Out Staring The Gorgon: BAE, Drones and ARGUS

ARGUS -IS sensor (BAE Systems)

Last week,  BAE Systems quietly announced that it had won a $50m contract to further develop the ARGUS  system in conjunction with U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA ).   ARGUS (or Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance) provides real-time, high-resolution, video surveillance capability for U.S. combat forces for detecting, locating, tracking and monitoring events on battlefields.  It is being designed to be used with drones or small manned aircraft.

This latest contract, to develop an infrared capability for ARGUS so that it can be used at nightime, come a few months after few months after BAE Systems admitted that ARGUS had been successfully tested by DARPA in Autumn 2009.

In a helpful article, ARES explains that ARGUS

“is designed to overcome the narrow “soda-straw” field of view of conventional surveillance sensors by providing multiple real-time video streams ….   DARPA says ARGUS can provide up to 65 “Predator-class” steerable video streams.  The 1.8-gigapixel sensor has four optical telescopes, each with 92 5-megapixel focal-plane arrays – cellphone camera chips, says BAE. The airborne processor combines the video output from all 368 arrays together to create a single mosaic image, with an update rate of 12-15 frames a second.

On the ground, the operator can create windows around stationary or moving targets within the image and ARGUS will down-link the video for these windows in real time. The system provides up to 65 640 x 480-pixel video streams simultaneously, limited only by data link capacity. Also a “global motion detector” mode looks at the entire image and tags potential targets with low-res image “chips”.

ARGUS in Operation (image Wired.com)

In other words, one drone will be able to track, in real time, up to 65 targets and as Wired.com suggests, monitor them over and area of 65 miles.

With up to 65 simultaneous video streams ARGUS easily beats the famously named ‘Gorgon Stare’ which was being developed to have 12 video streams.

ARES has also posted some fascinating images of what ARGUS is capable of doing.

The old adage “you can run, but you can’t hide” is becoming more true than ever, and real-time surveillance of huge swathes of territory using drones seems to be just over the horizon.

Surveillance drones in the UK?

Speaking about armed drones to a group in Essex  last night I was asked about the use of drones to spy on people in the UK.  I get this question regularly since the Guardian reported in January that a number of police forces are working with BAE Systems in a Home Office backed project to develop a national drone plan. 

Currently the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) does not allow unmanned drones to be flown in UK airspace with the exception of certain military test sites.   When Merseyside police jumped the gun and used a drone to track a stolen car, they were threatened with prosecution by the CAA  and had to promise not to use drones again.    (I have been told that drones have been sighted at various demos but presumably after the high-profile rebuke of Merseyside police this is not happening now).

It is not just the UK that does not allow unmanned drones to be flown in civil airspace for safety reasons .  Frustrated by this, the military industry has been working on ways to put pressure civil aviation authorities.   The latest  bit of pressure is a ‘year long study by 23 European military companies’ into how manned and unmanned aircraft can fly together.  Flight Magazine reports:  

“One of the major issues at the heart of UAS development today is the integration of these vehicles into civil airspace. We need to ensure proper segregation of existing air traffic and maintain a high level of safety for all airspace users to the standards of international civil aviation,” says Pierre-Eric Pommellet, Thales senior vice-president in charge of defence mission systems.   While calling the SIGAT findings “decisive” and “a major outcome for European defence ministries” considering the technical and regulatory aspects of operating manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace, no details on the findings were released.

In my experience the military industry usually gets what it  want.  Whilst the CAA holds the upper hand at the moment, I suspect that over the next few year, in particular in the run up to the 2012 Olympics,  there will be increasing pressure to allow drones to undertake surveillance work in UK airspace.

Meanwhile, as I am beginning to regular say at the end of these posts, there has been another drone stike in Pakistan.

PS –  The existing six-mile training area aound Parc Aberporth in Wales to be extended.