Airborne surveillance is moving fast. We’ve seen the 66-megapixel Angel Fire and 39-megapixel BuckEye sensors being used in operations, while the even more powerful Gorgon Stare is being flight tested next year. In February we reported on DARPA’s Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance - Imaging System (ARGUS-IS ), a 1.8 gigapixel flying eye which will be mounted in a 500-pound pod carried by a Predator or A160 Hummingbird robocopter. The ARGUS-IS makes for an impressive camera, with the resolution and processing power to track a large number of separate items including “dismounts” — people on foot — over a wide area, as well as “a real-time moving target indicator for vehicles throughout the entire field of view in real-time.”
But ARGUS-IS is already looking old. Now the Army is asking for something even more powerful. In a new request for solicitations, it outlined the concept for a novel visible/infrared sensor that will cover a much larger area on the ground — with much higher resolution.
The sensor is required to be lightweight with low power consumption and to have significantly lower operating costs compared to existing systems, and must be able to operate from small aircraft, either manned or unmanned. In terms of specifics, the Army is looking for 2.3 gigapixels running at two frames per second. By my reckoning, this suggests continuous coverage of area of around sixty-two square miles at 0.3m resolution with a single sensor. That’s quite a step up from Angel Fire, which covers a tenth of the area at much lower resolution. And the new camera will work in the near-infrared range as well. This is useful for analysis, as sometimes things that are invisible in the normal range can be picked out easily in infrared; it also means that people can be illuminated without being aware of it.
At this point, the Army is still looking for proposals, and actual working hardware is some years down the line. However, the technology is moving fast and there is little doubt that the following generation will be much smaller than the 500-pound ARGUS. The PANOPTES being developed by Marc Christensen at Southern Methodist University with DARPA funding could potentially cut camera weight by a factor of ten by using a large array of small imaging elements.
Once the technology is developed, anticipated civilian spin-offs will include “improved border and maritime management/patrol, critical infrastructure protection, transportation security, search & rescue, crime prevention, land & sea traffic monitoring, pipeline/powerline monitoring, private infrastructure surveillance/security.”
Meanwhile DARPA is also working on something a bit more advanced. This is ARGUS-IR, a version of ARGUS that works in the medium and long infra-red. This is the “emissive” end of the infra-red scale, where warm objects are visible by the infra-red light they emit. ARGUS-IR will only have a trifling 200 megapixels, later to be upgraded to 400. But the ability to see warm objects such as people in pitch darkness through some types of cover will add a new dimension.
The old adage “you can run, but you can’t hide” is becoming more true than ever, and real-time surveillance of huge swathes of territory using small drones will become a practical proposition. Airborne cameras providing a persistent view were a key factor in Task Force ODIN’s success in Iraq; given the new technology, their successors could have even more impact. And those cameras might have some effect on the home front too.