The U.S. military has deployed unmanned aircraft and other information collection devices at a pace that exceeds the capabilities of battlefield intelligence systems to archive, analyze and disseminate the video and imagery. Networks with limited bandwidth further compound the problem by slowing down data transmissions.
To combat the backlog, defense officials have distributed portable video receivers to ground units. While they can now access imagery that a drone is beaming down in real time, troops have complained that the solution tends to yield only a “soda straw” view of the battlefield.
Troops want to maximize the utility of the intelligence exploitation nodes, says John Kittle, project manager for Empire Challenge, an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance event sponsored by U.S. Joint Forces Command. War fighters are seeking improved ISR support for strike operations and roadside bomb search missions. They also would like more persistent surveillance capabilities to track insurgent commanders in urban areas, he tells reporters during a teleconference from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., where more than 1,700 participants were taking part in the 6th annual event. Many of them were plugged into the demonstration from distributed sites around the world, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and The Hague, Netherlands, where German and French imagery exploiters were seated at terminals looking at the data being collected and providing their analysis.
The focus of the annual event is to ensure that critical data that are gathered by U.S. and coalition teams can quickly be accessed by troops in battle, says Air Force Col. George Krakie, director for intelligence operations at JFCOM and the military lead for the challenge.
Out on the desert range, troops proceed through live scenarios that emulate battlefield conditions found in Afghanistan and Iraq. California National Guard members conduct convoy operations and cordon-and-search missions and are attacked by Navy reservists playing the role of insurgents. The hope is that the simulation will give the Defense Department an inkling of how technologies would fare in the war zones, officials say.
One of them is a new sensor ball that is being tested to “vastly improve the quality of video that comes down” from surveillance aircraft, says Kittle. With a video stream that will be protected by type I and type III encryption, the MX-15 high-definition digital ball, made by L-3 Wescam, is destined for the Predator unmanned aircraft program.
The system’s demonstration is offering intelligence analysts a first-time opportunity to discover the interoperability challenges associated with high-definition full -motion video. “We’re very anxious to work that problem,” Krakie says.
Army analysts are attempting to receive feeds from other sensors that they haven’t had direct contact with before, he adds. For example, the Navy P-3 Orion’s littoral surveillance radar system — a wide-aperture active electronically-scanned array surveillance radar that captures moving target data — traditionally has fed into naval intelligence-analysis centers. In the exercise, that information is transmitting directly into the Army’s distributed common ground system for the first time, officials note. The DCGS is a battlefield intelligence system that processes information collected from sensors and other networks.
“All this data has been available at some level out there, but it hasn’t been brought into an integrated architecture so that you can put all the pieces of the puzzle together and get the picture that you’re looking for,” says Krakie. That is critical because an activity that may seem completely benign from one sensor’s perspective could look a little more suspicious when a different sensor is added to the mix. Networking these sensors allows analysts to link those disparate bits of intelligence, he says.
“We’re very excited to have these new sensors and new capabilities in here. But from our perspective, it’s all about moving that data so that it can get to the tactical edge,” says Krakie.
Just because a drone is flying over a town doesn’t mean the troops who are watching its streaming video understand everything that is going on in the town, says Navy Cmdr. Dave Crissman, operations lead for Empire Challenge. “You don’t know where all the bad guys are just because you have an eye in the sky,” he tells National Defense.
In the exercise, he is role-playing a brigade commander at a tactical operations center. In one scenario, a British imagery analyst operating from a node in the United Kingdom chats online with his team. As they simultaneously watch feeds from a Boeing ScanEagle, his analysis assists them in deciding where that drone needs to fly next.
“If you can get that kind of information, start building a picture of who the bad guys are, then you can use that eye in the sky to help execute a mission you’ve figured out needs to be done. That’s what we’re trying to do here,” Crissman says. Providing the analysis to troops in the humvees gives them the full benefit of all the intelligence that’s being developed, he adds.
“They really like it particularly if guys like me step back and let them execute the mission that they’ve been given,” he says.
Pushing more ISR to troops out in the field is not simply a matter of giving them more handheld video receivers and laptops. Crissman says that a lot depends on the communications pipe in addition to the equipment. Teams are testing multiple bandwidth pipes to examine the benefits of higher bandwidth.
“Bandwidth is a challenge. But I don’t see it as a problem,” says David Barton, president of EchoStorm Worldwide LLC, a Suffolk, Va.-based contractor that specializes in video and data management. The challenge in distributing full-motion video in theater relates to the network infrastructure, he says. It is possible to transmit video to users who have 56 kilobits per second or less connectivity, or even over tactical radios, by reducing resolution and frame rate. In an experiment for the Defense Department, the company was able to push out one frame of video per second with metadata — information about the video including the coordinates, range and speed — over six miles with CB-like communications. “We have been really good at being able to service users who are truly disadvantaged with little communications,” says Barton.
For users who lack network access but who possess remotely operated video enhanced receivers, or ROVERs, the company produces the “Multiplayer,” an installable video player application that allows them to view imagery and the associated metadata over a radio-frequency link.
Other manufacturers are attempting to develop portable products to receive UAV downlinks in the field. Communications company Harris Corp. has unveiled a ROVER in the size, shape and weight of its handheld military radio product line. The RF-7800T can receive L-band, S-band and C-band UAV feeds and display them on an embedded screen or on a monocle to be worn over the eye.
Engineers have incorporated features, such as channel scanning, that are familiar to users of the company’s radios, program manager Chris Martin tells National Defense during a trade show in London. “It’s easy for the user to find that broadcast downlink,” he says.
For the intelligence analysts, a Florida-based software technology company, Modus Operandi, is developing tools to speed up the data filtering and fusion processes.
It has produced an application called joint unified maritime protection system-over the horizon for the Army’s DCGS battlefield intelligence system. Sensor data from eight different sources — ranging from signals intelligence aircraft and automatic information system ship transponders to free-text police reports — is scanned, sorted and flagged automatically by software.
“We’ve automated the process that an analyst would go through in his head, of looking up the status and finding and connecting the dots,” says George Eanes, vice president for business development.
The company plans to deploy the technology to a U.S. seaport for testing as early as next year.