Airborne full-motion video technology (FMV) is advancing so fast that the NATO standard (STANAG 4609) cannot keep pace, according to George DeCock, director of international EO/IR sensors, L-3 Wescam. The digital revolution has been closely followed by high-definition TV, uncooled infrared detectors, four-axis stabilization and processing and display innovations. In the meantime, the seemingly insatiable demand for FMV on every kind of platform–from small UAVs to helicopters to big transports–has attracted plenty of competitors offering sensor balls. But in terms of variety of products and customers, Wescam retains a leadership position. When that NATO STANAG was last revised in October 2009, it stated that the desirable goal of 1920- by 1080-pixel high-definition motion imagery was still five years away. In fact, it is already available. As DeCock noted, many of us have HD TV screens in our living rooms now. “The future is 1080p…you need only a two or four times zoom to get a great result,” he said. “Today’s HD sensors allow a precise count of illegal immigrants, and an ability to identify exactly who are their facilitators,” said Hugo Zeler of CAE Aviation. This Luxembourg-registered company, which has no connection to flight training group CAE, specializes in contract ISR flying for European agencies and governments, using Wescam turrets fitted to Casa 212s, Merlins, BN-2Ts and Cessna 208s. Zeler also praised advances in infrared sensors that, for instance, “now make it easy to detect oil spills.”
Those infrared advances include new detectors that don’t need the tubing and wiring associated with cryogenic cooling, and an extension from the original long-wave into mid-wave and now even shortwave (LWIR, MWIR and SWIR). As for resolution, DeCock said true HD IR is now in prospect. “”We’re not there yet, but it’s almost already as good as low-light TV,” he added.
Size and Aperture
Miniaturization is another factor. Wescam began by developing the 21-inch diameter MX-20 turret, which weighs 200 pounds. Now, it also offers the 16.5-inch MX-15 weighing 100 pounds and the 10.25-inch MX10 series weighing just 37 pounds. The number of sensors that can be packed into the turrets has increased. For instance, the MX-15Di offers 10, including daylight and lowlight zoom and spotter TV, a thermal imager, plus laser rangefinder, illuminator, spot tracker and designator. Even the MX-10 offers up to six sensors.
But size does still matter, according to DeCock, and so does aperture. “The bigger the turret, the better the range,” he noted. Today, Wescam describes the MX-20 as ideal for high-altitude, long-range maritime patrol and persistent surveillance. “With a 20-inch HD turret you can classify and identify a vessel at over 35 miles” and read license plates at two miles,” he said.
Seven years ago, L-3 bought Sonoma Design Group, a competitor to Wescam that had secured classified U.S. government contracts for bespoke, high-end FMV sensor turrets. Today, the Sonoma-developed 474HD and 494HD systems carry the Wescam branding. Thanks to long focal lengths and large apertures, they offer very high resolution at very long range in the visible, MWIR and SWIR wavebands.
AIN has seen a remarkable SWIR image of the International Space Station taken by the 474HD at 200 miles range. The laser designator on this sensor has a range of more than 20 miles. It has flown on the high-altitude WB-57 research aircraft, which reaches 65,000 feet.
The recent drive to provide wide-area surveillance means that the bigger turrets are being packed with nine or more cameras whose imagery can be stitched together in processing. The BAE Systems Argus and the Sierra Nevada Gorgon Stare are examples, being introduced by the U.S. Air Force. Meanwhile, Wescam has a research-and-development contract from the U.S. Navy for another wide-area sensor that would be small enough for carriage by the Marine Corps’ RQ-7 Shadow UAV, thanks to an advanced staring focal plane array.
Wescam has incorporated advances in image processing into a system called TacPED. Portions of the image can be enhanced for contrast and resolution. Visible and infrared images can be fused to improve interpretability. They can also be “blended,” with an image analyst able to select variable ratios of EO to IR content. Now that GPS/INS systems can be integrated with the sensors, images can be geo-located, and referenced to maps.
With such a diverse customer base (see box), Wescam has set up a network of nine service centers and field representatives. Now it is also offering a remote diagnostic testing capability by way of a satellite link. Customers can connect their MX turrets by cable to a satellite modem so that Wescam technicians can log onto the fielded unit to perform maintenance checks.
In addition to its Wescam family of sensors, L-3 is demonstrating its Video Scout video exploitation and management system at the Farnborough International Airshow (Outside Exhibit 14).
George DeCock and Hugo Zeler spoke at the Airborne ISR Conference organized by Defence IQ www.defenceiq.com.