In news that is simultaneously disturbing and hopeful, the U.S. Air Force is offering $20,000 to anyone that can help in what it calls hat it calls “Remote Human Demographic Characterization.” This means, in their own words, a way to “determine approximate age (adult, teen, child) and gender of small groups of people at a distance,” and avoid targeting those people.
The motivation behind the posting is transparent enough: the Air Force wants to avoid the death of non-combatants, namely women and children, and the embarrassing headlines that follow. Taking a page from other organizations like DARPA, the Air Force has offered a hefty cash reward for an idea that will better target their munitions. Interestingly, the challenge asks only for written submission, but requires explicit proof in the form of “previous applications, existing data, literature, etc.” that the plan will work.
The Air Force is also offering $20,000 to design a less dangerous humanitarian air drop system for use over populated areas, and $50,000 for ideas on how to detect the location of small-arms shooters. Apparently the Boomerang gunshot detection system doesn’t cut it in the air, or something.
Though drone operators and pilots do have an impressive amount of information available to them, that information is not always usable. Not because it is bad information, necessarily, but because there are so few tools to sort that information and make sense of it. Take this instance, described in a recent New York Times article:
At an Air Force base in Nevada, the drone operator and his team struggled to work out what was happening in the village, where a convoy was forming. They had to monitor the drone’s video feeds while participating in dozens of instant-message and radio exchanges with intelligence analysts and troops on the ground.
In that instance, women and children were killed in an incident that the Air Force and Army later felt could have been avoided. There’s no requirement in the Air Force’s challenge about wrangling existing information, but hopefully some enterprising soul will come up with a new way to use the reams of data our 21st century military is already collecting.