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Mapping the bombing missions of the Vietnam War

Over the course of the Vietnam War, the United States and its allies dropped over 7.5 million tons of bombs on Southeast Asia. But until recently, no one outside the U.S. military really knew where all these bombs fell. That all changed in late 2016, when the U.S. Department of Defense released its Theater History of Operations (THOR) data, a comprehensive database of U.S. bombing missions from World War I through the Vietnam War. Touted as a means of increasing the public’s understanding of the U.S. military, the datasets were as rich as they were novel. And they simply begged to be mapped.

With Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam War airing earlier this week, I thought it was a good opportunity to create an interactive Story Map exploring the Vietnam War dataset. To keep the piece short and sweet, I decided to focus on three different aspects of the aerial bombardment: the overall mission distribution; the actors involved (both by country, and by military branch); and the most significant operations. After processing and visualizing the data in ArcGIS Pro, I published it to ArcGIS Online and pulled everything into a Story Map Cascade. Then, it was just a matter of adding some explanatory text, creating some simple charts in Illustrator, and sorting through the troves of relevant public domain imagery.

The overall mission distribution map paints an interesting picture of the aerial campaign. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North’s primary supply line, is clearly visible, weaving sinuously through borderlands of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Central Ho Chi Minh City, the erstwhile capital of South Vietnam, was evidently spared intensive bombardment, but its surrounding exurbs were decimated. The area near the demilitarized zone was similarly pummeled with explosives; on the map, it stands out like a sore bruise. The data tells us a surprising amount about where, and how, the war was fought.

The subset maps, which isolate bombing missions based on the participating force (first at the country level and then at the service branch level), are equally illuminating. South Vietnam and Laos mostly carried out bombing missions within their own borders, as both countries sought to dislodge local communist guerrillas. Meanwhile, the United States struck targets up and down Southeast Asia.

Likewise, while the U.S. Air Force was active throughout the whole theater of operations, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operated within much more restricted zones, possibly dictated by the roles and ranges of their aircraft. Few of the Navy’s carrier-based planes ever ventured more than a couple hundred miles inland, while Marine Corps missions concentrated on areas of intense infantry combat, as its aircraft primarily operated in a close air support role aiding troops on the ground.

I was also interested in seeing which specific aircraft models spearheaded the bombardment. Although the prevailing image of the aerial campaign is a sheet of bombs tumbling out of a massive B-52 Stratofortress, it turns out that smaller, more nimble aircraft carried out the vast majority of missions. This closely aligns with the U.S. military’s prevailing doctrine of restricted warfare at the time. Only in the closing stages of the war did the U.S. unleash large formations of heavy B-52 bombers to decimate urban and industrial areas.

The data can be pushed and pulled in a million different ways, and it was exceedingly difficult for me to limit the scope of my story map. Which branch of the U.S. military flew the most daytime ground-attack missions in Cambodia? Which U.S. Air Force unit dropped the greatest overall tonnage of bombs? What was the average duration of carrier-based U.S. Navy missions? Was napalm used more frequently in some countries than others? These are all questions that I mulled at some point or another, and that I knew the data could answer. But sometimes, less is more. This story map, simple though it may be, already tells us a great deal about the conflict; it’s informative at a glance, but rewards deeper investigation.

I hope this story map will encourage others to explore the data, to address the questions I left unanswered, and produce their own visualizations. After all, that’s the fundamental purpose of the THOR initiative.

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One app to rule them all: Every hobby drone law compiled

The ecosystem of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) is evolving so quickly that sometimes it becomes difficult for even industry insiders to keep up with all the developments. Take drone laws for example. On one hand, we have countries that have clearly-defined laws and regulations in place when it comes to commercial and recreational drone operations. On the other hand, drone laws are still taking shape in quite a few other nations. And then comes the major chunk of countries which are yet to start penning down regulations for safe and legal drone flying.

Commercial companies, of course, have enough resources at their disposal for due diligence, but what is a recreational user expected to do? Rummage around the Internet to find information about each country individually? Go to a travel forum and hope to find a reliable answer?

Not anymore! One handy app has already done this job for drone lovers. The app, DroneMate, collates all existing international rules for flying a hobby drone from every country in the world and labels them on a world map in a simple and convenient manner.

Created by a frequent flyer and tech blogger Anil Polat, DroneMate app is regularly updated from official sources to make sure that the information displayed is as accurate as possible. Moreover, it also lists down the state laws for the United States, as well as the drone rules from various tourist places across the globe.

Related: Paid FAA to register your hobby drone? Here’s how to claim a refund

“Earlier this year I bought a drone small enough to comfortably travel with, but quickly realized finding out the rules, regulations, and laws to abide by internationally were difficult,” Polat explains. “There’s a lot of online hearsay, misinformation, and people who tell you convincingly what the local recreational drone laws are but are often wrong. Filming with a drone might seem innocuous but flying a small aircraft and breaking the rules, even unknowingly, can get you in a lot of trouble.”

During his research on drone laws, Polat realized that people were having disparate experiences in countries where drone laws were either not being enforced or were being misinterpreted by local authorities. Which is why the app also has a comment section to allow users to share their experiences with fellow travelers and ask questions. The DroneMate map is also available offline, so you don’t have to worry about not having an Internet connection when you travel abroad. Bon voyage!

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