Battlefield Intelligence

Hyperspectral sensor lets drones see through camouflage, spot explosives

The Air Force is planning to test a high-powered spectral sensor for unmanned aerial vehicles capable of spotting such things on the ground as improvised explosives or camouflaged targets by identifying what those objects are made of.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center has announced plans to negotiate a contract with Raytheon Co. to test a podded version of the Airborne Cueing and Exploitation System-Hyperspectral (ACES-HY) on the Predator UAV.

The ACES-HY hyperspectral sensor can detect reflections from hundreds of bands in the electromagnetic spectrum. While humans can only detect visible light, the sensor will be able to see a breadth of infrared wavelengths to determine what an object is made out of, according to Popular Mechanics. The information collected would then be compared to a database of known signatures in order to determine what an object is.

One application for the sensor is its ability to detect improvised explosive devices by detecting disturbed dirt. Other military uses could include detecting camouflaged targets, chemicals and gasses, explosives, and hidden tunnel and cave entrances. The utility of the system in recent conflicts may have driven the rapid development of the ACES-HY.

Raytheon originally won the four-year contract in 2012 to develop and integrate the system with the MQ-1 Predator as the prime integrator, leading a team that includes L3 Integrated Optical Systems and Exelis Space Computer Corp, reports Military Aerospace. In September 2010, Raytheon said it was able to successfully complete flight-testing of the system on a manned Twin Otter aircraft to simulate the MQ-1 Predator.

The Advanced Responsive Tactically Effective Military Imaging Spectrometer (Artemis) represented the first use of hyperspectral sensors. Flown by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the sensor was attached to a satellite for a year and was able to collect and sort information in a matter of minutes.

ACES-HY represents an upgrade from previous multispectral sensors that have been used on military C-130 Hercules aircraft and MQ-1 Predator UAVs. The difference between multispectral and hyperspectral imagery lies in an arbitrary difference in detectable bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Multispectral sensors have three to 10 discrete bands of measurement that are spaced apart, while hyperspectral sensors can have upwards of 200 narrower bands over a continuous range.

By measuring across a continuous spectrum and having a finer spectral resolution, the ACES-HY should be more sensitive to small, electromagnetic variations. For example, a multispectral sensor could be used to map a parking lot, while a hyperspectral sensor would be able to detect whether the paint on any of the vehicles is military or civilian.

Although this level of specificity is useful, hyperspectral sensors will not replace all other electro-optical/infrared systems. The sensors are costly and complex – a single ACES-HY could cost up to $6 million, reports Military Aerospace, and could have unwieldy data requirements

About the Author

Joey Cheng is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems.

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