Flood of Data Puts Air Force’s Drone Growth on Hold

By Eric Beidel
An Army drone operator once described his job like so:
“Basically you look at a field for hours and hours and hours and hours, waiting for something to happen,” he said. “It’s not very exciting.”
The rare moments of excitement come from spotting something that can be dealt with immediately, he said, such as insurgents firing mortars. Then the drone team can call in a strike on the enemy. Problem solved.
But it is the never-ending stream of pictures and video that has Air Force officials slowing the service's drone shopping spree that began in 2003.
The Air Force decided to reduce its purchases of Reaper drones from 48 last year to 24 in the proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget. The cutbacks have nothing to do with the effectiveness of the aircraft or sensor technology and everything to do with the underlying problem of finding the right mix of people and machines to make sense of the barrage of data, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told reporters April 5 in Washington.
“We’re clearly playing catch-up in this world,” Donley said.
This is why the service has decided to put a cap on the growth of its medium-altitude drones and "fill in the capability underneath,” he said.
Reaper and Predator UAV combat air patrols will stay put at 65 until service leaders figure out how to deal with the intelligence analysis problem, he said.
It’s not just about finding pilots to remotely control the aircraft, Donley said. It’s about the thousands more involved in trying to sort through data that is entering the Air Force processing archives.
The Air Force needs to determine the best way to store and manage that data so that it can be put to use in future operations, said Donley. “The sensors are collecting more than we can go through,” he said.
The service, along with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is investigating some machine-to-machine tools that would help analysts pore through the information, Donley said. It may take a couple of years until the Reaper combat air patrols surge again to a long-term goal of 85, the secretary said.
It is an uphill battle, because sensor technology is developing faster than the ideas to handle the information. “We have made progress on processing tools,” but not at the pace that sensors are being made to collect more data at increasing speeds, Donley said.
Data processing and analysis technology represents as important a “leap-ahead” capability for the Air Force as anything else, he said. In turn, the Air Force is devoting a lot of its research to the issue, he said.
“It’s not just on the platforms,” the secretary said. Moving intelligence from drones to the ground and then exploiting that information is receiving as much attention as the Joint Strike Fighter or a new aerial refueling tanker, he said.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Business Trends, C4ISR, Intelligence, Sensors, Defense Department, DOD Budget, Infotech, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology, DARPA

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