Do UAVs really need HD cameras?

Unmanned systems conference offers opportunity for dialogue

Industry seems to have solved the problem of how to outfit unmanned aerial vehicles with high-definition video, but the big question is what specific missions require such video clarity, reports Michael Hoffman at Defense News.

U.S. airmen at home and abroad currently monitor grainy feeds from UAVs flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, but the technology now exists for them to view pictures of war as sharp as what they see on their home televisions.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said the service is developing anHD capability. “That’s something that is being worked on today,” he said.

The Unmanned Systems North America 2010 conference, hosted Aug. 24-27 by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Denver, afforded an opportunity for industry and Air Force officials to hold an informal dialogue on the technology challenges and mission needs for HD video on UAVs.

Representatives of imaging systems providers, who were displaying their respective sensor packages on the convention floor, said industry has overcome the challenges that have up to now made the use of HD cameras on UAVs impractical.

One of the primary challenges was to cut down the amount of bandwidth needed to transmit video feeds because bandwidth is at a premium in war zones.

Harris and ViaSat make encoders that compress the signal, while FLIR Systems and L-3 Communications offer sensor balls that have the encoders built into them.

Another challenge was to cut down the weight of HD sensors because each extra pound of equipment is one less pound of fuel the aircraft can carry.

To address that challenge, the companies lightened their HD sensors to make them only a pound or two heavier than their standard-definition counterparts.

One general who addressed the conference noted still more challenges. Brig. Gen. H.D. Polumbo, director of plans and programs at the Air Combat Command, wanted to know how much electricity the HD sensor balls need. He said the Air Force has found that there isn’t always a generator large enough to power a certain sensor and all the other electrical systems on the aircraft.

FLIR’s HD sensor balls use about the same amount of electricity as a standard-definition ball would, said David Strong, vice president of marketing at FLIR Government Systems.

In addition to the mechanical challenges, there are also important mission questions, Polumbo said.

“What military operations, what tasks do we need HD in our sensors and in our full-motion video?” he asked. “When you find those repeatable military tasks that require it, we get it done.”

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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