March 14, 2010: The U.S. Air Force is addressing the UAV shortage in several ways. One method is to equip a small aircraft (manned or not) with more powerful cameras, ones designed to monitor several different ground operations at once. In the last three months, the air force has deployed two different systems that do this, each taking a different approach.
The latest one is ARGUS-IS, which is basically a huge 1.8 giga (billion) pixel camera (which consists of 368 5 megapixel sensors). When operating at 3,200 meters (20,000 feet) altitude, the ARGUS-IS camera watches 40 square kilometers (a circular area 7.2 kilometers in diameter). The camera periodically transmits a picture of all that to the ground station. There, operators can select a smaller area, and have the camera send a higher resolution image of a smaller area (sharp enough to show individuals) as video (15 frames a second). What makes all this work is a powerful, parallel processing, computer in the five meter long. 230 kg (500 pound) pod that carries the camera. The computer compresses the images enough so that the bandwidth available can handle the huge amounts of data being sent down. The pod can be carried by a helicopter, as it works best if it stays stationary.
Late last year, the air force shipped another multi-camera system, the Gorgon Stare, to Afghanistan. These half ton pods are carried on one of the wing hard points of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Each pod contains nine cameras (five day and four night/infrared). Aside from enabling nine camera operators to work from one UAV, the camera system also has software to enable covering a larger area, by having the cameras cover adjacent areas. The cameras can also look at the same area, from slightly different angles, and produce 3-D images. Two or more cameras can be used over the same area, at different resolution to, for example, search for a specific individual (who is on the Hellfire delivery list), and have another camera focus in on suspect individuals to get a positive ID.
The system software also allows for rapidly shifting from one area to another, in response to requests from the ground. Since the RQ-9 operates at higher altitudes (7,000 meters or more), the cameras can zero in on particular patches of ground, over a wide area.