Wide Area Surveillance Sensors Prove Value on Battlefields

By Stew Magnuson

Heidi Breslow, a retired Marine Corps corporal and battlefield intelligence analyst, described how she would use unmanned aerial vehicles coupled with the latest wide area airborne surveillance sensors to help protect ground troops.

When Marines were transported by helicopter to conduct an operation the wide-angle camera provided a broad view of the area. Specialists such as herself watching the scene from a command center could search the surroundings for ambushes or any other dangers and alert the Marines on the ground.

If she did spot something suspicious, an unmanned aerial vehicle with a higher resolution camera could be flown in to take a closer look.

“Having both sensors at the same time is always better because you have that constant perimeter outlook,” she said in an interview.

Many life-saving technologies such as drones, robots and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles were rushed to battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade out of necessity. Wide area airborne surveillance, while not as well known, made its debut in Iraq in 2005, and has also become an invaluable asset, providing a  godlike view of cities and battle zones.

Unmanned aerial vehicles with day/night cameras and full-motion video have filled the skies, but they only provide what has been called a “soda straw” view of the battlefield.

That’s fine when traveling down a narrow highway to search for improvised explosive devices. But this constricted point of view may miss insurgents laying in wait a few hundred yards off the road.

Wide area airborne surveillance, which may be onboard an aircraft circling a town or city, or on a tethered lighter-than-air blimp, also known as an aerostat, gives analysts and commanders offsite a persistent over-watch.

Not that these two sensors are competing.

“I think people are coming to understand that the soda straw sensor and wide area together are a powerful combination,” said John Marion, director of persistent surveillance at Logos Technologies.

Logos manufactures the Kestrel, a surveillance system which is attached to a tethered blimp that hovers thousands of feet above an area.

The program originated in the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory a decade ago. The first iteration was the Constant Hawk, which was mounted on a manned aircraft. It was initially sent to Iraq for a three-month assessment, but it remained there for the next five years. There was a parallel program in Afghanistan.

Kestrel is an improvement in terms of weight, resolution, and can stare down on targets day and night, Marion said.

“Since it is on an aerostat that is up there 24/7, it’s got great persistence. It is up there for weeks at a time,” he added.

Kestrel is currently employed on both the Persistent Threat Detection System and Persistence Ground Surveillance System in Afghanistan.

Logos delivered 16 sensors and 10 aerostats in September 2011 after being asked to reduce its size, weight and power needs, and to make it fit on a blimp. It has logged 15,000 in-air hours as of August.

In October, Naval Air Systems Command awarded a $111.8 million contract to develop an additional 22 Kestrels. The NAVAIR contract calls for the delivery of 20 Kestrels and spare parts, as well as two units for testing and upgrading. In addition, Logos Technologies will provide operational, logistical and analytical support for the system through 2013.

NAVAIR purchasing more Kestrel systems will be welcome news for the Marines on the ground.

Breslow said one of the problems during the year she served in Afghanistan that ended in February was that the sensors were in such high demand, that the command was only allotted a certain number of hours per day to use them. There were times when wide area surveillance was not available, she said.

“When we did not have that asset, it definitely made things harder,” said Breslow, who is now a software trainer for Praescient Analytics. It provides more security for the troops on the ground.

Other companies are fielding similar wide area surveillance sensors. BAE Systems has fielded the airborne wide area persistent surveillance system on manned aircraft, which has logged more than 5,000 hours in theater, said John Kelly, director of advanced ISR solutions at the company.

Wide area sensors are being used in many different ways. Providing an extra set of eyes in the sky as troops move through cities, as Breslow mentioned, is just one, Kelly said.

Analyst can “stake out” certain areas. They draw a watch box on the screen where a hotspot might be, and the software can alert them as to when there is movement. An area known for improvised explosive devices, for example, can be blocked off so when there is any sign of someone digging a hole and burying a bomb, the camera can automatically zoom in. It can also track cars and people.

It can only zoom in so much though, so a manned or unmanned aircraft could be called into get a closer look.

“If something goes in or out of that [watch box], or moves inside of that, it alarms the analyst,” Marion said.

It automatically cues the full motion video ball to zoom in and take a higher resolution image. The analyst doesn’t really have to do anything to be presented with a close-up view of the event that is happening, Marion said.

Both the Logos and BAE systems store the data, so they can be used forensically as well. If a bomb goes off, the analyst can backtrack to see where and when an insurgent planted it and follow him back to where he came from. Or they could forward track to see where he went.

“Think of it as a movie of Google Earth the size of a city and the TiVo aspect so you can record it all and go back in time,” said Marion.

The first wide-area sensors were large and consumed a lot of power, officials from both companies said. The second-generation systems are now small enough to be on aerostats or possibly unmanned aerial vehicles the size of a Predator.

Both BAE and Logos are striving to reduce the size, weight, power and price of the next generation wide area surveillance sensors.

Bruce Konigsberg, director of business development for persistent surveillance at BAE, said, “From our standpoint the customer is always looking for wider and wider areas, with better and better resolution.”

Kelly added: “We are driving the size, weight, power and cost out of these systems while at the same time taking combat proven capability from other sensor types and putting them all together for multi-int solutions.”

“Multi-int,” the integration of several sensors in one ball, will be the future, he predicted. That means full-motion video, multi-spectral imagers, wide area surveillance, multifunctional radars and such all in one package.

It is simply more affordable to own and operate these platforms when they can do more than one task. If one UAV can do the job of three, that will save funding, Kelly added.

BAE is also a contractor for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s autonomous real-time ground-ubiquitous surveillance-imaging system or ARGUS-IS, a multiple camera sensor that can display 65 separate windows, each tracking targets separately from each other. Put together, it will give analysts a wider area to view as well. It can autonomously track individuals or vehicles across wide expanses.

BAE is currently developing the data processing system for the program’s next version, and integrating a high-resolution infrared sensor.

To date, aerostats, slow moving UAVs and manned aircraft have all carried these wide area surveillance sensors. The blimps allow the sensor to come in a smaller package because of an aircraft’s engine vibration. A dampener, which ensures that the image is not shaky, takes up a lot of space.

But an aerostat is a big fat target in non-permissive environments. The U.S. military for the past decade has enjoyed unfettered access to airspace over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Neither Logos Technologies nor BAE executives would comment on efforts to fly these sensors over areas that are defended by robust anti-aircraft systems.

Both vendors see opportunities in the border security market. On the U.S. southern border, for example, Customs and Border Protection has a fleet of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles. But they also employ mostly full-motion video cameras and finding smugglers or illegal migrants in vast deserts can be like hunting for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate last spring brought two Kestrel systems to the Nogales sector in Arizona for one week to see how they would operate along the border. The area has a mix of urban and hilly, desert terrain. 

The system helped Border Patrol agents intercept 120 people attempting to cross illegally, Marion said.

In one case, agents using the sensor tracked a group of smugglers that was carrying backpacks that were most likely loaded with drugs, but the Border Patrol couldn’t dispatch agents to their location in time. The agents noticed that they didn’t have the packs anymore. They were able to backtrack and determine where they had stashed them, and Border Patrol officers were able to retrieve the contraband before the drug cartel, he said.

Photo Credit: Logos Technologies

Topics: C4ISR, Sensors

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