The recent (September 22) start of the bombing campaign against ISIL (the bad al Qaeda) in western Iraq and eastern Syria came as no surprise to those in Iraq who had spotted, and sometimes captured video of, American recon jets (F-15Es, known to be based in Qatar) and UAVs (also based in the Persian Gulf) flying over or towards ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. This was part of a weeks long effort to find and then confirm the location of targets for the bombing and cruise missile attacks that began on the 22
F-15Es have the range and capacity to haul a surveillance pod (in addition to their normal powerful surveillance and targeting sensors) to quickly gather lots of details on potential targets. Then there were the photos showing up online of American MQ-9 UAVs carrying the latest version of the Gorgon Stare surveillance system. This is a device that is designed to gather lots of data over a wide area. And on a long endurance UAV like the MQ-9 Gorgon Stare is a formidable intelligence tool.
Gorgon Stare is also an example of persistence. Sometimes high-tech doesn’t work right away. Actually, that happens more often than anyone would like to admit. A prime example has been the U.S. Air Force's new UAV mounted multi-camera system, Gorgon Stare. First sent to Afghanistan for three years of field testing, air force users quickly found that the equipment was too unreliable and poorly thought out to do what it was supposed to do in a combat zone. After over a year of tinkering the manufacturer and users got it to work reliably and by 2013 Gorgon Stare was working over 90 percent of the time (which is very good for systems like this). Recently MQ-9s carrying the two distinctive Gorgon Stare pods were seen in the Middle East.
Gorgon Stare consists of two (quarter ton each) pods carried under the wings of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Currently, 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.
For a while the Gorgon Stare cameras were providing poor quality images and were unable to stick with people or places operators were trying to keep an eye on. This doesn't mean Gorgon Stare was a failure, it did mean that whoever was responsible for testing the system back in the United States screwed up. Or maybe someone further up the food chain decided to send Gorgon Stare to a combat zone and test it there (without telling the troops that they were testers, not users). These problems were apparently fixed.
Systems like Gorgon Stare will keep coming, and will be made to work, as they are a way of making UAVs (and air reconnaissance) even more effective. Improved cameras have been a big part of this. One method is to equip a small aircraft (manned or not) with more powerful cameras, and multiple ones at that, so that the one aircraft can 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 decade. The army recently developed a three-camera system for their Gray Eagle UAV (an aircraft about the same size as a Predator). Multiple systems are the future, no matter what happens to Gorgon Stare.
The manufacturer offered an upgrade for Gorgon Stare (“Increment 2”) that covers four times the area at twice the resolution. This version can view a hundred square kilometers and create single images containing 1.8 billion pixels. Defense spending cutbacks threatened this upgrade but earlier in 2014 it was announced that it was available.