Warfighters to Get Improved ‘Eyes in the Sky’

WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2010 — Warfight­ers in Afghanistan will get an unprece­dent­ed capa­bil­i­ty to track and mon­i­tor activ­i­ty on the ground in the com­ing months with the ini­tial deploy­ment of a new ultra-high-res­o­lu­tion cam­era able to scan a wide field of view and down­load images in real time.

The Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System demonstrates is surveillance capabilities during a November 2009 test at Quantico, Va. Courtesy photo
The Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiq­ui­tous Sur­veil­lance-Imag­ing Sys­tem demon­strates is sur­veil­lance capa­bil­i­ties dur­ing a Novem­ber 2009 test at Quan­ti­co, Va.
Cour­tesy pho­to
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The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the Defense Department’s high-tech research and devel­op­ment arm, is work­ing with the Army to deploy its new Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiq­ui­tous Sur­veil­lance-Imag­ing Sys­tem pro­gram dur­ing the first half of 2011, pro­gram man­ag­er Bri­an Leininger told Amer­i­can Forces Press Service. 

The ARGUS-IS sys­tem, with an acronym that recalls the 100-eyed Greek mytho­log­i­cal fig­ure, will give ground troops a per­sis­tent “eyes in the sky” capa­bil­i­ty that improves their abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy and track tar­gets of inter­est and ene­my operatives. 

The heart of the sys­tem is a 1.8‑gigapixel col­or cam­era, the largest video sen­sor ever used to con­duct tac­ti­cal missions. 

To pro­vide a sense of just how high-res­o­lu­tion this sen­sor is, Leininger com­pared it to a stan­dard cell phone cam­era. A cell phone image typ­i­cal­ly runs between 1 mil­lion and 2 mil­lion pix­els. With ARGUS-IS, it’s 900 to 1,800 times that num­ber –- enough to track peo­ple and vehi­cles from alti­tudes above 20,000 feet. 

But ARGUS-IS offers more than just high-res­o­lu­tion imagery. To be deployed on an A‑160 “Hum­ming­bird” unmanned aer­i­al plat­form, it will be able to scan almost 25 square miles. This rep­re­sents a big tech­no­log­i­cal leap over cur­rent air­borne sur­veil­lance sys­tems, Leininger said. Those that deliv­er high-res­o­lu­tion images are lim­it­ed to very small fields of view, he explained, and those cov­er­ing broad­er areas pro­vide low-res­o­lu­tion imagery. 

In addi­tion, ARGUS-IS oper­a­tors on the ground can des­ig­nate “win­dows” around up to 65 spe­cif­ic sites or tar­gets they want to mon­i­tor. They can choose build­ings, road inter­sec­tions or oth­er fixed loca­tions the sys­tem will “stare” at, or peo­ple or vehi­cles to trail –- even if they’re mov­ing in dif­fer­ent directions. 

“And if you have a bunch of peo­ple leav­ing a place at the same time, they no longer have to say, ‘Do I fol­low vehi­cle one, two, three or four?’ ” Leininger said. “They can say, ‘I will fol­low all of them, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and automatically.’ ” 

ARGUS-IS’s pro­cess­ing sys­tem com­press­es the mas­sive amount of data col­lect­ed to what’s most valu­able to warfight­ers, such as move­ment or changes on the ground. Then it trans­mits this data to oper­a­tions cen­ters and troops oper­at­ing in the area in mul­ti­ple, real-time video streams at the rate of 10 frames per second. 

DARPA, work­ing in part­ner­ship with the Army Night Vision and Elec­tron­ic Sen­sors Direc­torate, Air Force, Air Force Research Lab­o­ra­to­ry and Nation­al Geospa­tial Agency, con­duct­ed its first test flights using the ARGUS sys­tem last year. For those tests, the system’s sen­sor and air­borne pro­cess­ing unit were slung in a pod under a spe­cial UH-60 Black Hawk heli­copter and a fixed-wing DC‑8 aircraft. 

Now sci­en­tists are inte­grat­ing the sys­tem into the Hum­ming­bird plat­form, which can fly at up to 20,000 feet for 12 hours or more, for deploy­ment to Afghanistan. 

Even before ARGUS-IS reach­es the field, DARPA already is look­ing ahead to the next step in its evo­lu­tion. A con­tract award­ed this past sum­mer is fund­ing a pro­gram to inte­grate an infrared capa­bil­i­ty that will enable the sys­tem to oper­ate at night. 

Leininger, who start­ed the ARGUS-IS pro­gram just over three years ago, said the increased intel­li­gence, recon­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance capa­bil­i­ty the sys­tem will pro­vide will help ground troops car­ry out their mis­sions and save lives in the process. 

“This is a very use­able sys­tem that will pro­vide an enor­mous [intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance] mul­ti­pli­er for the troops,” he said. “It gives them a new and bet­ter way to see what is around them with a big eye in the sky.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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