Nothing But Eyes

Gorgon Stare Pod

I looked at persistent surveillance a while ago whilst on the subject of the RAF but progress marches on and although not strictly the UK related it is no less interesting.

Most of us reading this will have heard of the US system called Gorgon Stare and I think we can all appreciate the benefit of persistent surveillance for all spectrums of military operations.

One of the limiting factors with existing systems is that in general, they can only look at one place at a time. Even accepting the wide-area radar view being able to cross cue optical sensors from different or the same collector platform we are still suffering from looking through the proverbial soda straw and in general, full-motion video is used for the ‘here and now rather than piecing together a long term wide area picture. You may have heard of the term ‘patterns of life’ and this is used to describe this wide area medium-term view, by understanding how people move (or not), distribution of indicators like crop harvesting and other fiendishly clever analysis great deal can be ascertained. Although we have used this in the context of COIN type operations where analysing patterns of movement of the civilian population can deliver vital clues about enemy activity, contraband smuggling and IED emplacement it also has utility in more intensive combat operations as well as long as the aerial platforms can remain aloft.

The UK has used this a great deal in Afghanistan, with the Royal Navy ASaC Mk7’s playing a particularly vital role.

Understanding that local villagers always use a particular route to their fields and being able to determine that they are no longer conforming to their norms might indicate that enemy forces are operating in the area, the presence of IED’s or other suspicious activity. It is a tremendously useful and innovative technique, stitching together various sensors feeds and other intelligence to create a big picture and changes in this picture stick out like a bulldog’s dangly bits.

In response to this need US forces have fielded the Gorgon Stare system.

Gorgon Stare, or to give it its proper name, Wide Area Airborne Surveillance (WAAS) pod is a Sierra Nevada system of five electro-optical still cameras and four infrared cameras for day and night wide-area surveillance. It provides multiple views of the battlefield and is mounted in a couple of pods on the Reaper UAV. Operating in conjunction with the Distributed Common Ground System it stitches together the multiple views into a single composite feed. Displayed as multiple tiles or if needed, a single or smaller number of tiles can be composited. Because of the huge data rate, it would not be possible to transmit at the full-motion video of 25-30 frames per second so instead scales this down to 2 frames per second, which is entirely adequate for its intended use. The initial versions monitor everything in a 4km by 4km square but this will be increased with later versions. Coupled with this wide-area view is its ability to provide forensic replays, an IED goes off in a particular area for example and an analyst can simply rewind the image square for that area, picking up the people who laid it, where they came from, how they moved and potentially, where they are now. Automated image analysis tools are also being used to maximise the benefit of all this data and video compression technology based on Fourier transforms is also improving, better compression effectively means more data down a limited bandwidth pipe.

With constant improvement in solid-state storage and video compression techniques it could be feasible to provide video storage/caching as part of the observation payload, thus reducing the amount of backhaul bandwidth.

In effect, the aerial platform becomes a large Sky Plus / TIVO box or town centre CCTV system

Commercial SSD storage, 60Gb for example, costs about £80 and weighs less than 250g. That’s about £1.50 and 0.005Kg per gigabyte. H.264/MPEG4 for example, can have embedded XML metadata (location, time date etc), is adaptive, able to change bitrate depending on the bandwidth available, able to use cheap single-chip encoders and can squeeze a standard digital TV resolution video/audio stream into a very small data stream. Depending on quality settings and other factors it could be about 4-5 Gb per hour of footage. Change from full-motion video to CCTV frame rates and the storage capacity is significantly increased.

All the storage vendors are now offering a range of SSD based storage appliances and using the very rough figures above, 24 hours of video footage would be less than a kilogram and £200. MPEG4/H.264 might not be the most ideal codec but I have used this example to illustrate how rapid advances in civilian technology, squeezing video down mobile and broadband links combined with the demand for solid-state storage, can deliver tangible military benefits.

The key difference is that the system is available for the ‘customer’ to pull down, rather than pushed forward by request. This is a fundamental change in the way video imagery is provided, the existing stove-piped ‘knowledge is power’ structure is completely turned on its head, a paradigm shift if you want a ten pointer!

Gorgon Stare did have a number of problems, perhaps unsurprisingly for such an advanced system.

Moving beyond Gorgon Stare is the DARPA sponsored ARGUS-IS project being developed by BAe.

This ambitious programme will create a 1.8 Gigapixel camera system able to cover a 40 km2 area at 15 frames per second from an A160 Hummingbird or Reaper UAV. To process this enormous data volume it will use an airborne processing system to deliver up to 65 windows that users can zoom into or out of on-demand. The software makes the difference; its advanced target recognition algorithms provide movement detection and target tracking.

Other payloads might include the ubiquitous EO sensor pod, SAR or multiples of the same.

It is ARGUS that has been in the news recently with a planned deployment to Afghanistan very soon.

The combination of ARGUS and the innovative long endurance high altitude Boeing A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter looks to have enormous potential, both at sea and overland.

There are also a number of reports that ARGUS is due to be mounted on the ginormous Blue Devil 2 airship, a week-long endurance and all-seeing eyes, combined with other sensors and an airborne radio relay is something that is hard to dislike!

Airships are not without their problems but the technology is rapidly maturing.

As a bit of an afterthought, we discussed the on/off Sea King ASaC Mk 7 replacement and noted a podded solution from Lockheed Martin called Vigilance as a front runner.

Given the Hummingbirds increasing maturity and the technology behind the Vigilance Pod, the same radar as the F35, would combining the two provide another option for CVF?

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