Intelligence: The Hawk Evolves Into A WASP


March 20, 2021: An Israeli firm has added a long-awaited missing link for an aerial intelligence system first developed over a decade ago for use in Iraq and Afghanistan to detect and track Islamic terrorists. The Israeli WASP (Wide Area Surveillance Payload) is a new system that not only takes digital pictures but includes a software system capable of detecting and analyzing movement of vehicle size objects, or groups of people on foot, over time by returning to an area at intervals to take another picture and identify who has moved and to where. The software has decision making and learning capabilities that will act according to specific instructions about what to look for. This sort of thing is commonly called AI (Artificial Intelligence) but is just a more capable computerized decision-making system made possible by decades of research and increasingly smaller and more powerful hardware. The U.S. and Israel have taken the lead in developing these systems because these two countries have the capabilities, and degree of terrorist threat, to require the tech and its constant improvements.

This surveillance tech also benefits from advances in UAV capabilities, something else Israel pioneered and the United States became a major competitor in. WASP can be carried UAVs with a payload as small as five kg (11 pounds), and a more capable WASP system is available for larger UAVs. The smaller WASP is now installed on the Israeli BirdEye 650D, a 30 kg (66 pound) gasoline engine powered UAV with a payload of 5.5 kg and max endurance of 15 hours. The smaller WASP system can monitor two square kilometers while a larger WASP is mounted on a 1.1-ton Hermes 1 UAV, which can carry a 250 kg payload on missions lasting up to fifty hours. This larger WASP version can monitor more than 15 square kilometers. Smaller UAVs can operate in a swarm that can adjust its search area and patterns in response to what it finds or what the operator decided is worth a shift in direction or emphasis.

The concepts behind WASP and earlier efforts have been around for decades and in development since the 1990s. These systems are not expected to work right away, and usually take longer than expected to perform to its full potential. Actually, that happens more often than anyone would like to admit. Systems like WASP are an example of that.

Using this kind of aerial surveillance and pattern analysis quickly evolved after 2001 because the U.S. Army needed an effective way to find newly placed roadside bombs and landmines in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans spent billions on this bomb detection program and by 2005 “Constant Hawk”, the first workable, although somewhat crude, system showed up and worked so well that the army named Constant Hawk one of the top ten inventions for 2006. The army does this to give some of the more obscure, yet very valuable, developments some well-deserved recognition. Constant Hawk, like most new technology, did not get a lot of media attention. Mainly it's the math, and TV audiences get uneasy watching a geek trying to explain this stuff in something resembling English. But “the Hawk” worked and the troops wanted more of it. Tools like this were popular mainly because the system retains photos of areas troops 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 use the innate pattern analysis skills we all have to spot something suspicious or potentially so.

Pattern analysis is one of the fundamental tools Operations Research (OR) practitioners have been using since before 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, medical researchers and now, the military. Constant Hawk uses a special video camera system to observe a locality and find useful patterns of changing behavior. While many of the Constant Hawk systems were mounted on light aircraft, others are mounted on towers or other ground structures. Special software compares photos from different times. When changes are noted, they are checked more closely by human analysts. This resulted in the early detection of thousands of roadside bombs and terrorist ambushes. This largely eliminated roadside bomb attacks on some supply convoys, which travel the same routes all the time. Those routes were regularly monitored by Constant Hawk. No matter what the enemy did, the Hawk would notice. Typically, the enemy would shift their bombing efforts elsewhere. The improvements seen in WASP were added to Hawk users wish list early on. It would take time for the right combination of new tech, software and innovators to come along and make it happen.

Even as Constant Hawk entered service it was realized that such a system would be even more effective if there was a multiple camera system in a UAV or light aircraft that could detect useful patterns in real time. By 2010 there were two systems that attempted to do that; "Gorgon Stare" and “Angel Fire.” Both were similar to later Israeli systems like SkEye and WASP in many ways but not as compact, capable and reliable. By 2010 there was not as much urgency for the Americans as their troops were being withdrawn from Iraq and were mostly gone from Afghanistan by 2014.

Israelis still had Islamic terrorists coming at them from several directions and needed better tech to secure its borders and seek out rocket launching sites all along their Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian borders, plus roadside bombs and anti-vehicle mines in wartime. Since Israeli firms were responsible for major advances in automated digital image analysis, for automatically checking lots of vidcam images for something specific and UAV based sensors in general, this led to ground based GroundEye in 2016, the airborne SkEye in 2017 and WASP in 2020.

When the American Gorgon Stare entered service in 2010 it took a year of tinkering to get it to work reliably most (90 percent) of the time. Gorgon Stare used 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 UAV that carried Gorgon Stare operates at higher altitudes (7,000 meters or more), the cameras can zero in on particular patches of ground over a wide area. WASP is basically Gorgon Stare with all the capabilities on the developers' wish list. The wish list is highly dependent on more powerful hardware and software tools and engineers accept this as a fact of life.

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, but it did mean that whoever was responsible for testing the system back in the United States screwed up by overestimating the effectiveness and reliability of the system in a combat situation. There was also a n operator manpower shortage problem. But even then, solutions to both reliability, capability and personnel shortages were in the works. Digital image analysis software had been the next big thing since the 1990s but by 2014 there were some very effective systems in use, especially by the Israelis, for whom getting this right was a matter of life or death.

In 2017 an Israeli firm introduced an improvement on Gorgon Stare called SkEye. This was a multicamera system built into a UAV as small as the Hermes 450 (max payload 150 kg) or even small manned aircraft like the single engine Cessna 208B. SkEye uses ten high-resolution video cameras to simultaneously watch, track and record activity in an area as large as 80 square kilometers at a time. SkEye uses digital image scanning software to seek out specific items and patterns of movement below. Since SkEye records all that it sees, it can also detect patterns over time. SkEye was lighter and more compact than Gorgon Stare and with more capable sensors and software provided levels of effectiveness that were largely only theoretical a decade earlier.

Three years later WASP showed up and over the next decade there will be more advances in this area. That is an obvious pattern.




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