The Air Force plans to install a wide-area airborne surveillance sensor under its MQ-9 Reapers that lets troops look at more of the battlefield from more angles. Ten of the service’s Reapers will start getting the sensor in spring 2010.
The $15 million sensor will film an area with a four-kilometer radius underneath the Reaper during both day and night operations from 12 angles, said Robert Marlin, technical adviser for Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
The Army started using a similar wide-area surveillance sensor, the Constant Hawk, in 2006 and the Marine Corps followed suit with an upgrade called Angel Fire in 2007. Those sensors are mounted under manned aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan
The Air Force now has improved on Angel Fire with its Gorgon Stare, named after Medusa’s gaze that turned her enemies to stone. Gorgon Stare allows any user to choose from the 12 angles that it can broadcast simultaneously, Marlin said; Angel Fire allows multiple users to view its imagery but can broadcast back only one at a time. Angel Fire is also limited to day operations.
Gorgon Stare will allow a combat controller on the ground, a commander at headquarters and an intelligence officer back in the U.S. all to choose a different angle from the same Reaper, said Maj. William Bower, deputy program manager for the MQ-9 Reaper.
The sensor will supplement but not replace the multi-spectral targeting pod aboard the Reaper and the MQ-1 Predator that records full-motion video, Marlin said. He described the Gorgon Stare’s feed as “motion imagery, which will be like a slow, jumpy version of the full-motion video feed.”
Viewing that wider area, though, will allow airmen to “see the bigger picture” and have a better idea where to point full-motion video sensors, Marlin said.
Reapers and MQ-1 Predators are often called on to track vehicles and hover over buildings to watch for “squirters,” or insurgents running out of buildings during U.S. operations. Airmen controlling the sensors sometimes lose track of those vehicles or squirters if they drive or run out of view too fast.
Gorgon Stare will be invaluable in such instances, Bower said. Even if a vehicle drives out of the view of the full-motion video sensor, it will still be within Gorgon Stare’s range. Even if 12 squirters run in 12 directions, Gorgon Stare could dedicate one angle to each one, Marlin said.
Even after a mission is complete, Gorgon Stare will keep providing fresh intelligence by recording each angle. Airmen can then return to a previous mission and view all 12 angles to ensure nothing was missed, Bower said.
Reapers will initially be the only aircraft to fly with the Gorgon Stare, but the RQ-4 Global Hawk and manned aircraft could fly with it later, said Col. Christopher Coombs, 703rd Aeronautical Systems Group commanders, whose unit is in charge of UAV acquisition. The MQ-1 Predator and the Army MQ-1C Sky Warrior could be fitted with Gorgon Stare if Air Force engineers can figure out how to lighten the 1,100-pound sensor, Marlin said
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working with a wide-area airborne surveillance sensor that could provide up to 60 views.
“We’re enhancing this capability and will soon be able to study 30 to 60 targets with one MQ-9 pod,” said Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
What the Gorgon Stare won’t be able to do is replace Reaper and Predator missions, Marlin said.
“I think there is a misperception out there that because it can look at 12 different angles that it will be able to replace 12 Reapers,” he said.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, threw their support behind Gorgon Stare in part for “its potential to reduce the requirement for UAS with FMV and to make the latter more effective,” according to a committee report on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009.
“That’s just not true, but it will be a very powerful tool the Air Force will be able to use,” Marlin said.
The MQ-9 Reaper (pictured), a bigger version of the famed Predator drone, flew its first mission over Iraq on July 18, according to the Air Force. The armed Reaper deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 and first saw combat in the fall of that year. British officers compared the 5-ton bird to a “mini A-10.” The Brits are buying around a dozen Reapers of their own for Afghanistan service.
Reaper’s Iraq deployment is part of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ drive to get more surveillance systems into the fight. The Pentagon’s goal was to have enough deployed Predators and Reapers by 2010 to maintain 21 round-the-clock “orbits,” each requiring three or four drones. By raiding the training unit at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, the Air Force beat the deadline by two years. In May, the service announced that it had 24 drone orbits for the “war on terror,” including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and (presumably) Somalia.
But taking ‘bots from Creech has put kinks in the training system and possibly contributed to several recent crashes.
Defense firm Raytheon says better control stations are the solution. “The [current] Predator ground station displays are like an engineering diagnostics station, with complicated menus and ‘M-keys’ with functions that are easily confused,” said Katie Heilner, a Raytheon engineer. The company is offering new, simplified “Universal Control Stations” that it says will reduce the robot accident rate.
Regardless, Air Force is now aiming to deploy as many as 50 orbits by the end of this year. Lt. Gen. Mike Peterson said he wants most of them to be Reapers, but right now the Air Force has only a dozen of the bigger birds.
You may think your new ten-megapixel camera is pretty hot –- but not when you compare it to the 1.8 Gigapixel beast built for the Pentagon. The camera is designed as a payload for the A-160T Hummingbird robot helicopter now being quietly delivered to Special Forces. It will give them an unprecedented ability to track everything on the ground in real time. The camera is scheduled for flight testing at the start of next year.
Developed under the auspices of Darpa, the camera is the sensor part of Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System or ARGUS-IS. The camera is composed of four arrays, each containing 92 five-megapixel imagers. The other parts of ARGUS are the airborne processing system, which has to deal with a phenomenal torrent of data, and the ground-based element. The airborne part fits into a 500-pound pod.
The Hummingbird is unique in its ability to hover at high altitude (over 15,000 feet) and its endurance of over 20 hours. This means it can park high in the sky and scan a wide area. Robo-chopper camera-maker BAE Systems says that its imager will be able to cover an area of over a hundred square miles. The refresh rate is fifteen frames per second and a “ground sample distance” of 15 centimeters –- this means that each pixel represents six inches on the ground. (The Darpa diagram, above, suggests a smaller area of coverage, 40 square kilometers or 15 square miles, at that resolution.)
The volume of data is too great to be completely transmitted, but users will be able to define at least sixty-five independent video windows within the image and zoom in or out at will. The windows can be set to automatically track items of interest such as moving vehicles. In fact, the resolution is good enough for it to offer “dismount tracking” or following individual people on foot.
In addition to the windows, ARGUS will provide “a real-time moving target indicator for vehicles throughout the entire field of view in real-time.” Basically, nothing can move in the entire area without being spotted. Unlike radar, ARGUS can zoom in and provide a high-resolution image.
The camera is pretty impressive, but it’s the processing and the software behind it that will make this such a capable system. It would take a human a very long time to scan the whole area under surveillance if they were looking for something – but this is exactly the type of task which the swarming software we looked at last week excels at. Luckily enough, that just happens to be a Darpa program too. The technique of looking at small windows of interest also means that it may be possible to speed the frame rate up considerably – we previously looked at a windowing system so fast it could follow speeding bullets.
The ARGUS-IS mounted on the Hummingbird could be a significant battlefield asset for getting a real-time picture of what’s on the other side of the hill. And no doubt there will be civilian agencies who think it might be quite a useful capability for them to have too.
Mythological Footnote: Someone in Darpa may be a fan of the classics – Argus or Argos Panoptes was a giant, unsleeping watchman with a hundred eyes all over his body. Unfortunately he was killed by Hermes; according to the myth, his eyes were placed on the tail of the peacock.