January 4, 2011:
The U.S. Army is coping with the flood of UAV videos by creating an airborne (in a two engine transport) system that provides live, and archive, video to troops on the ground. Called HART (Heterogeneous Airborne Reconnaissance Team), the system streams video to troops below, in addition to allowing Google type searches for past video material. The search feature is easy, because commercial firms have already done a lot of the work. But the streaming is proving to be a problem, because the choice of devices for the troops to view the video on is a moving target. The current favorite is off-shelf cell phones equipped with military grade encryption.
There is already a laptop size device for receiving these video streams. This is ROVER (Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver). This device uses a satellite data link to get the video from overhead UAVs or aircraft, and transmit it to laptops used by ground troops. ROVER has gone through constant modification and enhancement since the first crude version showed up eight years ago. Now ROVER allows the guy on the ground and pilots above to share video, and communicate by marking the video with symbols. Much more accurate attacks are possible with this, far fewer friendly fire incidents, and a whole lot less anxiety all around.
It all began in 2002 when 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 prototype that the Special Forces guys took back to Afghanistan. ROVER 1 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. By 2006, ROVER 4 shipped, which allowed users to point and click on targets to be hit. With ROVER 3, the guys on the ground could see what they wanted 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 4, the bomber pilot, or UAV operator, are 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 eventually got even smaller and lighter units into the hands of platoon and patrol leaders. Because it's wartime, there's was not much to stop this from happening, and fast. An Israeli firm developed a smart phone size Rover that was worn on the forearm, in combat. Without wartime pressure, it would have taken a decade or more to get ROVER to where it was after only four years. Meanwhile, the basic ROVER technology is being applied to communications between aircraft, so that pilots can share what they see, with others nearby. Meanwhile, the Special Forces operators keep coming up with new ideas, like sending email via military radio.
HART is supposed to take ROVER forward, but only if the army can point the video stream at a device most troop leaders can carry with them and easily use.