The U.S. Army's seven-story spy blimp has an unblinking surveillance stare. The Army is also developing the NextGen surveillance aircraft, EMARSS, which will 'provide persistent multi-intelligence capability to detect, locate, classify/identify, and track surface targets with a high degree of timeliness and accuracy.' But when it comes to Wide Area Persistent Stare, borrowing from Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "B-B-B-Baby, you ain't seen nothin' yet" . . . thanks to a PBS NOVA documentary Rise of the Drones that details DARPA's ARGUS-IS.
In the clip, Yiannis Antoniades, director of BAE Systems and one of the creators of ARGUS-IS, said ARGUS-IS is the equivalent to having up to 100 Predator drones look at an area the size of a medium-sized city at once. He touched the screen for a detailed view of a specific area and it was like zooming in to watch that small area in real-time. Every moving object was being tracked; each moving car had a tracking box around it. The resolution allowed you to see people's clothing or waving their arms. In fact, from 17,500 feet, you could easily see a bird flying. With the main area view open, 65 detailed windows within that area could be opened simultaneously. Within each, objects as small as six inches could be seen on the ground.
DARPA was reportedly in a hurry, and also wanted to keep costs down, so Antoniades opened up a smartphone and pulled out the five-megapixel camera sensor, saying ARGUS uses 368 of those sensors. "Unlike a Predator, which has a camera that limits the field of view, ARGUS-IS melds together video from each of its 368 chips, to create a 1.8 billion-pixel video stream." Put another way, that's a 1.8-gigapixel camera that produces one million terabytes of video daily, which is the equivalent of 5,000 hours of high definition footage. All of that HD video is stored and can be replayed to see any chosen point in detail.
Can you actually see ARGUS? Sorry, classified. Has it been deployed? That's classified too and he can't discuss government plans. However, Antoniades added, "If we had our choice, we would like ARGUS-IS to be over the same area 24 hours day, seven days a week." That is difficult to do with manned platforms, but would be but "perfect" for drones.
It was then suggested that it may be mounted on a UAV such as an armed Predator, or it could be fitted on a long range platform like the Global Hawk; Northrop Grumman delivered 37 to the Air Force this month. Eventually, ARGUS-IS could be used on a developmental craft called the Solar Eagle that may "someday stay aloft for years at a time." Solar Eagle, according to Boeing, will eventually "stay aloft for up to five years at altitudes above 60,000 feet. The first Solar Eagle demonstrator is scheduled to fly in 2014."
DARPA Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (ARGUS-IS)
Of the 65 real-time video windows that can be opened at the same time, DARPA wrote, "Each video window is electronically steerable independent of the others, and can either provide continuous imagery of a fixed area on the ground or be designated to automatically keep a specified target (dismount or vehicle) in the window."
As Antoniades stated when first shown in the NOVA clip, "This is the next generation of surveillance. For the first time we actually have permission from the government to show the basic capabilities. It is important for the public to know that some of these capabilities exist." If that is what we are allowed to know, can you imagine what total capabilities it has?
You can watch the program at PBS; it's 52 minutes and 52 seconds.
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Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. Smith has a diverse background in information technology, programming, web development, IT consulting, and information security. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.
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