Full-motion video from unmanned aircraft systems has proved a tremendous benefit to intelligence gathering in war zones.
No doubt about it, unmanned aircraft systems are altering the face of warfare.
The sea change of the past decade, starting with a massive push to get platforms in the air, has evolved to where the industry finds itself today: focused on full-motion video, day and night, according to one industry official.
“You can provide 24/7 coverage in a very localized area, streaming [electro-optical] spectrum video in the daytime and [infrared] spectrum at nighttime, so there’s literally the possibility of having eyes in the sky all day and all night,” said David Vos, Rockwell Collins’ senior director of unmanned aircraft systems and control technologies. In August, Rockwell Collins was tapped to provide a full suite for the Blue Devil Block II, the Air Force’s airship designed for persistent surveillance.
“That has been a huge contribution to be able to prosecute these battles, these wars around the world, whether it’s been the direct line of war, information gathering intelligence, tracking suspicious characters — it has just made a significant impact on all of those fronts,” Vos said.
Meanwhile, those fronts are growing. The Economist reported in 2010 that the data feeds from high above Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 amassed 24 years of video footage, with estimates expected to increase thirtyfold by this year. One look at emerging capabilities explains the dramatic uptick. For example, FLIR’s Cobalt 190 full-motion video and multispectral imaging sensor integrated into L-3 Interstate Electronics' VideoScout has seven simultaneous payloads. The FLIR Star Safire 380-HD multispectral sensor, which was recently integrated into Northrop Grumman’s Firebird, is capable of four simultaneous payloads.
“The capabilities growth is really stunning, not just in terms of sending back more and more detailed visual data but also the growing combination with other sensors so that you can gain a multispectral view of what is being seen,” said Peter Singer, Brookings Institution defense analyst and author of "Wired for War."
However, multiple views can help. Earlier this year, the military unveiled Gorgon Stare, a nine-camera aerial drone that officials say can relay the scope of an entire city. However, the advancement is becoming the poster child of problems to come, observers have said.
A persistent stare capability provides troops situational awareness and the ability to potentially distinguish friend from foe, said Rand defense analyst Brien Alkire. Blanket expansion of UAS systems also counters their fundamental limitations: a narrow field of view. “Persistent stare is great if you know where to stare," Alkire said. "It’s not so good when you don’t know where to look in the first place.”
“The growing use and fidelity of the systems is really causing problems of clogging bandwith, so there are many efforts to figure out how to resolve this on the sensor end, as opposed to just trying to add more bandwidth,” Singer added. “These range from sending smaller packets of information back to adding in some autonomy so that the system only sends back information when it finds something notable or when is actually needed.”
Sorting through the mass of intelligence with the assist of automated image processing is the new frontier, Vos predicted. “Being able to extract actionable intelligence or useful information from these, in effect, a complete view of the landscape or the world, is where the big challenge lies now.”