Eyes in the sky: ubiquitous real-time aerial surveillance

Paul Raven @ 24-08-2009

Watchkeeper - British unmanned aerial vehicleThe United States Army has seen a lot of success with airborne surveillance systems in recent years, and it’s given them the taste for more. Wired’s Danger Room blog takes a look at the current state of the art as well as the latest ground surveillance specifications DARPA is bandying around to potential contractors:

In February we reported on Darpa’s Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System (ARGUS-IS ), a 1.8 gigapixel flying eye which will be mounted in a 500-pound pod carried by a Predator or A160 Hummingbird robocopter. The ARGUS-IS makes for an impressive camera, with the resolution and processing power to track a large number of separate items including “dismounts” — people on foot — over a wide area, as well as “a real-time moving target indicator for vehicles throughout the entire field of view in real-time.”

But ARGUS-IS is already looking old. Now the Army is asking for something even more powerful. In a new request for solicitations, it outlined the concept for a novel visible/infrared sensor that will cover a much larger area on the ground — with much higher resolution.

The sensor is required to be lightweight with low power consumption and to have significantly lower operating costs compared to existing systems, and must be able to operate from small aircraft, either manned or unmanned. In terms of specifics, the Army is looking for 2.3 gigapixels running at two frames per second. By my reckoning, this suggests continuous coverage of area of around sixty-two square miles at 0.3m resolution with a single sensor. That’s quite a step up from Angel Fire, which covers a tenth of the area at much lower resolution.

That’s a lot of detail, for sure. And we can probably assume that the bulk of the aircraft carrying the hardware will in fact be unmanned; The Guardian reports that the US is now training more drone operators than bomber and fighter pilots combined.

Three years ago, the service was able to fly just 12 drones at a time; now it can fly more than 50. At a trade conference outside Washington last week, military contractors presented a future vision in which pilotless drones serve as fighters, bombers and transports, even automatic mini-drones which attack in swarms.

Five thousand robotic vehicles and drones are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2015, the Pentagon’s $230bn (£140bn) arms procurement programme Future Combat Systems expects 15% of America’s armed forces to be robotic. A recent study ‘The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan 2020-2047’ predicted a boom in drone funding to $55bn by 2020 with the greatest changes coming in the 2040s.

“The capability provided by the unmanned aircraft is game-changing,” said General Norton Schwartz, the air force chief of staff. “We can have eyes 24/7 on our adversaries.”

The article has a jaw-dropping closer, too:

In Wired for War, author Pete Singer speculates the machines are harbingers of a new era of “cost-free war”.

“It’s an historic change,” said Singer. “Going to war has meant the same thing for 5,000 years. Now going to war means sitting in front of a computer screen for 12 hours. Then you go home and talk to your kids about their homework.”

Yeah, cost-free war! Awesome! Well, it’s not cost-free for the brown people caught in the crossfire, but hey, it’s hard to care about them so much when they’re just pixels on a screen, AMIRITE? [main story via NextBigFuture; image by skuds]

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6 Responses to “Eyes in the sky: ubiquitous real-time aerial surveillance”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    “…it’s not cost-free for the brown people caught in the crossfire…” Excuse me, but: (1) what makes you think they are necessarily “brown” at all? (2) what does it matter what color they are? Do you seriously believe it is more proper to kill people of some colors than others? (3) why don’t you *welcome* the advent of systems like this on OUR side, which improve our targeting identification and accuracy and which can (and do) help to minimize the number of civilians struck whenever we go after high-value enemy targets? You know, like the ones working to once-again attack the London subway system, as just one or many, many examples? Or have you forgotten all about the Jihad? I wonder if your concern is not so much that about this technology, but rather it arises from naive attitudes about war, peace, and possibly even a lack of appreciation for the value of your own freedoms, which were, and to this day still are, paid for in blood by your own countrymen. Systems like this help save our lives and make our enemies think twice about attacking us. Once again, to quote Orwell, “Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” For myself, I have no objection to our rough men (and women) using the best (and quite frankly, the most humane, in terms of minimizing collateral casualties) technologies available to them to accomplish that very important job!

  2. Paul Raven says:

    I was attacking the attitude of the quote in the final paragraph, Robert; the idea of a “cost-free war” is a repugnant fallacy as far as I’m concerned. A sporting event is a cost-free war, surely? It’s a war when people die – on either side.

    And I’m afraid that, no, I’m not particularly concerned about the Jihad as a direct threat to myself, because its cause is as equally rooted in the behaviours of those it is directed against as the ideology of those who declared it. I grew up in the UK at the height of the IRA campaign, remember. Those “rough men” you speak of follow the orders of schemers and liars who’ve never stepped into the firing line, and they’ve never had my best interests at heart. Peace is useful to them inasmuch as it makes things easier to control; war is useful in the same way, funnily enough. Yes, I’m a pacifist, and it’ll take more than a frequently unverified Orwell quote to shame me out of that attitude, I’m afraid. Insisting I’m complicit in war simply by dint of being born into a nation that happened to come out better than others in conflicts long before I was born is fallacious. I was never asked for my approval, and I have never given it; nor was I given a choice of where to be born. I respect the sacrifice of others in fighting for what they choose to believe is right, but I do not see it as glorious, and I do not see that their sacrifice makes their “right” any more valid than that of their enemies, or of myself.

    And again, the notion of ‘sides’ arises again, as it does with politics… I’m on the side of humanity. You’re free to chose your own sides, of course, but that will remain my choice for the forseeable; perhaps there’s a version of the “atheists in foxholes” quip that’s suitable for this situation.

  3. Robert Koslover says:

    Paul, I agree that the notion of “cost-free” war is silly. But I disagree with most pacifists, with those who profess neutrality in wars, and especially those who also appear to perceive little or no value in protecting western civilization. War will remain a reality so long as despots and warped ideologues persuade people to attempt to conquer and enslave others. I love humanity too. And in that, I find no shame, nor inconsistency, in strongly defending western civilization. According to http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/countries_of_the_world.htm there are now “194 independent sovereign states in the world, plus about 60 dependent areas, and five disputed territories.” Unless you can find a better country than the one you live in right now, you might want to reconsider your apparent view that your own country isn’t especially worth fighting for, but rather that you simply happened to be born there. Well, my country isn’t perfect by any means, but I do not object to it developing and employing superior weapons for its defense. In fact, I support it. Whether or not you like it, you are free to speak ill of your own country without any fear of arrest only because of the good people who fought to preserve that right for you and to protect you from the would-be tyrants (both foreign and domestic) who would happily shut down your blog and put you in jail, if they could.

  4. Robert Koslover says:

    Oh, and here’s an amusing anecdote for you. About 15 years ago, there was a protestor who would stand by one the main entrances to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, NN, every day, with a sign that offered numerous anti-war messages, such as “medicine, not bombs” and (no kidding) “make love, not war.” One day, as the protestor waved his sign by the gate, I rode past along with an Air Force major. I asked him “so, what do you think of that guy?” He just laughed and said, “he’s okay; it’s my job to keep him free!” Exactly.

  5. Robert Koslover says:

    Oops, that’s NM, not NN.

  6. Paul Raven says:

    This is a pretty complex thing to debate in a comments thread, because my pacifism is as much related to my attitude to nation-states as anything else; a country, to me, is little more than a rectangle of coloured cloth – and the notion of being proud of it or fighting to defend it is, as such, a little hard to grasp.

    Yes, I have many freedoms, and they are new freedoms when considered in the broad scope of mankind’s existence. Whether those freedoms exist because of war or in spite of it is a matter for debate, and one of the many points on which I think we may have to agree to disagree – though I’ll happily bounce emails back and forth if you don’t mind the pace being slow, so drop me a line if you feel the urge.

    But once again, my thanks for being that seemingly rarest of things – someone who can disagree fervently yet politely on the internet. Much as we rarely see eye-to-eye, I value your comments greatly; I have no wish for Futurismic to become an echo-chamber for my own philosophies. 🙂