ed harbingers of death here.

South Korea’s Happy Killer Robot Turret

The idea of automated machine gun turrets for point-defense of evil lairs and top-secret government facilities has been around for a long time now, but THIS thing has them all beat. Built for defense on the demilitarized border zone between South Korea and their not-so-happy neighbor North Korea, this automated machine gun can pick out a human from 500 meters (that’s 1640 feet for you Americans), day and night. This demonstration video would be intimidating if it weren’t for the up-beat music playing in the background.

Death on Tracks: The TALON Armed Assault Robot

You’ve probably seen those bomb-defusing robots before, and you might have thought, as I know I have, “Hey why don’t they put guns on that?” Well, apparently some guys at the Army R&D devision had the same idea. Enter the TALON, a tracked, remote-control land-based drone coming soon to a battlefield near you. It’s payload is pretty much anything you want to put on it, from the SAW automatic support weapon seen in the video, to anti-tank rockets. They even have an attachable gripper assembly to handle bombs and wounded soldiers, but that seems pretty dull in comparison, and not anything we haven’t seen before.

Giant Deer-shaped BIG DOG Mule

Ok, that was a bit much, I admit- but if you read the articles about this Army-designed all-terrain cargo carrier, they throw arround all kinds of animal metaphors. The neat thing about this robot is the way it compensates for landscape, weak footing, and losing its balance in such an organic way. The applications of this kind of mechanical finesse  is far-reaching, and could lead (I hope) to the kind of walking tanks many science fiction nuts have been dreaming about since Star Wars first came out. Also, it’s pretty cool that pretty soon our soldiers won’t have to carry nearly as much of the weight they currently have to.

Well, that’s it for now- see you next week!

Until then, what are some of your favorite robots in science fiction? Let me know in the comments below!