A Persistent Ground Based Surveillance Challenge

The idea of persistent ground based surveillance is not a new one, and anyone that has ever been to a town or city in the UK will understand full well what it means.
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In an era where personnel numbers are challenged, threats are everywhere and cycle time between observation and action, especially for high-value targets, becoming increasingly compressed, an all-seeing eye (or persistent surveillance) can provide many advantages in a variety of operational scenarios.

The idea of persistent ground-based surveillance is not a new one, and anyone that has ever been to a town or city in the UK will understand full well what it means. But in a defence and security context what caught my eye and prompted the idea for this post was a news story from Belfast Live about something being sold on eBay!

The item in question was from the Troubles era, a hedgerow cam.

Hedgecam

Secret British Army camera used to spy on IRA on sale on eBay

A covert British Army camera used to spy on the IRA and other terrorists have appeared for sale on eBay. The seller is asking £60 for the so-called hedge-cam that was used in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Four people have been watching the activity on the camera today which is being sold as equipment once used by the Army’s notorious Special Forces Special Reconnaissance Regiment in Northern Ireland.

The cylindrical item which houses a camera, is disguised in dark green and grey camouflage and a security source told Belfast Live: “These covert cameras could be put almost anywhere and everywhere particularly from the late 1970s to end of Operation Banner. “Normally they would be buried at the side of the road, in a hedge, in a tree, even in the gardens of some of the men of evil. They were important pieces of equipment because if people were recorded being at their place of work or at home when a terrorist incident took place, they could be immediately eliminated from interest.

“If they had 100 players and they could eliminate 98 of them from enquiries then the focus would then be on the two not accounted for. “The provo commanders would always blame non-existent informers especially when electronic intelligence gathering caught them.

The device itself was made by Kylmar, now General Dynamics.

The last paragraph caught my eye particularly, we know that sowing seeds of suspicion are an enduring and valuable tactic in counter-insurgency operations, organisations expend valuable energy trying to find non-existent traitors and curtail operational activity. Now, of course, this is 2016 [article first published in 2016], not the seventies. Enemies have a much greater awareness of electronic surveillance, but that does not mean the tactic has no value anymore.

We might also consider how they might be used on a conventional battlefield. Could they be used at potential chokepoints, placed nearby tunnels, road intersections or likely river crossing points? Non-covert surveillance has value, yes, but covert surveillance also has value, even in conventional scenarios.

Current Surveillance Systems

Am pretty certain, if we could produce a hedgerow cam in the seventies, would produce something much better today and a casual search reveals many suppliers and types of system, from the ubiquitous ‘nanny cam’ and ‘rock cam’ to ruggedised low profile Inmarsat BGAN terminals linked to advanced thermal imaging cameras.

Deployable Surveillance

There are all available now, and nothing is unique. Seraphim in Israel is a typical supplier of high-end persistent ground surveillance equipment.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMFIp5fydJo

It is interesting that Seraphim market some of their systems as ‘unattended gap fillers’ because that is exactly what they do, personnel and other systems cannot be everywhere all the time.

Long endurance power cells are also available, the example below is from SFC Defense

SFC Energy power Cell

But despite their availability, these kinds of systems have not found widespread use in all but the most specialised and limited scenarios. The simple reason is one of bandwidth availability and high cost, plus the ever vexing question of how to turn huge volumes of data into useful intelligence in a timely manner.

Challenges

So the challenge, if there is one, is to drive down the cost to such a level that they can become widespread and almost, disposable.

This also strikes me as the kind of challenge that would react well to an open competition, run by DSTL or one of our many esteemed universities, like a DARPA Grand Challenge.

For any sensor system, there are fundamental building blocks, sensor, control, power and communications. Once they have been perfected, the packaging and form factor needs to be decided. For an unattended system, they are all challenging, for a persistent sensor system, power is probably the single biggest problem. If we are to make them as ubiquitous as small arms they have to be cheap, to make them cheap they either have to be made in vast quantities or exploit off the shelf technology.

That means a unit price of less than £500

Sensors

The most obvious type of sensor is an optical one i.e. a camera. Fixed focus or zoom, daylight or infra-red, given the huge development activity with mobile telephones, the capabilities of modern small lens camera modules are simply out of this world compared to the hedgerow cam at the top of this page.

Optical

Full HD CMOS camera modules are readily available in retail quantities are available for less than £5, VGA sensors, even less.

VGA Camera Module

In the smartphone business, there are a number of key suppliers; Sony, Omnivision, Toshiba, SK Hynix, Samsung, LG and HTC. These manufacturers can supply camera and lens modules that incorporate image stabilisation, optical zoom, autofocus and infra-red colour correction. Wider aperture systems are also becoming more readily available for significant improvements in low lighting performance.

Toshiba produced the record-breaking 41-megapixel sensor for the Nokia 808 and also market a number of 8 and 21-megapixel sensors for the Project Ara modular smartphone. As the burgeoning Indian and Chinese smartphone market increases demand and volume, companies like OmniVision are selling 16-megapixel sensors that can capture 30fps HD video for less than a few US Dollars.

Infra-red illuminators would allow usage in nighttime conditions but an emitter is not a great idea in a passive surveillance system for both detectability and power reasons so the best solution would be to utilise low light models and rely on ambient illumination sources, or simply accept a compromise. The mobile phone market is also driving innovation here, using twin lens modules and in module noise reduction for example. Depth of field is reduced but for some applications, this may be acceptable. What is certain though is that small optical sensors, from the smartphone market, are increasingly capable and power-efficient.

A typical overcast day is between 1,000 lux and 20,000 lux intensity, a full moon is less than 1 lux and a quarter moon at 0.01 lux. Low light cameras are generally classified as requiring illumination between 0.1 Lux and 0.01 Lux. Moonlight level cameras between 0.1 lux and 0.002 lux, ultra-low light cameras can operate at less than 0.001 lux. As an example, JVT produces a 2-megapixel module that is 38mm square and can operate in colour at 0.001 lux. It can encode and compress the 1920×1080 image using an onboard H.264/H.265 system. Accept a higher lux threshold and the resolution can be improved, 2560×1920 for example, at 0.05 lux, in colour.

Spend a bit more, get a bit more, but the mass market devices at less than $50 are extremely capable. Although a day or low light optical sensor might seem like the obvious choice, seismic or even audio sensors could also be considered.

Signals

In addition, a signals intelligence payload might also replace the optical sensor.

Software-defined radio has its own open-source software and hardware community and they do often quite incredible things with low-cost TV tuner cards, single board computers and software. SDR simply moves signal processing into the software.

SDR defined by Wikipedia

Software-defined radio (SDR) is a radio communication system where components that have been typically implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system. While the concept of SDR is not new, the rapidly evolving capabilities of digital electronics render practical many processes which used to be only theoretically possible

VHF radios work in the 30-300 MHz frequency range. Cellular telephones, depending on a number of factors, operate between 850 MHz and 1,900 MHz. WiFi operates between 2.4 GHz and 5.9 GHz, whilst Bluetooth operates at 2.4 GHz. GPS operates at 1.57 MHz and 1.22 MHz. This presents many challenges as different hardware will be required but the aforementioned $20 TV Tuner card can be used to listen across a 50 to 1,750 MHz frequency range which puts many communication systems in range. Spend $300 and the open-source design HackRF One transceiver is available, this has an incredible 10Mhz to 6Ghz operating frequency. Sample rates are also extremely high.

HAck RF One

There are even App Stores for SDR.

Another signals intelligence capability might be derived from proximity advertising and the fast-growing ‘smart home’ market. Proximity advertising is a technique that presents targeted advertising initiated by the presence of a device. When the device approaches it is detected and either a large screen display started or some media ‘sent to the device, multimedia files for example.

In ‘Smart Home’ applications, the key to much functionality is detecting when a specific person enters a specific room or building in order to initiate other things, lighting or door opening for example. Each Bluetooth device has a unique MAC address which is used for proxy identification i.e. if this MAC address is detected this person is detected. The technology used for both these applications is Bluetooth, the well-known short-range personal network system. Detection for range for 2.5 GHz Bluetooth signals can be as high as 250 metres, although operating ranges are much smaller, 25 metres is more realistic.

Although 25 metres may seem like a small detection range it might be enough when used at specific choke points. There are over two billion Bluetooth devices in circulation. Put a detector close to the entrance of an army barracks and in peacetime, collect all the Bluetooth MAC addresses and build a database. As we have seen from the various social media posts of Russian soldiers in Ukraine maintaining operational security over soldier’s use of Smart Phones is actually quite difficult.

Now position the detector at a critical bridge and one could easily get a warning of concentrations of MAC addresses (and therefore units) in space and time for real-time intelligence of troop movements. Bluetooth is not just for Smart Phones either, keyboards, headphones and even fitness trackers are transmitters. Similar can also be achieved with GSM/3/4/5G telephones, hoovering up identification data for future location and correlation.

Cross Cueing

Cross curing one sensor to or from another has enormous potential.

With a signal’s payload able to show a concentration of a specific number of MAC addresses from soldiers Smart Phones at a key bridge, positive verification could be obtained by cross cueing an optical sensor at the same location. The signals payload provides a clue or marker and then the optical sensor provides both confirmation and positive evidence. Vehicle identification and quantities could confirm automatic number plate or shape recognition.

In real-time, early indications of massing or movement across specific locations could allow counter targeting. If a network of receivers was available, they could also be used for triangulation of more simple communication devices like VHF ‘walkie talkies’

Control and Processing

After the collection of visual or electronic information, something has to be done with it.

The data could be transmitted raw but that would likely come at a cost of unsustainable bandwidth and power issues and so some filtering or processing would need to be conducted on-board the device. Smart Phones and operating systems like Android would make a quick and relatively easy base on which to generate such processing but as am sure most of us know, they are hardly frugal when it comes to power consumption and for an unattended sensor, this is a bad thing TM

A more realistic alternative, and one which pushes the cost right down, is the many single-board computers now available.

The British designed and built Raspberry Pi is an obvious choice but even this might be over-specified, the ridiculously cheap Raspberry Pi Zero might be just as suitable. At a whopping £4 (you read that correctly) the Pi Zero has a 1GHz processor, 512Mb RAM and comes on a package 65mm by 30mm. There are a huge variety of readymade applications and peripherals for the Pi family including cameras, as shown below on the Pi Zero

Pi Zero

Whether it is signals analysis, number plate recognition, scene change detection or storage and compression of images ready for transmission, it is in the software load that the real power of such a device will be realised. The software should also enable the tidal wave of data to be tamed, this is where the sensor cross cueing and target recognition would be advantageous.

Researchers at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering have approached this task by limiting frame rates and combining this with an intelligent control system that recognises images through a novel pixel tracking algorithm

What this camera is actually looking at is not pixel values, but pixels added together in all different ways and a dramatically smaller number of measurements than if you had it in a standard mode”. The always-on camera was primarily designed as a way to wake up devices. But its ability to recognize specific gestures expands the possibilities – such as a camera that wakes up with a specific pattern or movement almost like a secret handshake. “We wanted to devise a camera that was capturing images all of the time, and then once you have a particular gesture – like you write a Z in the air – it’s going to wake up,” said Arijit Raychowdhury, an associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “To make that work without affecting the battery life, we wanted it to be so low power that you can power it with harvested ambient energy, such as with a photovoltaic cell.

As we know, with imagination the art of the possible is vast.

alwaysoncamera

As with sensors, the idea is to use readily and commercially available components.

Communications

Although collection for later retrieval might be of value in some circumstances there is a fundamental requirement to transmit collected sensor information to users.

Communications could be continuous, on a store and forward basis, on a time-lapse or in response to some stimulus. The stimulus could be a command signal or other sensor input, movement, seismic or acoustic for example. Instead of transmitting raw data from whatever sensor is used, the actual data transmitted should be processed, compressed and transmitted sparingly.

For video, compression technology means even full motion high definition video can be transmitted at relatively low bandwidths. The latest HEVC/H.265 standard is aimed at 4k video Raw 4K video needs more than 60Mbs but with H.265, this can be reduced to approximately 20Mbs. Proprietary technology like Beamr also claims to reduce this even further, down to 10Mbs. 1080p video compressed using the older H.264 compression technology consumes roughly 6Mbs.

This is still very high for wireless transmission and higher efficiency codecs usually require higher power computing, and in turn, this generates high power consumption and greater heat. If we go much lower, VGA (640×480 pixels), but still use H.265 the bandwidth requirement drops to approximately 0.5Mbs, or double that with H.264. We would also have to question the need for full-motion colour video, reducing the colour depth and frame rate provides a massive reduction in bandwidth requirement. Dropping to 1 frame per second at 352×240 would need 6Kbs, 10 frames per second at 640×480, 180Kbs.

As can be seen, transmitting at high definition and high frame rates is probably not practicable for this kind of device but accepting frame rate, colour depth and resolution compromises certainly makes it much more feasible.

A balance would need to be found.

Means of communication…

Satellite

Although satellite would be excluded on cost grounds, it could be seen as an option. The Low Profile BGAN terminal from Inmarsat is specifically designed for covert communications, it is state of the art with a state of the art price tag, about $20,000 each.

Low Profile BGAN

Offering bandwidths of up to approximately 0.5mbs it could comfortably handle video streaming, has a wake on SMS function, can be laid flat and is even covered in a thin layer of soil or sand.

Cellular

The most obvious means of communication for this type of device is to use cellular networks. Many studies have shown that cellular networks have remained remarkably resilient in conflict situations short of major wars with extremely high levels of infrastructure damage.

It might simply be an acceptable compromise to tolerate the risk of the device being disrupted in return for low cost and relatively low power operation. ‘Machine 2 Machine’, or M2M, terminals are sold in high volumes as everything from vending machines to street signs are increasingly connected. Yes, they would be much less secure than satellite, but there is also an advantage in hiding in plain sight. LTE modules can now be purchased for less than $50

Once connected the data would be transmitted over the cellular network and onto the internet for viewing, collection and analysis.

WiFi Internet

In built-up areas there are likely to be a large number of WiFi routers and hotspots that can be accessed automatically, using automated password cracking where required. A high gain WiFi antenna does not need to be large and can access WiFi signals from a broad area, hopping from to another to avoid detection and improve diversity.

High Altitude Platform (HAP)

One area that does show enormous potential for low power internet connectivity is the high altitude platform concept. Although this is not new, it is looking increasingly likely with Facebook and Google both investing large sums in the technology needed to realise it. Google Project Loon and Facebook unmanned teams are both collaborating and competing at the same time, but whatever the final outcome, the technology is progressing at pace.

With the Airlander 10 soon to make its debut in the UK and the Airbus Zephyr under contract from the MoD, there are likely to be a number of options for generating high altitude internet connectivity.

Airlander

WiMAX like bandwidth (approx. 10Mbs) to multiple devices over a 400km2 plus area seems to be the current aim point which would provide more than enough coverage for multiple devices.

Low Power Radio Networks with Backhaul

One concept that could also be promising in situations where sensor placement would be relatively dense is to generate an ad-hoc mesh network between the devices and then use a single communications hub for backhaul transmission.

Multiple devices connected over low cost and low power radio networks to a single satellite communication uplink would enable the high cost of the satellite equipment to be shared across multiple devices. As the ‘Internet of Things’ and smart metering progresses, the industry is producing a number of Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies. Although they tend to operate at lower bandwidths they may still be enough and are attractive because of their operating ranges, most over 10km for example, and low power/cost.

Power

Power consumption is very important, the Pi Zero (at idle and with HDMI disabled) sips power at a rate of 0.7 Watts per hour (120 mA). If more power is needed for sensor processing (as I think it would) then one of the more powerful single-board computers would be needed. A Pi 2 Model B is much more powerful than the Zero but still only consumes 1.2 Watts per hour (240 mA) at 5 Volts.

This calculation does not take into account any communication transmission, this is likely to be much greater (although the Pi figures above do include WiFi). The real-time continuous transmission will of course require much more power than transmit on sensor cue, command or on a timed basis. Each application would need to balance communication frequency with power available.

Batteries

A 100,000 mA ‘telephone power bank’ readily available on a certain global auction site for £15 could power a Raspberry Pi for about 10-12 days. (calculator here) Connect multiple such cheap power banks and a reasonable battery life could be generated. After use, the device could be retrieved, the battery changed covertly, or, simply abandoned. Modern power tool batteries are also increasingly efficient and offer significant capacity. 5 to 10 days may be suitable for some scenarios but for persistent surveillance, more would be needed.

Solar

Widely available, solar chargers could provide an enduring power system for sensors but they are not always discrete.

Careful placement of the collection panels would be needed but given the potentially small amount f power needed, this could be easier than imagines, especially in urban settings. Collection panels can also be separated from the sensor and associated electronics, they do not need to be in one large box. Mass market solar phone chargers that output enough power to charge a battery bank suitable for the example processor above can be obtained for £20-30 and are no larger than a couple of smartphones.

Power Cell

Where sunlight cannot be guaranteed and extended durations are needed, a fuel cell might be an effective means of generating sufficient power. The types shown above are very high power and very high cost but yet again, turning to the mass market reveals some interesting devices, mostly aimed at recharging cell phones. Off-grid power systems for CCTV, industrial process control and lighting are also becoming more widespread, although they are still relatively expensive and bulky.

Mains and Parasitic Power

In urban or even semi-urban environments, it Is probably just as easy to plug it into a mains socket

Problem solved!

This might not be as ridiculous as it seems, again, in many situations, mains power remains operable and one more device plugged into a house or industrial buildings power cabling might be just as stealthy as if it were hidden and operating on battery power.

Form Factors

The hedgerow cam at the top of this page was fitted into a metal cylinder but that does not mean all similar devices have to be the same. Put the sensor, processor, power and communications system into a black Peli case and it looks exactly what it is. Split the four modules or put them into common objects that do not look like Peli cases and they become much easier to conceal. In an urban environment, it should be relatively easy to conceal the sensor given it is likely to be no larger than a box of matches.

The principle is to hide in plain sight so attaching boxes to street furniture, bridge supports, cell towers and signage is unlikely to arouse any suspicion as they are already adorned in similar. Think creatively and match those boxes to the intended environment; rubbish containers, rubble, agricultural equipment, abandoned cars, shop signs, drainage pipes, street lights and advertising signs.

Summary

If we want to spend a lot, and after all, defence is expensive, there are suppliers that can deliver exactly what is needed. Creating a wireless and covert CCTV network across the strategic locations in a city like Basra is perfectly feasible with off the shelf technology.

But

It is expensive.

So, the point of this article is to ask if by a combination of accepting compromises and utilising off the civilian shelf components we can lower the price of deployment to such a point that makes such a network of sensors feasible and useful.

Stabilisation, security operations, or even some parts of conventional conflicts could be enhanced by pervasive and persistent surveillance using both optical and signals sensors. Throw in cross cueing and intelligent deployment and usage, and the case becomes compelling, I think.

It would also be interesting to throw the challenge of creating the building blocks open to those outside of the defence industry. Instead of going to market with a set of performance thresholds first, set the price point and a few vague objectives and then see what the academic and hobbyist community comes up with.

For £100k we could provide a kit of parts to one hundred participants. For those participants, offer another £50k in prize money and some bragging rights. Am a big fan of competition and experimentation, let’s see what we can get without the traditional defence primes coming anywhere near it!

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