One of Indiana's largest educational institutions is connected to a controversial trend in modern warfare, as Purdue University's Research Park is home to a West Lafayette company that receives millions of dollars in U.S. military funding for the development of robotic technology for remote-controlled attacks, along with flying surveillance, which is promoted as the future of domestic law enforcement.
Several sites in Indiana host the development and use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, commonly known as "drones," which have been variously described as the United States' best response to global terrorism and as an illegal and counterproductive approach to military and law enforcement challenges.
Hoosier robot killers?
One of the most significant Hoosier connections to drone warfare is West Lafayette-based Lite Machines, Inc., which in 2008 received a $10.5 million contract from the U.S. Navy for development of its Voyeur, a remote controlled, so-called "minidrone."
According to promotional material and various news reports, the Voyeur is a two-foot-long black cylinder with twin rotor blades, for battery-powered, remote-control surveillance and attack purposes. Lite Machines program manager Jon Maynell said he could not confirm or deny details of the Navy contract or plans to weaponize the Voyeur, which has been described as looking like a helicopter rotor minus the helicopter. "With the way our business has changed in recent months, there is a lot I am not at liberty to discuss," Maynell said.
But a Lafayette Journal and Courier 2008 article on Lite Machines characterized the Voyeur as a potential "flying grenade" and quoted Lite Machines president Paul Arlton as saying that the federal government mandates that newly developed mini-drones carry armaments. A Freedom of Information Act request from the Indianapolis-based NUVO yielded documents suggesting that Lite Machines has built their own weapon to affix to the Voyeur.
"The production of unmanned aerial vehicles in our backyard should be a call to action for every Hoosier." - Erin Polley, Indiana Peacebuilding for the American Friends Service Committee
The Indiana company which started out making model helicopters is now becoming a major military contractor, with Lite Machines president Arlton, co-designer of the early 1980s submarine simulation computer game Gato, telling the Journal and Courier that the Navy contract could grow to as much as $125 million. "There has been a huge, huge push in the military to shift its focus from large, manned systems to small, unmanned systems. Warfare is becoming more roboticized," Arlton said.
Yet the victims of robotic attacks remain quite human, leading to questions about the ethics of sending machines to war. In his acclaimed book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, Brookings Institution fellow Peter Singer poses some of the dilemmas. "What are we saying when we send out unmanned machines to fight for us?" Singer asks. "What is the 'message' that those on the other side receive? Ultimately, how will humans remain masters of weapons that are immeasurably faster and more 'intelligent' than they are?"
Indiana peace activists answer those questions with criticism of the legality and morality of drone warfare and of the Indiana connections to the development and use of drones. "The production of unmanned aerial vehicles in our backyard should be a call to action for every Hoosier," says Erin Polley, program director of Indiana Peacebuilding for the American Friends Service Committee.
Beyond military purposes, Lite Machines also promotes the Voyeur for domestic law enforcement and surveillance use, including quietly hovering with attached microphones, cameras or facial recognition technology. Articles in the Congressional Quarterly and the magazine Defense Systems portray the Voyeur as being able to go into open windows and then up and down stairs and hallways. The Voyeur is also marketed for its ability to fly in swarms and release tear gas in crowds and for border security use.
Maynell said the use of the Voyeur will be driven by the client who purchases the drone.
"Whether it just looks at something, sniffs at something, drops something off or picks something up, that will be up to the client," he said. "There are some uses I anticipate we will never know about because the customer will be the one putting the payload on it."
Purdue and Lite Machines
Lite Machines is based in one of the Purdue Research Parks, technology centers that are operated by the Purdue Research Foundation and that Purdue's vice president for research, Richard O. Buckius, recently said represent a $200 million investment by the university. Purdue president France Cordova often promotes the Research Parks, most recently in her February 2010 State of the University address.
"There are some uses I anticipate we will never know about because the customer will be the one putting the payload on it." - Jon Maynel, Lite Machines
Requests for comment from Purdue regarding the relationship with Lite Machines were referred to Cynthia Sequin of the Purdue Research Foundation, who declined an interview but provided a written statement. "There is no relationship (with Purdue University) except that Lite Machines is a Purdue Research Park-based company. Lite Machines is a private company, as are the majority of the companies in the park," Sequin said in her statement.
Maynell of Lite Machines also downplayed the extent of the relationship, saying no Purdue faculty or staff are part of the company. "We happen to be located in the Research Park, it sort of begins and ends with that," he said.
But Sequin's statement also referred to the Purdue Research Park Web site, which includes a page highlighting Lite Machines' Voyeur and its Navy contract, and Purdue Research Foundation's strategic plan, which promotes the Research Park companies' close ties to the University. Those ties, according to Purdue documents, include technical, public relations and marketing assistance, "close collaboration with the university to meet special needs in research and learning," assistance with the search for investors and access to students for internships and part-time employment. A YouTube video showing the Voyeur's flight capabilities has the machine hovering through a warehouse featuring large Purdue and ROTC logos.
Whatever the extent of the Purdue connection to drone technology, it is clear that Lite Machines is assuming a growing role in the movement toward robotics warfare. Lite Machines is reportedly creating a drone for the Air Force in addition to its Navy work, and Maynell told Congressional Quarterly the firm's contract with the Navy supports development of versions of the Voyeur that can be scaled down to six inches -- 'It looks like a flying hockey puck," Maynell said -- and up to a 12-foot version.
Fran Quigley is a Visiting Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in NUVO.