While real time video (RTV) is all
the rage in the military right now, old fashioned aerial photos still play an
important role. For one thing, these are used for combat operations, as they
are more up-to-date and useful than maps. But since these still photos are
digital, they lend themselves to more thorough analysis. Intel troops scan
these digital images with off-the-shelf tools, and manipulate images to make better sense of what
they are looking at (as in, "are those AK-47s and RPGs piled in the back
of that pickup?") Often the analyst will pass a photo on down the line, so
troops who patrol that particular area can have a look. If it's an area that
doesn't get patrolled (as in most of Afghanistan, and much of Iraq), you can
ask the air force to have a Predator take a closer look, or suggest that SOCOM
send some of its Special Forces or SEALs to look around.
digital photos do not require developing, and are easy to store, lots more of
them are taken. There are plenty of aircraft for doing so (including U.S. Navy
P-3 maritime patrol aircraft adapted to watching large land areas). Still
photos of the same location can be compared, and the differences are often
The army has
a system, called Constant Hawk, that automates this process. This is basically
a pattern analysis application. 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.
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, human
analysts are alerted to check more closely. Thus 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.
intelligence services have developed variations on Constant Hawk, but they don't like to discuss
it. The reasons are obvious. If the enemy know details of how these photo comparison systems operate,
they have a better chance of deceiving them. Currently, the more insightful bad
guys have figured out that someone always seems to be watching, and the less
you show of yourself, the less frequently you will be found or attacked. But no
one moving around and fighting is invisible to unblinking, and constant,
digital eyes up there.