17, 2008: Last year's competition
between the U.S. Air Force and Army, over which new aerial surveillance system
the U.S. Marines should use, is over. The army was pushing its Constant Hawk
system, while the air force offered a somewhat similar system called Angel
Fire. The marines went with the air
force deal, partly because it would cost them less money.
uses wide angle, high res (11 megapixel) cameras mounted in aircraft, and streaming the live video to hard drives. This
system is basically airborne security cameras that cover large areas below. The
marines (and any ground troops, actually) like this because it allows you to go
back and look at what led up to a roadside bomb attack, ambush or whatever. The
resolution is half a meter, so you can make out vehicles and people. The air
force had a working prototype of the system up and running last year, and
marines who tested it in training exercises were eager to use Angel Fire in a
The army system, called Constant Hawk is an image
analysis system that's basically just another pattern analysis application. Not
really comparable to Angel Fire at all. However, it's been very successful. The
army named Constant Hawk one of the top ten inventions for 2006. 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 changing behavior. Some of the Constant Hawk systems are
mounted on light aircraft, others are mounted on towers or other 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 some supply convoys, which travel
the same routes all the time. Those routes are also watched by Constant Hawk.
No matter what the enemy does, the Hawk will notice.
Hawk, like most geek stuff, does not get a lot of media attention. Mainly it's
the math, and TV audiences that get uneasy watching a geek trying to explain
this stuff in something resembling English. But it works, and the troops want
more of it. The troops like tools of this 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.
Hawk and Angel Fire were not really two systems competing to do the same job.
Both take pictures from on high, but the two systems perform different
functions. What was going on here was completion for scarce research and
development money, and the air force effort to gain overall control of all
UAVs. If Angel Fire got the money it wanted, Constant Hawk might be in danger of getting shut down (as
duplication of effort), and the air force would then have a stronger argument
for taking control over medium size UAVs (their own Predator, plus the army
Hunter and Shadow 200). Angel Fire would require the use of many UAVs of this size, and the air force
could argue that the army no longer needs UAVs of this type because Angle Fire
does the recon job. Or if they do need one, they can call the air force. The
army very much wants to control its own UAVs. The marines like the idea of the
air force giving them support with medium size UAVs that the marines don't have
and can't afford. The marines have a few elderly Pioneer UAVs they scrounged
from the navy, and are always looking for inexpensive replacements. Angel Fire suits
the marines just fine.
would like Angel Fire as well, but not at the cost of losing control over their
current UAV force. The army also doubts that the air force would come up with
the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to deploy Angel Fire over large
chunks of Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Constant hawk and Angel Fire are still
getting lots of money, largely because of the enormous budget for countering