Researchers Stimulate State-of-the-Art Persistent Surveillance
An Army lab seeks to provide a more holistic view of the battlefield.
U.S. Army researchers recently kicked off a concept development effort designed to improve the ability to monitor an area for long periods, enhancing the means to provide soldiers at the tactical edge with the critical situational awareness intelligence needed for rapid-fire decision making.
The Army Research Laboratory (ARL), a part of the Research, Development and Engineering Command, has awarded contracts to seven companies for the Persistent Surveillance-Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (PS-ISR) concept demonstration. The companies are Applied Research Associates Inc.; Booz Allen Hamilton; CALNET; EOIR; Imperatis; Integration Innovation Inc.; and Leidos. Those contractors will compete for individual task orders as ARL officials define specific capability gaps. PS-ISR is designed to meet future asymmetric, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare needs. The effort aims to identify and develop technical abilities over the long term—five or 10 years from now.
“We’re not looking at systems per se. We’re looking at better tools, and maybe it’s multiple tools to do the same thing. We want to get a feel for the state of the art and where we need to push the state of the art to the next leap of technology,” says Andrew Ladas, who manages the PS-ISR endeavor for the ARL. “Our goal is to provide the users with a set of tools to help them perform the mission in a more efficient and timely manner.”
As part of PS-ISR, researchers intend to include a variety of technologies in this summer’s Enterprise Challenge demonstration run by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The ARL is expected to issue task orders related to Enterprise Challenge and allow those seven companies to submit their solutions for evaluation. Enterprise Challenge and other demonstrations will allow ARL personnel to evaluate technologies in a more realistic environment outside the laboratory.
Officials are in the early planning stages for the challenge and are not yet sure which technologies will be included. But they “are looking at putting some technology on an airborne platform to allow us to do a better job of protecting targets using nonstandard techniques and also some initial concepts for display in the common operating picture environment,” Ladas says.
For the PS-ISR effort, ARL officials also are developing a 3-D viewer for BuckEye and other light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems. The viewer already has been delivered to the NGA and to the Army Geospatial Center. “We’re working to get it to a point where we can push it out to the development community to have other folks look at it. It is unique—not the way people typically create 3-D images using LIDAR point clouds,” Ladas offers. The 3-D viewer could transition to a program of record through the Research, Development and Engineering Command, a common transition pathway for ARL technologies.
Capable of being integrated onto a variety of airborne platforms, BuckEye was used extensively in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the system collected more than 85,000 square kilometers (about 32,819 square miles) of data over urban areas and along main supply routes. In Afghanistan, BuckEye requirements and tasking are controlled at the International Security Assistance Force level. The system has collected more than 200,000 square kilometers (77,220 square miles) of imagery, most of which is processed in theater to provide rapid tactical response. With five fixed-wing aircraft now operating in Afghanistan, the pace of collection has increased significantly.
Additionally, an unmanned aerial system with BuckEye sensors currently is operating in western Afghanistan. The aircraft is equipped with a miniaturized LIDAR sensor that can support a variety of unmanned programs into the future, according to Army documentation.
Warfighters discovered a need for persistent surveillance, the ability to monitor areas for long periods, in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in the attempt to counter improvised explosive devices. The ARL’s Signal and Information Processing Division, which now leads the PS-ISR effort, met those needs with Constant Hawk, a wide-area persistent surveillance system flown on a manned reconnaissance aircraft, and with the Persistent Threat Detection System, which uses sensors loaded onto a tethered aerostat.
Warfighters at the time called for technologies that would allow them to view patterns of life. In other words, they needed to monitor an area—a village, for example—long enough to understand which behaviors were normal, which were abnormal and which could indicate danger, such as an explosive device being planted alongside a popular supply route. While persistent surveillance technologies, including full-motion video and unattended ground sensors, have proved valuable, they need to be improved.
“The problem with these kinds of systems is that if you want to do something for a long period, you end up accumulating a lot of data,” Ladas points out, adding that sorting through, analyzing and disseminating the data consumes too much time and effort. “What we’ve been looking at are novel ways of automating the tools used to do these kinds of things. So, it could be tools to track personnel or vehicles, or developing an idea of patterns of life kinds of things, and then detecting anomalies in the scene that would alert somebody to abnormal behavior.”
Some of the challenges the service faces in the persistent intelligence arena include detecting anomalous behavior in busy environments, such as cities; continuing to track moving targets if they go behind buildings or under heavy foliage; displaying information in a way that warfighters can more quickly access and understand; and getting information to the lowest tactical levels.
“The basic benefit [of PS-ISR] is to identify material and nonmaterial solutions to improve persistent surveillance and provide a better view of the warfighter’s area of operations. It’s to provide ... a more holistic view of the battlefield space for the warfighter, mostly at the platoon level and below,” Ladas explains. Those warfighters at the lowest levels “may not get the connectivity they need, and they’re getting spotty information, and they really need information from their immediate area to make immediate decisions,” he elaborates.
Researchers do not yet know what the best solutions might be. “We know we don’t have all the answers, and we know there are a lot of smart folks out there who have ideas,” Ladas offers.
He does suggest, however, that automation could be critical. “We’re trying to come up with technologies and techniques to reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted,” he says. For example, once fixed objects, such as buildings, have been detected, surveillance technologies could regularly transmit only the images of moving targets with occasional updates on fixed objects.
Other potential solutions include immersive displays; processing, exploitation and dissemination technologies; better ways of detecting bags left by a roadside or at an airport; systems that learn what users are looking for and automatically alert them to scrutinize a particular area; better techniques for overlaying situational awareness information onto mapping software; and other 3-D visualization tools.
The ARL is searching for solutions in both the imaging and nonimaging domains. The latter area includes acoustic sensors, for example. Researchers need to know how to tie all the sensors together and how to present the information as effectively and efficiently as possible. “Once you get all this data, you need to convert it to information and display it in a way that makes it easier for users, whether analysts or soldiers, so they can quickly determine what’s going on and decide how to react in a better way,” Ladas says. While better sensors may help, he suggests, they have limits. “We’re getting a lot of data now, but [the challenge] is how to use it in a better way. One thing you want to do is minimize the amount of data you need to collect to do the same mission,” Ladas states.
Although the research lab has awarded seven contracts, he says the ARL welcomes white papers from others. “ARL is always open to new ideas,” Ladas says.