New UAV sensors could leave enemy no place to hide

Wide-angle imaging systems offer multiple views of battlespace to enhance target identification

Despite the increase in unmanned airborne surveillance, this rapidly expanding resource is limited when it comes to battlefield focus. It can zero in on just one target at a time, making it tough for unmanned aerial vehicle users when there are numerous, fast-moving targets in the area.

That will start to change in spring 2010, when the Air Force starts introducing a new sensor that allows a number of different users to simultaneously view an area from 12 separate angles.

A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program could boost that to a minimum of 65 angles within a few years.

The $15 million Gorgon Stare, as the Air Force has labeled the new sensor, initially will be slung underneath the MQ-9 Reaper UAV. Other vehicles such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV and even manned aircraft could be fitted later.

It’s intended to supplement the multispectral targeting sensor that the Reaper carries now to transmit full-motion video of target areas. Gorgon Stare, which operates in the day and at night, has a slower refresh rate, but it will allow users to pick targets of interest that the full-motion video sensor can then focus on to get a more complete idea of their nature.

The future DARPA system, called the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance — Imaging System (ARGUS–IS), takes the concept a step further. It uses a 1.8 gigapixel camera running at 15 frames per second to provide a 27 gigapixel/sec video image.

That’s one of three ARGUS-IS subsystems. The other two are an airborne processor that can handle more than 10 teraops (1,012 operations per second) and a ground processing subsystem that records and displays the information sent to it by the airborne processor.

The 65 independent video feeds are the first application that will be embedded into the airborne processor. DARPA has already planned for a second application that will provide for a real-time moving target indicator to enable users to track vehicles throughout the sensor’s entire field of view.

The ARGUS-IS will first be integrated into the A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter for flight testing and demonstrations, DARPA officials said.

Both the Gorgon Stare and ARGUS-IS are next-generation improvements of existing wide-area surveillance sensors, which are used only on manned aircraft. The Army’s Constant Hawk started flying in 2006, which the Marine Corps upgraded in 2007 to a sensor called Angel Fire.

Unlike Gorgon Stare or ARGUS-IS, the daytime-only Angel Fire can broadcast only one of its multiple use video channels at a time. The new sensors are also designed to be platform agnostic and integrate with the Distributed Common Ground System, the network backbone for the military’s net-centric intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.

These UAV developments mean that there will be a rapid expansion in aerial surveillance data. Lt. Gen David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, said at a Pentagon briefing in July that the military is “going to be swimming in sensors and drowning in data.”

The goal is to boost the number of UAV 24-hour patrols over Iraq and Afghanistan from about 35 to 50.

To cater to those needs, Deptula said ISR units will need to add 2,500 analysts by shifting people from existing Air Force positions.

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