Intelligence: Bigger and Better Than iPhone

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July 11, 2007: Special Forces troops and infantry unit commanders are finally getting a handheld device that will show them real-time video taken by UAVs or aircraft overhead. The handheld (about the size of a PDA, or a 1990s era cell phone), part of the ROVER (Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver) series, will arrive next year. This ROVER devices use a satellite data link to get the video from overhead UAVs or aircraft. The the original ROVER system, as well as the current one, was developed and sent to the troops in record time. So don't let anyone tell you this sort of thing can't happen.

Five years ago, a Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130 or other aircraft overhead. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from above. At that time, the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft, or the UAV operators (who often were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link.) The ground troops had to ask the air force what could be seen on the video, and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.

The air force went to work, and in two weeks had a ROVER (Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver) prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. ROVER I was not terribly portable, but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer, and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. This proved very useful. A few months later, ROVER II appeared, which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. By late 2004, Rover III, a 12 pound unit built to be carried in a backpack, was put into service. Although ROVER IIIs cost $60,000 each, they address dozens of suggestions and complaints from the troops who used earlier ROVERs. Some 700 of these entered service within a year. They were used in Afghanistan and Iraq, and can grab video feeds from army, marine and air force UAVs and bomber targeting pods (which have great resolution, even when the aircraft are 20,000 feet up.)

The Rover IV appeared in 2005. It l allowed users to point and click on targets to be hit. With Rover III, the guys on the ground could see what they want bombed, or hit with a missile, but had to talk the bombers to it. This happens often, especially when the target is behind a hill or buildings, preventing the ground troops from using their laser range finders to get a GPS location. With ROVER IV, the bomber pilot, or UAV operator, is looking at the same video as the ground troops, and can confirm that the indicated target is what is to be hit. This is particularly important in urban warfare, where the building next door might be full of innocent civilians.

The ROVER gear is usually operated by air force ground controllers, but the army is eager to get even smaller and lighter units into the hands of platoon and patrol leaders, as well as Special Forces teams. Because it's wartime, there's not much to stop this from happening. And happening in the next year or so. Without the wartime pressure, it would have taken a decade or more to get ROVER to where it got in only a few years.

 


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