Friday, July 31, 2015

Episode 3 of Silence Like Diamonds is up early, and I was up late and had some futuristical thoughts about communication relay drones.

So once again I'm flogging my serialized novelet over in Light Reading, an I-hope-fun bit of light summer adventure fiction, set in the near future. And since there's another episode up -- Episode 3, "Principle One" --  go ahead, scoot on over and read that! -- I thought I'd talk about something that's already been in the story in Episodes 1 and 2, since Mitch has made dire threats about what he will do if I blog spoilers for my own story. (I won't, Mitch. Really, I won't. Could you release Dad, now, please?)
Since drones are a hot topic in the communications field today, and since the original story request mentioned them with considerable passion, here a few drone-thoughts, not necessarily in any order:
•Crewed aircraft nowadays are limited, more and more, by the crew. A human body can only take so much acceleration, insists on having continuous access to heavy and hard-to-handle materials like oxygen and water, and has a dreadfully slow narrowband interface to its environment, coupled to an internal electrochemical processing system that is even more dreadfully slow. As designers are becoming free of the pilot, amazing possibilities are coming up; there was no point in trying to engineer a 20-g turn that would kill everyone aboard, but now that there's no one aboard, that limit is gone. You couldn't do much with an aircraft that fit into a suitcase if it had to have a cockpit big enough for at least a jockey; now there are already drones out there smaller than most birds.
This trend is only going to accelerate as a new generation of designers comes into the workforce never having had to think about pilots or passengers. I played around with that idea with the Griffon, the super-drone that circles communications hotspots at 35,000 meters* and reshapes itself for convenience, usually shaped like an airplane, but ascending like a blimp, and descending like a dart as needed.
•Which brings me to another potential that isn't yet fully realized by either us sci-fi folk or more serious tech people: the revolution in materials science is just getting underway. For one thing, computer time and storage and speed are only beginning to make real computational molecular design possible to contemplate. We don't even really know what to wish for yet.  I'll give you one I thought about describing for the Griffon and then decided was too long to go into: if you had thin, flexible tubes that could handle the internal pressure required, you could use them to hold a thin, light envelope of some other extremely strong material open ... and thus your balloon could be just an inflated shell with a near-vacuum inside.  Not only does that make for a less explosion-prone, better-lifting balloon filler, but with enough energy and the right gear, you can always make more vacuum -- it might be a long time before you needed to refill the tanks.
•What's so great about a stratospheric drone?  Well, at the height the Griffon is flying, the horizon is about 670 km away -- the one over Arcata could talk directly to San Luis Obispo, Portland, and Reno, almost to Boise. And if it's communicating with another Griffon at the same altitude, that doubles the distance -- from Tijuana to Vancouver BC, all the way out to Calgary and Grand Junction. With a drone over every population concentration, and a few over the oceans, that puts the travel distance for a signal from any point on Earth to anywhere else at about 20,150 km, maximum, which is about 67 microseconds at light speed. Compare that with 204,000 km and 680 microseconds for geosynchronous, and you're looking at an unbeatable advantage.
•The other drone I made up was the Roverino, which Markus describes as "common as crows around a tech town." The idea I had here was that you've got a communications drone the size of a middling model airplane but it's smart; it records billable milliseconds for every internet packet it passes on, relaying that information to its owner, and it wanders around seeking out high-value transmitters. Besides doing obvious things like following always-on-the-internet people around, circling office buildings to add wireless capacity, and swarming to emergency sites or news stories to provide extra bandwidth, Roverinos would be getting much of their traffic from other Roverinos; they really would flock and swarm like birds. Probably, like birds, they'd also learn and adopt different strategies; you'd get some "loners"  and "pioneers" who  would be looking for isolated hotspots they could have all to themselves, lazy "freeloaders" who would simply follow the biggest flock, perhaps even "alphas" that many other Roverinos would follow.
•And of course that's just two possibilities. I think the drone-relay world is going to look more like an ecology than an economy.
•But before we start feeling all Brautigan about being watched over by machines of loving grace: consider too that in a true Internet of Things, anything can be weaponized.  The 9-11 terrorists turned four airliners into cruise missiles (three successfully), but it cost them 20 of their own to do it.  The future is going to look more like the Stuxnet attacks on Iran: one day the centrifuges went berserk and tore themselves apart, effectively shutting down the nuclear program. 
But it's also going to be a future of big data, and that's why I think the principle of stochastic terror will play a bigger role than people are realizing. If you haven't run across the concept before,  "stochastic terror" is the technique of broadcasting or publishing in a way intended to set off sympathetic-to-your-side "lone wolves" or "lunatics" who then carry out violent attacks on your enemies.  Conservatives tend to see it in cases like Mohammed Youssef Abdulazeez and Dzhokar Tsarnaev; liberals see it just as clearly in Dylann Roof and Jared Loughner.
But a converted and riled-up lunatic is a poor weapon compared to a virused drone. First of all, other people notice when another human being begins to consider ultra-violent crimes; their behavior changes and there's a good chance someone will notice and catch them. But a virus can lie dormant until the moment comes.
Moreover, a virus doesn't start to have second thoughts, or get a good lover, job, or medication and start to think it has something to lose.
And finally, a virus is eternally vigilant. So imagine, if you will, that a malign and patient virusmaker sets something loose among the drone population that lies in wait until a national political convention; and then one day, with hundreds or thousands of officeholders, party officials, and activists of one party all in the air as they arrive or leave, all the drones in a city swarm toward the arriving or departing flights, heading straight into cockpit windshields or jet engine intakes (but only of the planes actually carrying "targets", since the system could also know who was on board each one.
Pleasant dreams, everyone!
Meanwhile, nothing that dark is happening in "Silence Like Diamonds." Better go cheer yourselves up over there.

*35,000 meters is about 114,000 feet, or 21 miles, for the incurably US-system reader. That's up in the range that the media inaccurately describe as "the edge of space" when crazed engineers parachute from it  or fifth-grade girls send instrument packages up to it on  balloons