August 18th, 2015

WHY WRITE ABOUT DRONES? WITH AUTHOR MIKE MADEN

Drones-Mike

We’re back with another author who writes about drones. Mike Maden gives us his take…with some fascinating backstory.

  1. Why did you choose drone technology?

I originally decided to focus on drone technology in my Drone series because like most people following the global war on terror, I began to notice the term “drone” pop up in the news. I’ve always had a fascination with the history of warfare and my curiosity led me to dig in on the topic. What I thought I knew about drones and their possibilities on the battlefield paled in comparison to what has already been deployed and the near future deployments—land, sea, air, space and nano—are literally the stuff of science fiction.

What’s most fascinating about the advent of drone technology, though, isn’t how it’s changing warfare but how it’s changing us: our politics, culture and economy. I’m a huge fan of the military techno-thriller genre so it seemed to me the future of that genre would be in drones as well so I dove in, head first. My latest novel, Drone Command, is the third in the series and the development of drone tech continues to utterly fascinate me.

  1. Do you think drones will be the future of warfare?

Drones will be the future of everything, civilian and military, as advances in sensors and software increase exponentially.

In warfare, drones will continue to replace humans for the simple reason that humans are the weak link in any combat system. In its deadliest and most terrifying form, the future of drone warfare will be LARs—lethal autonomous robotics which is a subject I explore more deeply in Drone Command, especially underwater (UUV) and surface (USV) vehicles. (Drones, of course, are a subset of robotics.)

Combat systems—planes, tanks, ships and submarines to name a few—are limited in their performance capabilities and mission profiles because of the fragility of the humans they convey. Think of the life support systems (water, food, oxygen, temperature, armor) and waste disposal systems (air, liquid, solid) necessary for the soldiers and sailors serving us around the world. Humans also need sleep and are subject to psychological events such as fear, confusion and stress all of which affect combat performance.

In certain advanced combat systems like jet fighters, human biology is the limiting performance factor. Even with G-suits and other contrivances, modern jet aircraft can’t fly as fast or as nimbly as their specs would indicate because the human operator on board would either black out or perish. A supersonic guided missile is what a fighter jet could be if humans weren’t in the cockpit. And don’t get me started on hypersonic vehicles….

In Drone Command I deal more specifically with the new carrier-based UCAV and UCLASS systems like the recently deployed delta-winged X-47B which is a harbinger of things to come. The X-47B is the U.S. Navy’s first UCLASS aircraft capable of completely autonomous carrier take-off, landing and flight operations including surveillance, strike and even air refueling with other autonomous aircraft.

Another advantage of computers flying planes or driving ground vehicles is that they can be linked together which means that every vehicle sees and knows what every other vehicle sees and knows. That allows for swarming tactics and other new battlefield operations we haven’t yet fully explored. Imagine playing a chess game with an opponent where your self-aware pieces know where they are in relation to each other and the enemy pieces and all of them attack or defend instantly and simultaneously while your hapless human competitor can only move one piece at a time. That’s a huge oversimplification, of course, but it gives you an idea of the possibilities.

All of the advantages of self-driving “Google” cars applies to military applications as well. Google cars have half the accident rate of human drivers now and human error is the single greatest cause of military and civilian vehicle crashes. (In WWII, the U.S. Army Air Corps lost more pilots in training than in actual combat.)

The most positive note about drones taking on combat operations is that we are removing our best and brightest young men and women from harm’s way and that can only be a good thing. But this also presents a moral hazard. Politicians in the West typically avoid warfare because they fear the human cost of it. But if politicians think that war won’t cost lives, then they might be more likely to engage in war because it’s just the machines that will do the fighting and this might, ironically, lead to more human casualties in the long run as nations engage in more combat.

Bottom line: if computers can beat humans at chess (they do), can out-think humans in high cognition games like Jeopardy (they have) and can do what they do without sleep, fear or worries about home life, then you can see why militaries around the world—including our biggest geopolitical competitors China and Russia—are moving as swiftly as they can toward these technologies even if we decide not to in the future for ethical reasons. Imagine a scenario where China deploys a thousand expendable higher performance unmanned combat aircraft all controlled by supercomputers against an American force of lesser capable, human-controlled aircraft. Who do you think would win?

One last sobering thought: the costs of training, housing, payroll, healthcare and retirement absorb a huge percentage of defense budgets that could otherwise be deployed toward systems development and acquisition. From an economic perspective alone, if drones provide greater capabilities for less cost, why wouldn’t you want more of them and fewer humans?

This is why I believe drones will be more disruptive to civilian than military affairs and that this disruption will happen much sooner than most of us realize. A 2013 Oxford University study suggested that nearly half of ALL American jobs are at risk of automation within the next twenty years. And we’re not just talking about low skill, low wage jobs. A company in the UK possesses a “drone” pharmaceutical researching device that is creating new medicines faster and cheaper than any human can. There are drone musicians (and music writers), journalists, chefs (who also write recipes) and even “doctors” diagnosing patients. The single biggest change we’ll see is the advance of all forms of self-driving vehicles, especially cars but also trains and planes. One estimate suggests that as many as 90% of all cars on the road now will disappear when we transition to self-driving cars.

  1. How did you come up with Troy Pearce’s character and is he inspired by anyone you know or admire?

Troy Pearce is my main series character. He’s my idea of a modern American warrior who’s been in the trenches of the global war on terror and survived to talk about it. Like many Americans today he’s a man who deeply loves his country but no longer trusts his government (regardless of political party) to do the right thing.

He’s inspired by all of my favorite heroes of the genre—Jack Ryan, Scot Harvath, Mitch Rapp to name a few—but with a modern technological twist. Troy is a former CIA SOG operator who lost too many friends in the “forever war” of GWOT. But he’s a warrior and believes in doing the right thing so he forms his own private security company that specializes in drone warfare. That way he can pick and choose his own battles with a certain moral clarity and by deploying drones can keep his people out of harm’s way. Throughout the series we see Troy’s arc as he continuously struggles with the dilemma: How do you serve your country when you don’t trust your government? But if you truly love your country, how do you not serve?

  1. The Drone series has been praised for its inclusion of advanced cyber warfare and high tech technology. Did you have to do a lot of researching before writing? Or do you have a background of working in a similar field?

When I began the Drone series I intended on inventing my own drone technology because I knew I would be writing fiction and I have an active imagination. But a few minutes of research into actual drone systems quickly disabused me of the notion that I could possibly outthink the geniuses who actually invent these things. So, yes, I spend a great deal of time researching existing or planned systems and feature them exclusively in my novels. My own background is in graduate studies in international relations and other social science disciplines which is why every Drone story takes place within a larger political and social context.

  1. Do you believe drones will be more beneficial or detrimental to our future?

Drones are neutral things. It’s the humans that deploy them that are problematic. Another reason why I love writing the Drone series is that it lets me explore the most pressing issues of our day in a new and interesting way.

For example, the whole issue of drones raises the fundamental issue of trust. I don’t care if a highway patrol drone is monitoring my speed because I trust the highway patrol and expect them to enforce the speed laws because it makes the roads safer. But as recent political scandals have shown some government officials have actually used our personal information against us for their own partisan or personal political interests. Think of the politician you most despise on either side of the aisle and then imagine them deploying drones over your house. The problem isn’t really the drone, is it?

I put drones in the hands of good and bad people in my novels because it allows me to raise the question: Whom do we trust? And do we realize that all democratic politics and all capitalist markets depend entirely on trust? And if trust goes away we lose both. I suppose what I’m saying is that while drones are featured prominently throughout my series, it’s never really about the drones.

  1. Your books have a reputation for being filled with nonstop action. Have you always written thrillers?

Drone was my first published novel and I really love the genre so I can’t imagine myself writing anything else even if I start a new series.

  1. How do you think technology in general is transforming the future of warfare? 

This might sound crazy but read any five of the classic science fiction “space war” novels and you’ll get a good idea of where we’re heading. If that’s too much trouble, check out the “Terminator” film series. James Cameron is tapping into our very worst fears for entertainment value but the technologies he presents are the kinds of things that are being developed around the world right now. No wonder tech gurus like Elon Musk fear the advance of AI as more dangerous than even nuclear weapons. (There was a news report just last week that a robot AI achieved self-awareness.)

But there’s also good news. One of the technologies I first explored in Drone is the revolution in brain-machine interfaces. In other words, we now have the capacity to link the human mind to computers. This opens up a world of possibilities not the least of which are incredible non-lethal advances in medical technology. For example, brain-driven exoskeleton suits which were created to enhance combat capabilities of soldiers can also be used to allow quadriplegics to walk for the first time. It also means that some forms of blindness will also be “cured” as we wire around the biological short-circuit and hard wire the brain to an optical device. How cool is that? That’s why Troy’s company, Pearce Systems, has both civilian and military contracts. It allows me to discuss the most exceptional non-military drone tech achievements in my series as well.

  1. What’s been the biggest hurdle for you to overcome as an author?

The biggest hurdle for me is myself, always, and that’s probably true for most authors. I believe it was Heraclitus who said, “Character is destiny.” The art can’t be bigger than the heart.

Too many of us wait for permission to do the thing we’re passionate about doing and that’s always a mistake—especially for writers. You only learn how to write by actually writing, and you only get better at it by writing more. (Note to future writers: All writing is rewriting.)

I was unbelievably fortunate to have been offered a contract with Penguin Random House for the Drone series and the day they called me up was one of the greatest thrills of my life. (I grew up working class devouring Penguin Classics at the public library.) But they didn’t offer to buy an idea; they purchased a manuscript. Had I not taken the chance on myself and written Drone I wouldn’t be in the privileged position I am now and I take that responsibility very, very seriously. I hope anybody that’s reading this who has the least inkling that they are an author will take this to heart and begin writing—now.

My biggest struggle right now is that I have way, way too many ideas in my head and I can’t write them down fast enough and I’m experiencing that again as I’m prepping book four in the Drone series. Simple is always better but the world is terribly complex and the issues we’re all facing aren’t amenable to simple solutions. I suppose that’s why I keep defaulting to Troy Pearce, Margaret Myers and other protagonists in the Drone series. Our destiny as a nation and as a species depends now more than ever on people of character who are passionate about doing the right thing no matter the cost to themselves and Troy and Margaret embody that ideal.

About the Author

MikeMadenGrowing up in a working-class family in central California, Mike Maden spent a fair share of his youth in slaughter houses, canneries and feed mills but a lifelong fascination with history and politics ultimately led to a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California (Davis) focusing on the areas of conflict, technology and international relations. After brief stints as a campus lecturer, political consultant and media commentator, Mike turned to studies in theology and a decade of work with a Dallas-based non-profit where he eventually discovered fiction writing. DRONE was the result of a recent challenge by two published friends to try his hand at a novel. Written primarily in Texas, BLUE WARRIOR was edited in the shadow of the gorgeous Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee where Mike and his wife Angela now happily reside.

August 10th, 2015

The DRONE REPORT: Only Drones Can Stop Forest Fires?

Drone-Blog-fireby Drone Reporter Nicole Pieretti

One word: Fuego. No, not the catchy club song by Pitbull but rather quite different—something that could save lives. Wildfire season started early this summer in California, and people were ready for a tough season especially with the ongoing drought. A group of researchers came up with the idea to use drones mounted with infrared cameras to identify early locations of fires. They are calling it Fuego.

The drones will be able to spot emerging wildfires three minutes after they start. Of course, this operation will take several years to be put into motion but it could result in saving lives and controlling the wildfire epidemic.

Check out this link to five drone technologies that have been helping watch for fires and other natural disasters.

What happens when a drone makes the fire worse? Doesn’t seem like it could right? Wrong. Drones have recently become an additional threat to the spreading of California wildfires. A four-foot drone shut down all operations over the Lake Fire last Wednesday evening. Another 3.5 square miles were burned as a result.

The San Bernadino County commissioners explained, ““Low-flying air tankers cannot share the sky with drones because the small aircraft can be sucked into jet engines, causing the engines to fail and the planes to crash.” A second drone was spotted the same evening by a firefighter pilot. They are upset and concerned that they have to worry about drones while trying to fight off massive forest fires.

Hopefully in the years to come drones will be aiding in the fight against California wildfires and not making them worse. Drones have the ability to do great things for us in the future but it begs the question— is it all just a facade?

August 3rd, 2015

The Drone Report

Drone-Blogby Drone Reporter Nicole Pieretti

Drones could change the way of the future — but are you ready for this new, high-tech  to take over? Drones could transform everything from agriculture, aerial photography, emergency services and delivery. Could this new technology benefit us and take us even further into the next-gen of the future or will it cause more harm than good? What if you walked outside your house and the sky was buzzing with drones?

Drones will save us money, eliminate human error, take pilots out of the sky, deliver packages to remote areas of the world and protect transportation lanes. It seems like drones can do no wrong—right?

 

The FAA was supposed to announce the rules and regulations of drones in 2015, and they have just recently released them. Now that they are out, the new directives are under much speculation. People say they are vague and unclear. Are you comfortable with drone operators only requirement being a written test? Shouldn’t they need a pilot’s license as well? Sure, drones will alleviate some of the risks pilots take because they are unmanned aircrafts, but that doesn’t mean the ones flying the drones are as good as pilots, does it?

 

Amazon as recently gotten permission to start testing what they call Amazon Prime Air. They cannot deploy their idea until they get the regulatory support but one day this could be a very big possibility.

Picture this. You’re sitting at your computer or laptop and suddenly have an itch to do some online shopping because your tired brain needs a break from the endless work  in front of you. You type Amazon in the search bar, and you find that Rolling Stones poster you’ve been searching for, or the super expensive wrinkle cream you’ll regret buying later, or even that Tempurpedic comforter you’ve been aching for. Whatever it may be, you place the order and BAM! it magically appears on your doorstep in 30 minutes. A drone found your house and delivered it to you. Does this sound like a scene pulled from a science fiction movie? Think again…it’s about to be available in a neighborhood near you!

 

How could a high-tech unmanned aircraft help farmers? What if you had a device that could transmit information about your crops and direct you to those exact spots where crops need more or less water or chemicals? It would save a huge amount of time. Agriculture companies that have tested drones say their businesses have skyrocketed. The FAA is working on rules to allow all businesses to use drones.

 

Drones will fly us into the future of technology. But what about the safety of them? What about our privacy standards? Will you step out of your house one day and see drones circling above you delivering packages? Taking aerial photos? Spying…?

 

 

July 27th, 2015

Far From Where I Grew Up

My cousin, Ben Brooke, arrived in Basel last Saturday, midway through a three-month Eurail tour. We had a fantastic time showing him around Basel and a little bit of the rest of Switzerland. As we did the things tourists do, answered Ben’s questions, and generally horsed around, it hit me once again: I’m an American living abroad, one foot in the American culture and one in the Swiss one. I write books in English, but I speak German in my daily life. Sometimes it takes a visit like this to make me realize how lucky we are.

This being Switzerland, we had to go and see the mountains.

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We took a cable car in Grindelwald to get up there, and at 7,000 feet had these views.

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Like I said, enough to make you feel like horsing around.

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Back in Basel, we took a ride on one of the ferries that cross the Rhine. They work on a special system without any kind of motor. It’s so quiet, all we hear is the water slapping against the long wooden hull. The passage to the other side costs 1.60 Swiss Francs for adults, and 80 cents for kids.

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Ben thought it would be a good idea to go up in the steeple of Basel’s cathedral. On such a windy day, I wasn’t so sure. But the view from up there was spectacular.

 

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At a spot on the Rhine River in Basel lies the confluence of three countries, Germany, France and Switzerland. We stood over that spot on the International Peace Bridge.

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About two hours’ drive from Basel we visited the St. Beatus Cave system, taking the guided tour almost 900 meters into the cave interior. The cave entrance is situated a short hike up the side of the mountain. From up there you have a tremendous view of the Lake of Thun.

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A lot of people settle in the place where they were born and raised. Others, like me, plant new roots in a place far from where they originally came from.

What about you? Do you live far from your birthplace? Write your answer in the comments below. Your story would interest me.

 

 

July 20th, 2015

Why Write About Drones? with Author Jackson Dean Chase

Drones-1Ever wonder why people write about drones? Wonder no more. The next few months, I’ll be interviewing authors about their interest in the future, the influence drones could and do have on our culture, and where they might go next.

This week, Jackson Dean Chase stopped by the blog to talk about his own fascination with drones in his novel, aptly titled, Drone.

  1. What inspired you to write your YA novel, Drone?

Jackson Dean Chase: Drone was inspired by my love of science fiction. It plays with the tropes of modern dystopian novels while combining them with a Star Wars sensibility. By that, I mean lots of action. I don’t want to waste pages talking about technology or with my heroine sitting around moping about boys instead of saving the world. Where’s the fun in that?Drone-Series-72dpi-1500x2000

  1. What made you decide to write in the science fiction genre after writing in the horror genre? Was it harder or easier? Why?

JDC: Although I’m a passionate horror fan, I don’t want to be thought of as a “horror author.” I want to be thought of as an author, period—one who delivers stories that transcend genre and category. But switching from horror to science fiction was difficult. It’s hard to keep the technology straight and to rely on science to explain things instead of the supernatural. Fortunately, that’s what editors are for.

  1. Are there elements of horror in your YA dystopian series, Beyond the Dome?

JDC: Absolutely! The first time my heroine has to kill an enemy is horrific, and when she has to look at herself in the mirror afterward—knowing what she has become—that’s horrific too. I don’t shy away from the violence or how it affects my characters. There’s a mad scientist, organ harvesting, arranged marriages and forced pregnancy, not to mention people dropping dead when they hit their genetic expiration date. But for me, the real horror is the future society’s “Elite” vs. “Drone” caste system and the ruthless corporations that run it.

  1. Do you connect better with your horror series or dystopian?

JDC: I connect with story. A great story will work in any time period, any genre. Star Wars does it by combining the western and samurai film with sci-fi. John Maddox Roberts transplanted hardboiled and noir into Conan the Rogue, brilliantly combining Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon with Conan the Barbarian.

  1. Did you find it challenging to capture the perspective of teen girl in Drone? Why or why not?

hard_times_web_fileJDC: If you’re going to grow, I think it’s important to write outside your comfort zone. But at the same time, you need to find ways to stay within it, because that’s what you know best and have the most passion for. So I’ll take a genre I love, like horror or science fiction, and instead of writing it from my male point of view, I’ll write it from the opposite.

  1. What is the theme that links all of your books together? Where did it come from?

JDC: Wish fulfillment is the theme, usually from the plight of the Outsider. It’s brought on by pain, by loneliness, and the desire to escape, to shine—no matter the cost. The pain you read on the page is my pain, my experience, filtered through the eyes of my characters and their reality.

I wasted a few decades being depressed and angry. It wasn’t until I started writing that I learned to love myself, to forgive my mistakes, and move on. The beauty of having overcome my darkness is I can still feel it, still tap into it without trauma, without pain. It’s a tool now, fodder for my fiction, where it belongs.

  1. Why do you think dark and edgy, fantasy-based books have become so popular amongst young adults?

JDC: I think they’ve always been popular, they just haven’t been accepted into the “YA” category until the past decade or so—at least not in any numbers. Before that, you had teens reading about teens in adult books like Flowers in the Attic or The Basketball Diaries, but there was no “YA” equivalent. What finally opened the floodgates to the new tide of dark YA was the increasingly desperate, post-911 world we find ourselves in. Horror and suspense thrive in uncertain, dangerous times; consuming fantasy horror and suspense provides a safe outlet for that fear.

  1. Has writing horror ever affected your mood? Have you ever not been able to snap out of the emotions you engage when you write haunting scenes?

JDC: A few times, but only when I was being affected by unpleasant real life events—ones I hadn’t had time to process. But the mood doesn’t last long; I won’t let it. After all, I want to write about horrifying events, not live them. [laughs]

  1. Do you have any new projects coming out? warrior3

JDC: Sure! I’m writing Warrior, the sequel to Drone and getting ready to publish Hard Times in Dronetown, which is a short story prequel. You can check out my current and upcoming books at www.JacksonDeanChase.com. If you go now, you get my Starter Library free.

 About Jackson:

I’m an author and poet who specializes in Young Adult fiction. While much of my initial work JDC_Color_Minifalls within the Dystopian and Horror genres, I plan to add fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers throughout 2015 and beyond. I will also be releasing adult novels and poetry collections.

I hail from vampire country. No, not Transylvania—the other one in Washington state. I grew up wandering the rain-swept wilderness hoping to find the magic portal that would take me home. I never found the portal, but I did find another way out… through writing.

I’ve always loved science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but it wasn’t until I combined them with pulp thrillers and noir that I found my voice as an author. I want to leave my readers breathless, want them to feel the desperate longing, the hope and fear my heroes experience as they struggle not just to survive, but to become something more.