Many years ago I wrote about a concept for a low-cost persistent surveillance devices that exploited cheap electronic components, and how they might be used for NATO border areas. The central idea was to treat them as disposable items, built with Rasberry Pi Zero Single Board Computer and widely available camera modules, deployed en-masse as part of a digital fence to provide defending forces with a mass of data that could be fused, analysed and ultimately, turned into valuable intelligence for decision-makers.
Bringing the concept up-to-date, what piqued my interest was some of the CCTV footage from Ukraine, particularly this one
A Digital Fence for NATO
When I say fence, I would perhaps call it more of a very thick belt. Instead of being thin like a physical fence, NATO nations on the border with Russia and Belarus might create a constellation of passive sensors, sensors that hoover up information and transmit it back for analysis. Their real benefit would only be realised if they were ubiquitous, it is no good creating a sensor network so exquisite it cannot be afforded or afforded only in certain parts. We should be thinking of flooding the border areas with such devices or at least having the infrastructure in place at readiness to do so.
The obvious one would be optical, 4k and HD cameras with good low light performance are available from upwards of twenty quid.
In addition to optical sensors, 3G/4G/5G, Bluetooth and HF/VHF/UHF boards are also readily available.
Sitting there, hoovering up approaching enemy forces electronic emissions as they move past the sensor.
An armoured column might have someone stupid enough to have their mobile phone on, collect that, cross-reference with their social media and type of vehicle, compare with number plate recognition if available, and you could start to build up an accurate picture, especially for high-value targets like senior officers or specialist vehicles.
With automation, it is certainly possible to envisage that identification is used to drive digital signage or social media messaging over mobile networks.
Instead of whatever that says (sorry), it could be a display that flashes up names and a morale-sapping message, reminding everyone that a rocket or missile is inbound now we know where you are!
The issue with processing is to strike a balance between onboard processing that requires power with bandwidth to backhaul it for further processing. A single-board computer might not have the power but they are getting more sophisticated all the time.
In the UK, we collectively purchase about 1.5 million smartphones every year, which means older ones are being replaced. The most contract length is 24 months, which means there are a lot of nearly new smartphones on the second-hand market. Your average Android or Apple phone is now incredibly powerful, they have USB interfaces and extremely good optics. Why bother with a Raspberry Pi Single Board Computer when you can use an out-of-contract second-hand handset? They probably have a greater second-hand value than an SBC, but certainly worth a look.
Using 4G/5G means the device is a radio emitter, which means it is detectable and requires more power than fixed networks. It also means reliance on civilian wireless telecommunications networks, although this makes deployment costs very low.
Using a fixed network means a fibre optic cable. In many places, this is not as ridiculous as it might sound, fixed networks on major roads, intersections, and buildings are commonplace. Their ubiquity makes them quite robust and resilient, although they would be totally reliant on power networks being available (as would a 4G/5G approach)
Pop outside, and look at the street furniture; telegraph poles, telecommunications masts and aggregation points, bollards, signage, lamposts, and gas and water pumping installations. Every single one of these has power that could be used, and in some cases, network over power cables or power over ethernet systems might also be used.
One difference from the last time I wrote about this is the huge progress in battery technology, so much so that power stations can be had for a few hundred dollars, and equipped with a portable solar panel could quite easily keep a single board computer going for a continuous 24×7 cycle indefinitely.
A plastic box, waterproof, with convenient holes for sensors and power/network connections, is hardly a complex challenge. Ideally, they would be housed inside existing street furniture or buildings.
Deployment and maintenance would be a factor of time and money.
With lots of both, a multi-year programme of ensuring street furniture is fitted with suitable connectivity would allow the sensor boxes to be quickly deployed in times of rising tension. This would be the ideal, fixed networks and mains power, devices hidden in existing infrastructure. If there was less time and money, a rapid deployment approach might be of lower cost but would perhaps be harder to disguise and likely reliant on portable power and wireless networking.
A mixed approach would likely be best.
Build the access points in-depth, at key road junctions first, then expand out.
This isn’t a sophisticated idea, but if we said a suitable single-board computer, with camera or radio sensor, and a power station could be had for £500 (and I think I am being somewhat generous there)
£5 million buys 10,000 of them or about 60 Javelins.
A fixed network to support 10,00 devices would obviously be vastly more, but I think you can start to imagine how the low cost and ubiquity of modern power and electronics can be used to ‘go large’.
The real challenge would be figuring out how to turn the vast quantity of collected data into useful intelligence, a software problem, but an interesting one.
This is not so much about early warning, but building up electronic footprints, understanding enemy movements, identifying high-value targets and providing target information for defending forces.