Monthly Archives: July 2012

For the Fear of Iran: The Nuclear Power in the Gulf

Saudi Arabia is pressing ahead with its ambitious plans to develop nuclear power to meet rising electricity demand and save oil for export.  But the outlook for other Arab states is less promising because of political turmoil and a lack of financial resources.  The Saudis have built a foreign assets cushion of around $500 billion from oil exports. It has used this immense wealth to buy its way out of trouble; for instance, heading off pro-democracy protests with massive social spending in recent years.  But, the Middle East Economic Digest observed, “a more serious set of challenges now faces the kingdom that threaten to be even more destabilizing.  “Inefficient and wasteful energy consumption, coupled with a rising population, is leading the kingdom to burn even more of its natural resources at home rather than selling them abroad and adding to the proceeds of the half-trillion-dollar cash pile.  “Unless action is taken, the kingdom could find it needs the oil price to be $320 a barrel by 2030 just to balance the budget,” the weekly, published in the United Arab Emirates, warned.  Nuclear power is seen as the solution. But, as MEED stressed, “time is of the essence.”

For one thing, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Egypt, have no wish to lag any further behind Iran and Israel in developing nuclear technologies.  In 2010, the King Abdallah Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy, known as KAcare, was established to oversee the gulf state’s nuclear program under its president, Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, who was accorded ministerial powers.  KAcare consultant Ibrahim Babelli said in 2010 it took 3.4 million barrels of oil equivalent a day — known as boe/d — to power electricity generation. This is expected to more than double by 2028 to 8.3 million boe/d.

The aim of the Saudis’ $100 billion nuclear program is to achieve an electricity output of 110 gigawatts by 2032.  The Financial Times reports that in 2009, the latest data available, Saudi electricity capacity was 52GW from 79 power stations.  At least 16 nuclear reactors, each costing around $7 billion, are planned, with the first producing by 2019.  Some estimates state the kingdom, the world’s largest oil exporter, will burn as much as 1.2 million barrels of oil daily on electricity production, almost double the 2010 total, to meet domestic and industrial demand.  This is crucial, as the Saudis are driving to build an industrial infrastructure to sustain the economy when the oil fields run down. Some have already begun to decline.  For total reliance on nuclear power, Babelli says, 40-60 reactors would be needed by 2030. That’s four-six reactors per year from 2020.  “That’s stretching it,” he said. “The answer is an energy mix.”

That means fossil fuels will still be needed, probably as the primary energy source, while wind, solar and nuclear power capabilities are developed. KAcare is developing solar power projects that MEES estimates should produce 41GW within 20 years with geothermal and waste-to-energy systems providing 4GW.  The Emirates, which launched its nuclear energy program in 2009, is the most advanced in the Arab world, with Saudi Arab running second.  The United Arab Emirates’ $30 billion program — $10 billion more than originally planned — is smaller in scale than that in Saudi Arabia.  Both states benefit from political stability and vast financial reserves. Other regional states are less fortunate.

Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan all have announced plans to invest in nuclear energy to crank up electricity generation but all have lagged behind or scrapped their programs because of lack of funds or foreign investment.  “Kuwait has the cash,” MEED reported, “but it’s been through eight governments in the past six years.”  Sunni-ruled Bahrain, an island state neighboring Saudi Arabia, “continues to face destabilizing protests by its majority Shiite population and its budget is already in deficit.”  Egypt remains convulsed by the political turmoil that ensued following the February 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, its economy sagging dangerously.  In Jordan, heavily reliant on foreign aid, parliament recently scrapped nuclear plans as “hazardous and costly.”  Failure to start boosting electricity generation for burgeoning populations in the coming decades almost certainly will mean more political upheavals.

Saudis, Emirates push nuclear power plans, UPI,July 26, 2012

The Next Pandemic and the US Military

U.S. military forces are the front line of U.S. national security, but as a globally deployed force they are also on the front line of any new pathogen-based health threat that may emerge [including also due to biological warfare]. As overall human activity pushes ever further into previously undeveloped territory, the likelihood of exposure to new pandemic diseases increases.  The 2009 Army Posture Statement, cites a World Health Organization estimate of between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s population being affected if a pandemic were to emerge. WHO forecasts “it may be six to nine months before a vaccine for a pandemic virus strain becomes available.” In a separate report on pandemic influenza, the WHO describes several challenges to producing sufficient volumes of vaccine using current, egg-based protein-production technology, including the likelihood that two doses per person could be required due to the absence of pre-existing immunity.

In short, the potential for a pandemic exists and current technological limitations on defensive measures put the health and readiness of U.S. military forces at risk. A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat.

DARPA’s Blue Angel program seeks to demonstrate a flexible and agile capability for the Department of Defense to rapidly react to and neutralize any natural or intentional pandemic disease. Building on a previous DARPA program, Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, Blue Angel targets new ways of producing large amounts of high-quality, vaccine-grade protein in less than three months in response to emerging and novel biological threats. One of the research avenues explores plant-made proteins for candidate vaccine production.“Vaccinating susceptible populations during the initial stage of a pandemic is critical to containment,” said Dr. Alan Magill, DARPA program manager. “We’re looking at plant-based solutions to vaccine production as a more rapid and efficient alternative to the standard egg-based technologies, and the research is very promising.”

In a recent milestone development under Blue Angel, researchers at Medicago Inc. produced more than 10 million doses (as defined in an animal model) of an H1N1 influenza vaccine candidate based on virus-like particles (VLP) in one month….“The results we’ve achieved here with plant-based production of vaccines represent both significant increase in scale and decrease in time-to-production over previous production capabilities in the same time period. The plant-made community is now better positioned to continue development and target FDA approval of candidate vaccines,” Magill said. “Once the FDA has approved a plant-made vaccine candidate, the shorter production times of plant-made pharmaceuticals should allow DoD to be much better prepared to face whatever pandemic next emerges.”

DARPA Makes 10 Million Strides in the Race to Contain a Hypothetical Pandemic, July 25, 2012

How to Falsify Radiation Levels: Japan

Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is investigating a report that workers at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were told to use lead covers in order to hide unsafe radiation levels, an official said.The alleged incident happened December 1, nine months after a major earthquake and tsunami ravaged northern Japan and damaged the plant.”We’ll firmly deal with the matter once the practice is confirmed to constitute a violation of any law,” said the ministry official, who could not be named in line with policy.  An official with the plant’s operator, TEPCO, said the company received a report of the alleged incident Thursday from subcontractor Tokyo Energy & Systems. The report said a second subcontractor, Build-Up, created the lead covers and ordered workers to use them over their dosimeters, pocket-size devices used to detect high radiation levels.The TEPCO official could also not be named in line with policy.  okyo Energy & Systems said in its report that the workers never used the covers, the TEPCO official said. Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper, however, reported Saturday that while some workers refused the orders to use the lead covers, nine others did use them for several hours.

The newspaper’s report cited plant workers, who described the lead covers as fitting snugly over the dosimeters inside the breast pockets of the workers’ protection suits.

TEPCO told CNN it ordered Tokyo Energy & Systems Inc. to conduct an investigation and is awaiting a reply.

Report: Japan nuclear workers told to hide radiation levels, CNN, July 21, 2012

The Essence of Imperialism: Australia in the Pacific

Nor is it the first time Vanuatu has clashed with the Australian Federal Police (AFP). In 2004 its government closed down the AFP offices in the capital, Port Vila, and expelled officers, after allegations that they were spying and interfering with domestic politics. The AFP’s main concerns in Vanuatu have been over the country marketing itself vigorously as an international tax haven, and over the risk posed by the volatile Vanuatu Mobile Force, the paramilitary wing of the local police force. Protecting Australia’s national interests under the guise of so-called capacity-building can quickly lead to tensions.

The AFP’s activities in Vanuatu have been part of a broader expansion over the past decade of Australian policing across the Pacific. Peacekeeping missions to Timor-Leste since 1999 and to the Solomon Islands, beginning in 2003, boosted police numbers. In the past decade, the AFP has trebled in size and increased its budget fivefold. The AFP commissioner now has an influential role on the Australian cabinet’s national-security committee. In Australia most domestic policing is carried out by state police forces, leaving the federal force largely free, outside aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, to focus on international deployments.

Their efforts have often led to accusations of heavy-handedness. In 2005 a mission to Papua New Guinea was abandoned after that country’s Supreme Court ruled that legal immunities granted to AFP officers were unconstitutional. In 2006 the Solomon Islands’ police chief, Shane Castles, an Australian, was sacked and declared an “undesirable immigrant” after a raid by his police officers on the office of the prime minister. That raid was connected with the AFP’s long-standing pursuit of the Solomon Islands’ then attorney-general, Julian Moti, on charges of sex with an underage girl. Mr Moti was deported to Australia in 2007, arrested and brought before the courts. In December 2011 the High Court threw the case out, finding that Australian officials had colluded in Mr Moti’s illegal deportation.

The Australian Federal Police in the Pacific: Booting out big brother, Economist, May 19, 2012, at 49

Resuscitating Collapsed Fisheries: catch shares

For American fish, this is a good time to be alive. On May 14th, 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that a record six federal fisheries returned to health last year. After a decade of similar progress, 86% of America’s roughly 250 federally monitored commercial fish stocks were not subject to overfishing; 79% were considered healthy…

In the late 1980s cod fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank collapsed. This led to efforts to improve the fishery act, in 1996 and 2006, which forced the eight regional bodies that manage federal fisheries to introduce science-based quotas and ten-year recovery programmes for depleted fisheries. The recent recovery of species, including New England scallops, mid-Atlantic bluefish and summer flounder and Pacific lingcod, is the result. This signals another truth: given a break, the marine environment can often replenish itself spectacularly.

America’s fisheries are probably now managed almost as well as the world’s best, in Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and Australia. Yet there is plenty of room for improvement. State-run fisheries, which tend to be close to shore and dominated by small-scale and inefficient fishermen, are less well funded and well managed and much poorer for it. New England groundfish stocks, including cod, have also not recovered: they account for 13 of the remaining depleted populations. This appears to be partly the result of environmental change, climatic or cyclical.

And the politicians are still interfering. On May 9th the House passed legislation forbidding NOAA from developing an innovative means of apportioning fishing quotas, known as catch shares. These are long-term, aiming to give fishermen a stake in the future of their fisheries; market-based, since they can be traded; and, in practice, good for fish. Sadly, the two Republican congressmen behind the ban consider they have been designed “to destroy every aspect of American freedom under the guise of conservation”.

Fish stocks: Plenty more fish in the sea, Economist, May 26, 2012, at 32

Military Robots and Automated Killing

Military robots come in an astonishing range of shapes and sizes. DelFly, a dragonfly-shaped surveillance drone built at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, weighs less than a gold wedding ring, camera included. At the other end of the scale is America’s biggest and fastest drone, the $15m Avenger, the first of which recently began testing in Afghanistan. It uses a jet engine to carry up to 2.7 tonnes of bombs, sensors and other types of payload at more than 740kph (460mph).

On the ground, robots range from truck-sized to tiny. TerraMax, a robotics kit made by Oshkosh Defense, based in Wisconsin, turns military lorries or armoured vehicles into remotely controlled or autonomous machines. And smaller robotic beasties are hopping, crawling and running into action, as three models built by Boston Dynamics, a spin-out from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), illustrate.  By jabbing the ground with a gas-powered piston, the Sand Flea can leap through a window, or onto a roof nine metres up. Gyro-stabilisers provide smooth in-air filming and landings. The 5kg robot then rolls along on wheels until another hop is needed—to jump up some stairs, perhaps, or to a rooftop across the street. Another robot, RiSE, resembles a giant cockroach and uses six legs, tipped with short, Velcro-like spikes, to climb coarse walls. Biggest of all is the LS3, a four-legged dog-like robot that uses computer vision to trot behind a human over rough terrain carrying more than 180kg of supplies. The firm says it could be deployed within three years.

Demand for land robots, also known as unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), began to pick up a decade ago after American-led forces knocked the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Soldiers hunting Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters in the Hindu Kush were keen to send robot scouts into caves first. Remote-controlled ground robots then proved enormously helpful in the discovery and removal of makeshift roadside bombs in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Visiongain, a research firm, reckons a total of $689m will be spent on ground robots this year. The ten biggest buyers in descending order are America, followed by Israel, a distant second, and Britain, Germany, China, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, France and Canada.

Robots’ capabilities have steadily improved. Upload a mugshot into an SUGV, a briefcase-sized robot than runs on caterpillar tracks, and it can identify a man walking in a crowd and follow him. Its maker, iRobot, another MIT spin-out, is best known for its robot vacuum cleaners. Its latest military robot, FirstLook, is a smaller device that also runs on tracks. Equipped with four cameras, it is designed to be thrown through windows or over walls.

Another throwable reconnaissance robot, the Scout XT Throwbot made by Recon Robotics, based in Edina, Minnesota, was one of the stars of the Ground Robotics Capabilities conference held in San Diego in March. Shaped like a two-headed hammer with wheels on each head, the Scout XT has the heft of a grenade and can be thrown through glass windows. Wheel spikes provide traction on steep or rocky surfaces. In February the US Army ordered 1,100 Scout XTs for $13.9m. Another version, being developed with the US Navy, can be taken to a ship inside a small aquatic robot, and will use magnetic wheels to climb up the hull and onto the deck, says Alan Bignall, Recon’s boss.

Even more exotic designs are in development. DARPA, the research arm of America’s Department of Defence, is funding the development of small, soft robots that move like jerky slithering blobs. EATR, another DARPA project, is a foraging robot that gathers leaves and wood for fuel and then burns it to generate electricity. Researchers at Italy’s Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, in Pisa, have designed a snakelike aquatic robot. And a small helicopter drone called the Pelican, designed by German and American companies, could remain aloft for weeks, powered by energy from a ground-based laser….

A larger worry is that countries with high-performance military robots may be more inclined to launch attacks. Robots protect soldiers and improve their odds of success. Using drones sidesteps the tricky politics of putting boots on foreign soil. In the past eight years drone strikes by America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have killed more than 2,400 people in Pakistan, including 479 civilians, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism in London. Technological progress appears to have contributed to an increase in the frequency of strikes. In 2005 CIA drones struck targets in Pakistan three times; last year there were 76 strikes there. Do armed robots make killing too easy?

Not necessarily….. Today’s drones, blimps, unmanned boats and reconnaissance robots collect and transmit so much data, she says, that Western countries now practise “warfare by committee”. Government lawyers and others in operation rooms monitor video feeds from robots to call off strikes that are illegal or would “look bad on CNN”, says Ms Cummings, who is now a robotics researcher at MIT. And unlike pilots at the scene, these remote observers are unaffected by the physical toil of flying a jet or the adrenalin rush of combat.

In March Britain’s Royal Artillery began buying robotic missiles designed by MBDA, a French company. The Fire Shadow is a “loitering munition” capable of travelling 100km, more than twice the maximum range of a traditional artillery shell. It can circle in the sky for hours, using sensors to track even a moving target. A human operator, viewing a video feed, then issues an instruction to attack, fly elsewhere to find a better target, or abort the mission by destroying itself. But bypassing the human operator to automate attacks would be, technologically, in the “realm of feasibility”, an MBDA spokesman says……

Traditional rules of engagement stipulate that a human must decide if a weapon is to be fired. But this restriction is starting to come under pressure. Already, defence planners are considering whether a drone aircraft should be able to fire a weapon based on its own analysis. In 2009 the authors of a US Air Force report suggested that humans will increasingly operate not “in the loop” but “on the loop”, monitoring armed robots rather than fully controlling them. Better artificial intelligence will eventually allow robots to “make lethal combat decisions”, they wrote, provided legal and ethical issues can be resolved…..

Pressure will grow for armies to automate their robots if only so machines can shoot before being shot, says Jürgen Altmann of the Technical University of Dortmund, in Germany, and a founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, an advocacy group. Some robot weapons already operate without human operators to save precious seconds. An incoming anti-ship missile detected even a dozen miles away can be safely shot down only by a robot, says Frank Biemans, head of sensing technologies for the Goalkeeper automatic ship-defence cannons made by Thales Nederland.  Admittedly, that involves a machine destroying another machine. But as human operators struggle to assimilate the information collected by robotic sensors, decision-making by robots seems likely to increase. This might be a good thing, says Ronald Arkin, a roboticist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who is developing “ethics software” for armed robots. By crunching data from drone sensors and military databases, it might be possible to predict, for example, that a strike from a missile could damage a nearby religious building. Clever software might be used to call off attacks as well as initiate them.

In the air, on land and at sea, military robots are proliferating. But the revolution in military robotics does have an Achilles heel, notes Emmanuel Goffi of the French air-force academy in Salon-de-Provence. As robots become more autonomous, identifying a human to hold accountable for a bloody blunder will become very difficult, he says. Should it be the robot’s programmer, designer, manufacturer, human overseer or his superiors? It is hard to say. The backlash from a deadly and well-publicised mistake may be the only thing that can halt the rapid march of the robots.

Robots go to war: March of the robots, Economist Technology Quarterly, June 2, 2012

Beyond GPS: All Source Positioning and Navigation

DARPA’s All Source Positioning and Navigation (ASPN) program seeks to enable low cost, robust, and seamless navigation solutions for military users on any operational platform and in any environment, with or without GPS. In particular, ASPN will develop the architectures,  abstraction methods, and navigation filtering algorithms needed for rapid integration and reconfiguration of any combination of sensors. This will enable rapid adaptation to evolving missions as well as reduction of the system integration costs and time-to-market for navigation solutions in general.

The goal of Phase 2 of ASPEN is to address the issues of optimization and real-time operation, showing capabilities beyond basic plug-and-play flexibility. Solutions must be capable of adapting to a diverse set of sensor and IMU inputs and selectively choosing the subset of measurements that produces the best possible solution, ideally mirroring the result from a tuned filter solution for that same scenario….Phase 2 solutions will need to demonstrate real-time operation in representative field (non-laboratory) environments. Although adaptability is the main goal of the ASPN program, the possibility of ASPN accuracy being substantially better than current state of art should be considered, given accommodation by ASPN of larger and more diverse sensor suites, ease of optimizing ASPN to immediate applications, and potential synergistic benefits of an open architecture.

What is In-Q-Tel? Technology Branch of CIA

Throughout its lifetime, the CIA has operated at the cutting edge of science and technology. From the U-2 spy plane to the CORONA satellite, CIA’s “wizards of Langley” earned a reputation for bold innovation and risk taking, working in advance of the private sector and other branches of government. Much of CIA’s technology success was a result of identifying gaps and opportunities.  By the late 1990s, the pace of commercial innovation had overtaken the ability of government agencies to develop and incorporate new technologies. Private industry represented technical insights and innovation far too important to ignore. Driven by private sector R&D investment, these commercial technologies addressed many of the same information technology, biotechnology, communications, and energy challenges that faced the Intelligence Community.

In 1998, CIA identified technology as a top strategic priority, and set out a radical plan to create a new venture that would help increase the CIA’s access to private sector innovation. In-Q-Tel was chartered in February 1999 by a group of private citizens at the request of the Director of Central Intelligence and with the support of the U.S. Congress. IQT was tasked with building a bridge between the Agency and a new set of technology innovators.

From the website IQT (2012)

Industrial Revolution in Genetic Engineering: Military

From DARPA’s Website: Living Foundries

Current approaches to engineering biology rely on an ad hoc, laborious, trial-and-error process, wherein one successful project often does not translate to enabling subsequent new designs. As a result, the state of the art development cycle for engineering a new biologically manufactured product often takes 7+ years and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars (e.g. microbial production of artemisinic acid for the treatment of malaria and the non-petroleum-based production 1,3-propanediol).

[DARPA Goal]

Transforming biology into an engineering practice would enable on-demand production of new and high-value materials, devices and capabilities for the Department of Defense (DoD) and address complex challenges that today have no or few solutions.

The Living Foundries Program seeks to create the engineering framework for biology, speeding the biological design-build-test cycle and expanding the complexity of systems that can be engineered. The Program aims to develop new tools, technologies and methodologies to decouple biological design from fabrication, yield design rules and tools, and manage biological complexity through abstraction and standardization. These foundational tools would enable the rapid development of previously unattainable technologies and products, leveraging biology to solve challenges associated with production of new materials, novel capabilities, fuel and medicines. For example, one motivating, widespread and currently intractable problem is that of corrosion/materials degradation. The DoD must operate in all environments, including some of the most corrosively aggressive on Earth, and do so with increasingly complex heterogeneous materials systems. This multifaceted and ubiquitous problem costs the DoD approximately $23 Billion per year. The ability to truly program and engineer biology, would enable the capability to design and engineer systems to rapidly and dynamically prevent, seek out, identify and repair corrosion/materials degradation.

Accomplishing this vision requires an approach that is more than multidisciplinary – it requires a new engineering discipline built upon the integration of new ideas, approaches and tools from fields spanning computer science and electrical engineering to chemistry and the biological sciences. The best innovations will introduce new architectures and tools into an open technology platform to rapidly move new designs from conception to execution.  Performers must ensure and demonstrate throughout the program that all methods and demonstrations of capability comply with national guidance for manipulation of genes and organisms and follow all guidance for biological safety and Biosecurity.

A Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) solicitation for phase one, Advanced Tools and Capabilities for Generalizable Platforms (ATCG), closed in November, 2011. The BAA called for the development of the advanced, translatable tools and capabilities that will make up an end-to-end technology platform for rapidly, safely and predictably engineering biological production systems. The goals of these advanced tools and capabilities are to compress the biological design-build-test cycle by at least 10x in both time and cost while increasing the complexity of the systems that can be designed and executed by orders of magnitude. These advancements should enable the ability to rapidly design and build new systems to create novel capabilities and to address complex challenges.

Kamikaze Drones: Shortening the Kill Chain

The 2-foot-long Switchblade drone [unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)] is so named because its wings fold into the fuselage for transport and spring out after launch. It is designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack and is fired from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, it begins sending back live video and GPS coordinates to a hand-held control set clutched by the soldier who launched it.  When soldiers identify and lock on a target, they send a command for the drone to nose-dive into it and detonate on impact. Because of the way it operates, the Switchblade has been dubbed the “kamikaze drone.”

The Obama administration, notably the CIA, has long been lambasted by critics for its use of combat drones and carelessly killing civilians in targeted strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. In 2010, a United Nations official said the CIA in Pakistan had made the United States “the most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world.

The Switchblade drone appears to be an improvement as an alternative to traditional drone strikes, in terms of minimizing civilian harm, but it also raises new concerns, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.  She pointed out that when a drone strike is being considered there are teams of lawyers, analysts and military personnel looking at the data to determine whether lethal force is necessary. But the Switchblade could shorten that “kill chain.”  “It delegates full responsibility to a lower-level soldier on the ground,” she said. “That delegation is worrisome. It’s a situation that could end up in more mistakes being made.”  Arms-control advocates also have concerns. As these small robotic weapons proliferate, they worry about what could happen if the drones end up in the hands of terrorists or other hostile forces.

The Switchblade “is symptomatic of a larger problem that U.S. military and aerospace companies are generating, which is producing various more exotic designs,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. “This technology is not always going to be in the sole possession of the U.S. and its allies. We need to think about the rules of the road for when and how these should be used so we can mitigate against unintended consequences.”

The Switchblade is assembled in Simi Valley by AeroVironment Inc., the Pentagon’s top supplier of small drones, which include the Raven, Wasp and Puma. More than 50 Switchblades will be sent to the war zone in Afghanistan this summer under a $10.1-million contract, which also includes the cost of repairs, spare parts, training and other expenses. Officials would not provide details about where the weapons would be used, how many were ordered and precisely when they would be deployed.  AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, developed the weapon on its own, thinking the military could use a lethal drone that could be made cheaply and deployed quickly by soldiers in the field, said company spokesman Steven Gitlin.

“It’s not inexpensive to task an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet from a base to take out an [improvised explosive device] team when you consider fuel, people, logistics support, etc.,” he said.

About a dozen Switchblades were tested last year by special operations units in Afghanistan, according to Army officials, who said the drone proved effective.  The Army is considering buying $100 million worth of the drones in a few years under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System, Nichols said. The Air Force and the Marine Corps have also expressed interest in the technology.

AeroVironment is not the only company pursuing small, lethal drones. Textron Defense Systems is also working on a small kamikaze-style drone. Named the BattleHawk Squad-Level Loitering Munition, the drone is being tested at an Army facility in New Mexico.

Excerpts, W.J. Hennigan, Pentagon to soon deploy pint-sized but lethal Switchblade drones, LA Times, June 11, 2012

Drug Markets, Patents and the Developing World

Sales of antiretroviral drugs in America and the five biggest European markets reached $13.3 billion in 2011, according to Datamonitor, a research outfit…. Publicly funded research has played a larger role in developing drugs for HIV than for other diseases. A study published last year in Health Affairs found that HIV drugs were three times as likely to involve a patent from the public sector. HIV also has special status among regulators. America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created a faster way to review HIV drugs, allowing them on the market before the most expensive stage of clinical trials.

In total, public and private investment has yielded more than two dozen HIV drugs. In 1987 Burroughs-Wellcome (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) introduced the first one, tackling an enzyme that helps the virus progress inside human cells. In 1995 Hoffmann-La Roche, a Swiss drug firm, launched the first protease inhibitor, which interrupts the virus at a later stage of replication….One company stands out: Gilead, of California. A late entrant to the HIV race, Gilead quickly took the lead. Its strategy was simple: the more convenient the treatment, the better. In 2004 Gilead launched Truvada, a once-a-day, one-pill combination of two drugs. In 2006 it introduced Atripla, a once-a-day, one-pill combination of Truvada and another treatment. Atripla’s average wholesale price in America is nearly $25,000 per patient, per year. In 2011 its global sales reached $3.2 billion.  More good news for Gilead has come in recent weeks. An FDA panel recommended Truvada for preventive use: ie, to protect healthy people from contracting the virus. Another FDA panel endorsed Gilead’s new Quad pill, which is the simplest, most effective combination drug to date.

If the process for developing HIV drugs has been unusual, selling them has been even more so. America is the rich world’s biggest market, with 841,000 patients diagnosed—ten times as many as in Britain. More than 60% of HIV drugs in America are bought with public money. Insurers give HIV special treatment: patients are rarely pressed to buy the cheapest pills, as they might be if they had another disease.

Distributing drugs in poor countries is harder. A decade ago, hardly any poor people could afford them. At first, drugs firms handled this badly. In 1998, 39 big Western firms sued South Africa to protect their HIV patents. Global uproar ensued; the firms backed down in 2001.  Then two things changed. First, rich countries started donating vast sums to fight AIDS in poor ones. In 2000 there was less than $2 billion for HIV programmes each year; by 2010 there was $15 billion, thanks to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and George Bush junior’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Second, the price of AIDS drugs plunged. In May 2000 a year’s “triple cocktail” therapy cost $10,000 or so. By 2011 the same pills sold for $62 in poor countries. PEPFAR cash buys generic versions of patented drugs, which may be supplied only to poor countries. Last year two drugmakers won most of PEPFAR’s contracts: Aurobindo, an Indian firm, and Matrix, an Indian firm acquired in 2007 by Mylan, an American one. PEPFAR’s bidding system keeps margins slim even by the standards of the generics industry, says Rajiv Malik, the president of Mylan. But volumes are huge.

Can treatment expand further? Despite the subsidies and the plunge in prices, less than half of those infected with HIV take HIV drugs. Those who do, however, live a long time, and they have to keep taking the pills. What’s more, new studies show that it helps to start treating patients early, so demand is sure to rise.  Alas, aid dipped in 2009 and 2010, thanks to the financial crisis. To make matters more complicated, there is a trade-off between more drugs and better ones. Most patients in poor countries get outdated pills, according to Médecins Sans Frontières. Allowing generics firms to copy yet more patented drugs might help. Since 2006 Gilead has licensed drugs to generics firms for 5% royalties. Last year it went further, agreeing to license drugs to a “patent pool” to centralise royalty deals for a range of firms. So far, however, Gilead is the only Western company to join….

There are two distinct HIV markets. In rich countries, many good treatments jostle for market share. The best will generate fat profits, since patients have to take their pills every day. But Datamonitor predicts that growth will slow after 2017, as many drugs lose patent protection and prices crash. In poor countries, by contrast, Big Pharma makes very little money but the most efficient copycats thrive. Meanwhile, the world still waits for a cure.

The business of HIV: Battling the virus, Economist, June 2, 2012,at 80