AIN Blog: The Airborne Intelligence Conundrum

 - February 8, 2011, 6:10 AM

When it comes to defense coverage, AIN naturally focuses on airborne systems and platforms, including some very high-tech stuff, of course. But my visit to the Defence Geospatial Intelligence Conference and Exhibitionin London last month was a reminder that what happens on the ground is equally, if not more, important.
Tremendous advances in air- and space-borne sensor exploitation were on display at the London conference. Revisit rates, pixel resolution, ortho-rectification, 3-D mapping and so on have all reached new levels of sophistication. And data fusion has advanced by leaps and bounds: population statistics, meteorological conditions, building addresses and a host of other information can be added from databases to digital map displays as overlays or click-throughs.

For instance, Esri (UK), the British company that forms part of U.S.-headquartered Esri, a leading supplier of geospatial intelligence (Geoint) systems, demonstrated a “joined-up” approach to countering the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to deployed NATO forces in Afghanistan. Esri and seven partners showed how multiple intelligence feeds could be georeferenced and integrated onto map-based displays. Various databases–terrain, human intelligence, signals intelligence, GPS-based reports from previous patrols in the area and even open-source reports of previous IED attacks–could all be harnessed. The result? Tactical commanders in the field might use the displays to identify a bomb factory or, at least, plan avoidance routes for their convoys.

But a senior British military officer warned suppliers at the conference not to over-complicate their offerings. He also urged the intelligence community to “collect once, use often,” noting that so much of the imagery produced by airborne platforms is under-exploited.

Or not exploited at all, in fact. For years, I have been listening to complaints from analysts about “data deluge.” Think of all those UAVs and manned reconnaissance aircraft orbiting over Afghanistan right now. There’s no way that all of their product can be examined properly.

And now the U.S. Air Force wants to multiply the video feed from a Predator or Reaper tenfold. A new sensor named Gorgon Stare offers a wide area view through 10 simultaneous video streams. Carried in pods under each wing of the UAV, it was supposed to deploy to Afghanistan this winter. Unfortunately, it failed an operational test and evaluation. No doubt it will eventually get there. The delay could give the ground troops more time to get better organized for the next deluge of data-rich geospatial intelligence.