WHEN YOU’RE WALKING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND, BE CAREFUL: YOU’RE BEING WATCHED.
As part of a secret defense program started late in the last decade, every snowflake that falls from the sky is now a tiny drone.
The program, known as CAST-MASS (Crystalline Solid Transparent Monitoring And Surveillance System), was launched over the holidays.
“We’ve gotten better at collecting information via digital footprint,” said Bob Salter, an information technician at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. “But sometimes, you need eyes, too, and there’s only so much we can observe using the cameras that are already in phones, laptops, smart TVs, digital assistants, and showerheads.”
That’s when the scientists at Los Alamos turned to snow to solve the problem. “We had a long afternoon brainstorming,” said Salter. “What is everywhere? Then someone—I think it was Carl—picked up his head. ‘Weather!” he said.”
Carl and the others had soon sketched out a pilot program for designing tiny drones that resembled snowflakes and implanting them clouds across the world. “That was relatively easy, as was replacing the existing snow,” said Salter. “The hard part, ironically, was decommissioning the pilot-and-flight function. Snowflakes have to go where the wind takes them—if they were buzzing around the way we wanted, it would certainly attract suspicion.”
The lab decided to deploy the technology during the holidays as a tribute to Carl’s favorite movie.
“Carl loves It’s a Wonderful Life,” Salter said. “Not just because it’s a Christmas movie. It’s also a major milestone in snow technology. Before it, movies used cornflakes as fake snow, which resulted in noisy sets and lots of overdubbed dialogue. Frank Capra and his team wanted a more realistic movie snow, and they designed a foamite solution that could be sprayed anywhere. The movie was actually shot during summers, on sweltering days, but the foamite snow looks perfect. So it was just a perfect match.”
When the team worked it all out and debuted the program on Christmas, no one was happier than Carl. “He just beamed,” said Salter.
Carl, if you haven’t guessed by now, is a parrot: the smartest ever employed by Los Alamos. “None of that means he doesn’t still like the occasional dish of seed,” Salter says. “It’s not a stereotype if it’s true.”
“Seed!” Carl said.
There is a second phase of CAST-MASS scheduled for April that will use raindrops rather than snowflakes.