Intelligence: Muggles Report Army Magic


June 24, 2008:  This month, another intelligence project in Iraq got some unwelcome attention. The mass media discovered "Task Force Odin", and the use of manned and UAV aerial reconnaissance aircraft to find IEDs (roadside bombs), and the people who plant them. Fortunately, most of the important details were left out. Writing a news story, about pattern analysis and data mining, for a mass audience, is generally not even attempted. So the reporting about Task Force Odin concentrated on aircraft and UAVs watching the roads for signs of IEDs, and UAVs, helicopters and gunships opening fire on terrorists trying to set up roadside bombs.  Explosions and dead bodies have long been a mass media staple, and the lack of such action in Iraq lately has led to a sharp decline in reporting from there. So the U.S. Army appreciated the attention to one of their more successful programs, especially since the reporters left out much discussion of the more important aspects.


What the Task Force Odin stories were really covering were two very different technologies in development. On the one hand (and more easily reported) 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. 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.


Pattern 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 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.


Constant 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 the geeekery works, and the troops want more of it. 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.


A related 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.





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