Sensor-laden plane to watch convoy routes in Iraq for ambushes, bombs

The 40-pound ScanEagle UAV, launched from a trailer, is loaded with electro-optical cameras or infrared sensors to scan convoy routes.

Troops in Iraq might soon have a new digital eye in the sky to warn them of deadly roadside ambushes or other attacks.

An unmanned aerial vehicle developed for commercial use by Insitu Group Inc. of Bingen, Wash., is being adapted for use in Iraq by Boeing Co.'s Integrated Defense Systems unit.

'We decided to partner with Insitu to come up with homeland security and military applications for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,' Boeing spokesman Charles Ramey said.

ScanEagle is smaller and less expensive than other military UAVs now in Iraq, such as the Predator. Instead of weapons, ScanEagle carries electro-optical cameras or infrared sensors to look for problems along military convoy routes.

The UAV recently made a fully autonomous flight from a ship on Puget Sound, Wash., taking off and returning with no assistance from flight controllers.

Image enhancement tools from Pixon LLC of Setauket, N.Y., double the resolution of real-time video sent from the UAV.

'We are starting to integrate it into our image processing flow on the ground,' said Steve Heppe, Insitu vice president of avionics. 'The major benefit appears to be sharpening up images that have been degraded by dust and haze.'

The system has had a number of military trials, including the Forward Look exercises conducted by the Defense Department's Joint Forces Command.

Detecting explosives

Pixon CEO Amos Yahill said the Marine Corps will test ScanEagle with PixonVision image processing, to seek improvised explosive devices along roadways in Iraq.

'For that, improvements to image quality are important,' Yahill said.

Pixon's imaging technology was commercialized with the aid of several federal programs. A prototype of PixonVision, a real-time video hardware implementation, was developed with a pair of Small Business Innovation Research grants from NASA. The Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology, a DOD-funded program administered by the San Diego University Foundation, provided $75,000 in development money and market research.

'They directed us toward the UAV market,' Yahill said.

The image enhancement technology originally was used in the early 1990s at the University of California at San Diego to improve astronomical images collected by array cameras.

Pixon software removes noise from the signal, corrects for blur and adjusts the dynamics range for human eyes.

The original technology took too long to process, however. The time varied as a square of the number of pixels, so it could handle only relatively small 256- by 256-pixel images without very powerful computers. By cutting some corners and moving to hardware, Pixon applied the process to video.

PixonVision, which uses an application-specific integrated circuit, can reconstruct 640-by-640 images at 30 frames per second for real-time viewing. The hardware-software appliance fits a standard military rackmount within the imaging chain, connected to video inputs and outputs.

'There is a price to pay for that' in image quality, Yahill said. 'But it is not that great a price.'
The Quick Pixon method improves video resolution by a factor of two, compared with the full Pixon method, which can make fourfold improvements. 'Even with today's hardware, you still can't do full Pixon in real time,' Yahill said.

Insitu originally developed its SeaScan UAV for commercial fisheries.

The 40-pound ScanEagle version is four feet long with a 10-foot wingspan. It can stay in the air up to 15 hours and fly above 16,000 feet. The optical system is inertially stabilized to keep cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. The craft can be guided manually by ground controllers or fly preprogrammed missions without control. It is launched from a catapult and recovered with a wing hook that catches a rope trailing from a 50-foot pole.

Although neither as robust nor as deadly as the Predator, the ScanEagle would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of several million and be easier to deploy in hostile areas.

Ramey said Boeing hopes to announce its first government ScanEagle customer this summer.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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