November 27, 2010:
The U.S. Air Force is finally sending its new, multi-camera system for UAVs, Gorgon Stare, to Afghanistan. These two (quarter ton each) pods are carried on one of the wing hard points of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. This system has already been tested in Afghanistan, and undergone over a year of tweaking. At this point, each Gorgon Stare contains nine cameras (five day and four night/infrared). Aside from enabling several 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 identification. 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.
Systems like Gorgon Stare are a way of addressing the UAV shortage. 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. Another method is to install more powerful cameras in smaller UAVs. This has been an ongoing effort, with smaller UAVs having gone through several generations of sensor packages in the last six years.
Another approach is one very powerful camera on a UAV. An example of this is ARGUS-IS, which is basically a huge 1.8 giga (billion) pixel camera (which consists of 368 five megapixel sensors). When operating at 3,200 meters (10,000 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.
The growing number of larger UAVs, like the 4.7 ton MQ-9 Reaper, enables larger sensor packages to be designed and built. The only downside of system like Gorgon Stare is that the constant weight, and aerodynamic drag of the pods reduces the air time (to 14-15 hours per sortie.)