2008: The U.S. Army is deploying the same kind of "math and missiles"
unit that defeated roadside bombs in Iraq, to Afghanistan. For the last two
years, "Task Force Odin" has used of manned and UAV aerial
reconnaissance aircraft, along with pattern analysis and data mining, to find
IEDs (roadside bombs), and the people who plant them in Iraq.
Task Force Odin was reported in the media
mainly as aircraft and UAVs watching the roads for signs of IEDs, and UAVs,
while helicopters and gunships opened fire on terrorists trying to set up
roadside bombs. Explosions and dead
bodies are more of mass media staple than massive use of math, no matter how
critical the number crunching was to the undertaking.
Odin is really about two very different technologies. On the one hand there was
the effort to provide Internet like access to live video feeds from aircraft
and UAVs. The U.S. Air Force and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have been
particularly keen on this, and has shared the technology with the other
services, and friendly nations. The less publicized effort was Constant Hawk.
This was a U.S. Army image analysis system that's basically just another pattern analysis
system. However, it's been a very successful system when it comes to finding
newly planted IEDs. Last year, the U.S. Army named Constant Hawk one of the top
ten inventions of the year. The army does this to give some of the more
obscure, yet very valuable, developments some well deserved recognition.
analysis is one of the fundamental tools Operations Research (OR) practitioners
have been using since World War II (when the newly developed field of OR got
its first big workout). Pattern analysis is widely used on Wall Street, by
engineers, law enforcement, marketing specialists, and now, the military.
Constant Hawk uses a special video camera system to observe a locality and find
useful patterns of behavior. Some of the Constant Hawk systems are mounted on
light (C-12s, mainly) aircraft, others are mounted on ground structures.
Special software compares photos from different times. When changes are noted,
they are checked more closely, which has resulted in the early detection of
thousands of roadside bombs and terrorist ambushes. This has largely eliminated
roadside bomb attacks on supply convoys, which travel the same routes all the
time. But those routes are also watched by Constant Hawk. No matter what the
enemy does, the Hawk will notice. Eventually, the Hawk, and several other
efforts, morphed into Task Force Odin. The Task Force Odin led to the death of
over 3,000 terrorists caught in the act of setting up roadside bombs, or lying
in wait to set them off and attack their
victims with gunfire. Hundreds more terrorists were captured, and many
thousands of roadside bombs were avoided or destroyed before they could go off.
geeekery works, and the troops like tools of this sort mainly because the
systems retain photos of areas they have patrolled, and allows them to retrieve
photos of a particular place on a particular day. Often, the troops returning
from, or going out on a patrol, can use the pattern analysis skills we all
have, to spot something suspicious, or potentially so.
math tool is predictive analysis. This has been widely used in Iraq to
determine who the bombers are, where they are, and where they are most likely
to place their bombs next. This has enabled the geeks-with-guns (the Army OR
specialists) to offer regular "weather reports" about expected IED
activity. The troops take these reports very seriously, especially by those who
run the hundreds of daily convoys that move people and supplies around Iraq. If
your route is predicted to be "hot", you pay extra attention that
day, and often spot IEDs that, as predicted, were there. Usually, the
predictions are used to send the engineers and EOD (Explosive Ordnance
Disposal) teams out to scout and clean the route. It's the feedback from these
guys that has brought the geeks their reputation. If the geeks, and their tools
(computers, aerial images, and math), say there is something bad out there,
they are generally right. For the geeks, it's all pretty obvious. Given enough
data, you can predict all sorts of things, or just about anything, really. But
to many people, including most reporters, it's all still magic. Task Force Odin
is the latest name for an effort that has been going on for over four years,
and traces its origins back to World War II, and the invention of Operations
Research in the decade before that.
is different from Iraq, in terms of geography and the psychology of the enemy.
But this doesn't matter to the math machine. It analyzes, it understands, and
it tells you what the bad guys are up to and where they are.