High-definition video redefines military task list
Increased bandwidth just the beginning of changes needed to adopt full-motion video feeds
The Defense Department's decision late last year to equip unmanned aircraft systems with high-definition cameras will help operators better distinguish a wedding party from a pack of insurgents. However, it does present new challenges for those tasked with using full-motion video (FMV) feeds from aerial platforms.
One of the foremost problems is the additional bandwidth necessary to transmit and receive high-definition FMV. For example, the Air Force has established intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance exploitation cells (ISRECs) in Afghanistan and Iraq for the imagery that the MC-12 Project Liberty aircraft collects. However, those facilities were originally designed to handle standard-definition FMV.
“The job for the ISREC is easier the more definition you get,” said Maj. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of the Air Force's ISR Agency at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. “You can put better sensors on the airplane and store the data on board. The problem occurs when you beam it down to the ISREC. Technically, we have to figure out how to package that data so it doesn’t take up as much bandwidth and data storage space.”
At the tactical level, the bandwidth challenge becomes greater as warfighters depend even more on wireless networks, with the added complication of encryption.
“Bandwidth is not as available in the tactical arena as it is at operational levels,” said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager of the Army's UASes. “So for us, it does create additional challenges, specifically when you’re using wireless tactical networks. There are lots of things we can do to compress video or capture still images and send them forward in a tactical network. We have experience doing that, and we can work through it.”
The military services also must integrate high-definition cameras into payloads designed for standard-definition cameras, and they must ensure that HD cameras are compatible between, say, the Army’s Sky Warrior system and Air Force’s Predator platform.
For example, DOD's Joint Requirements Oversight Council has mandated that the Army outline how it will integrate an HD capability into the common sensor payload of the Extended Range Multi-Purpose Sky Warrior UAS. The Army was given 90 days to devise a plan, as of Feb. 2 when the Sky Warrior passed Milestone C.
Another element is the displays for UAV imagery. They are all standard definition. In the world of consumer electronics, it doesn’t make sense to pay for HD broadcasts if you’re watching on a standard-definition TV. The same goes for the military.
“You have to change both the software and the displays so that the high-def FMV collected by the sensor passes down to the soldier and is viewed on the screen as high def,” Gonzalez said. “But you have to be careful not to over optimize. We don’t just want to give high definition for its own stake. We want to get them the definition they need to perform their mission.”
In the Infancy of FMV
“There is a dramatic growth rate in the amount of video being generated in the tactical environment,” said Doug Smith, president and chief executive officer of Ericsson Federal, which does classified work for DOD in managing the flow of video traffic. The company has built a third-generation broadband network based on High Speed Packet Access protocols, the underlying protocols behind AT&T’s 3G network over which the Apple iPhone operates, that is specifically designed to be installed on UAVs and inside Humvees.
“As we roll out 3G in Afghanistan this summer and soldiers can generate their own video with an iPhone, the explosion of video traffic that DOD will have to manage will be stunning. There will be many questions to answer, including who owns it, where did it come from and who can see it.”
The military likes to preach the phrase “every soldier a sensor,” but that’s based mainly on soldiers' abilities to see, hear and talk. When they have a physical sensor in their hands, such as an iPhone, that phrase will mean more in terms of situational awareness.
Moving FMV around the battlefield is the responsibility of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, DOD’s functional lead for geospatial intelligence, which includes still imagery and motion imagery. As one of the combat support agencies, NGA is responsible for developing standards for motion imagery and the long-term storage of geospatial intelligence.
“If the data is appropriately formatted and has the appropriate metadata, which is the data about the data, then it can be managed and moved around the enterprise,” said Navy Cmdr. Joe Smith, military deputy at NGA's Sensor Assimilation Division. “I won’t say it is easy, but it is technically feasible to get it into the hands of the people who are supposed to get it."
For some, the biggest challenge isn’t the technical task of handling video; it's social engineering. The military has only recently harnessed video technology for use outside weapons systems. There has been weapons camera footage for many years, but video for ISR on the battlefield is relatively new.
“The first Predator showed up in late 1995/early 1996, about 15 years ago,” Smith said. “Imagine the first 15 years of carrier aviation. That is sort of where we are. We are still getting our arms around it. A lot of our ISR systems and the ground systems that manage that data are now just starting to get into a rhythm of managing this as a common data type."
Standards are a necessary component, but Smith said they are not sufficient to guarantee that any system can retrieve and view data.
“We’re not at the point where you could pull up a U-2 video on any computer that has a Web browser,” Smith said. “What’s necessary is people using the same engineering guidelines and recommended practices for implementing the standards correctly. There are systems that are standards compliant, but because they’ve taken liberties with the optional part of the standard, our systems have not caught up yet with that implementation.”
In that respect, NGA has its work cut out for it, especially as sensors proliferate. In addition to military services and special operations commands, organizations outside DOD, such as first responders and the Homeland Security Department, are developing sensors. For all of those agencies, NGA is responsible for ensuring that their data can be stored, discovered and accessed.