Sunday, 4 March 2012

Drone and Response: Pierre Boulez and Dassault

The above image is an artist's impression depicting the nEUROn Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV, or drone) whose prototype, designed by French defence contractor Dassault, was first displayed at the Paris Air Show in 2005. The name, presumably, is intended to indicate its pioneer status as one of the first combat drones developed by a European company. 

I happened across the nEUROn drone when browsing through recent posts from the official Wikileaks Twitter account. After a somewhat catty blog post at the New York Times by former editor, Bill Keller, the 'Leaks are currently using their tweets to explain exactly why they decided to go home and take their ball with them, and while we're at it we dropped the NYT, Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais, etc., not the other way round, thank you very much. 

One of the reasons for their ire was apparently the amount of redactions insisted upon by their media partners - not just names of diplomats, but frequently also names of banks and major corporations. So they're publishing the unredacted versions over at Including this one in which someone evidently insisted on redacting Italy's interest in investing in Dassault's new UCAV.

There's an interesting connection between Dassault and the world of avant-garde music. Back in 1984, Pierre Boulez's IRCAM institute needed its new 4X computer put into production - and fast! The premiere of Boulez's Répons was looming and four such machines were required to make work its delicate interplay of acoustic and digital music interacting in 3D space. So, IRCAM sold the designs to Sogitec to put them into production. Sogitec had at that time just been bought by Dassault.

In her book, Rationalising Culture, an ethnographic look at the inner workings of the famously secretive IRCAM institute, former Henry Cow / National Health bassist, Georgina Born recounts the frustration of some IRCAM workers at the sale of their baby to the notorious arms manufacturer:
"The 4X-Sogitec saga was kept quiet during 1984 and was not spoken of freely within IRCAM. A few workers mentioned confidentially that they were upset by the militarist implications of the deal, and equally b the failure of the 4X to reach a larger musical public, but most remained silent."
Since the early 80s, Sogitec has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Dassault, with a particular speciality for flight simulators and 3D imaging. IRCAM sold them the 4X on the basis that it would be able to create realistic flying noises for their flight sims. The 4X was IRCAM's flagship computer, probably the most sophisticated piece of music hardware ever built, capable of real time filtering and morphing of sounds, and the last of its kind - after Sogitec made only a small run of 4Xs, insufficient to be put into use at other music research centres around the world, the emphasis largely moved to software based systems like MAX.

Of course, Sogitec make simulators - not actual combat vehicles. Except of course that with drone warfare the line between simulation and real warfare becomes increasingly blurry. From the pilot's point of view - and perhaps even from the point of view of at least some of the hardware and software components - controlling a combat drone in an actual field of war and taking part in a flight simulation might be almost impossible to distinguish.

As one final note, it may be amusing to recall that in his April 2000 column for The New Yorker about Pierre Boulez ("a great but ungenerous artist"), Alex Ross singles out Répons for criticism precisely because of its over-reliance on drones!