The Blue Devil program provided an architecture to integrate WAMI with other sensors. Air Force plans to integrate multiple sensors on the long-endurance Blue Devil II airship have since been canceled, but AFRL continues work in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to evolve WAPS technology.
DARPA and the Air Force sponsored ARGUS-IS – the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System – including a 1.8 gigapixel sensor and airborne and ground processing subsystems. “What we did is we pushed the sensor technology further, both sensor technology and on-board processing technology,” Eismann explained. “We grew the area coverage; we made the spatial resolution finer and the temporal update quicker.” ARGUS-IS daylight color imagery covers an 8-by-8-kilometer field of view with 20-centimeter resolution and a 5-Hz update rate. The sensor, with four telescopes in a three-axis stabilized gimbal, provides 65 independently steered video windows over the full field of view. Eismann acknowledged, “In a general sense, it also leverages the commercial imagery in terms of the actual imaging technology, but there’s a lot of sophistication on the processing side to manage this huge volume of data.”
ARGUS-IS was built by BAE Systems ISR Solutions. The podded system was first test-flown on a Black Hawk helicopter from the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate in 2010. DARPA transitioned the system to the Air Force and Army for Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) deployments in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) tested the 1,000-pound pod on the Boeing A160T unmanned helicopter in 2011. However, a QRC deployment to Operation Enduring Freedom was canceled when the U.S. Army stopped work on the long-endurance, optimum speed rotor unmanned aircraft system (UAS). The Air Force QRC likewise fell victim to the cancellation of the Blue Devil II airship.
Boeing states it will work with customers to restructure the A160 program, but neither the Army nor DARPA will speculate on alternative WAPS platforms. The day-only ARGUS-IS nevertheless provided the processing foundation for the day/night ARGUS-IR – the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-InfraRed. “That’s not just a sensor hardware development,” noted Eismann. “A major chunk of that program addresses the automated processing as well.” The next-generation ARGUS-IR now in development combines the signal/image processor of ARGUS-IS with an advanced infrared focal plane array and will give users at least 130 independent video streams plus continuous updates of the entire field of view. DARPA expects to transition ARGUS-IR to the Air Force in 18 to 24 months.
The high-performance ARGUS systems also define direction for future WAAS developments. “We need to reduce space, weight, and power,” said Eismann. “These things are big; they consume a lot of the aircraft. That has to improve.” AFRL and other players are looking at smaller focal plane arrays and other technologies to put ARGUS-like capability on smaller, less expensive platforms for distributed capability. “We’ve got to reduce cost so we can get it on more platforms.”
BAE Systems is working on significantly reducing Argus-IR space, weight, and power requirements while improving image exploitation capabilities in the air and on the ground. The company is also developing multi-intelligence exploitation tools and technologies to combine sensing modalities, including imaging, radar, and electronic signals intelligence. Big sensors in big aircraft remain valuable, vulnerable assets, and, according to Eismann, “We should consider a distributed WAMI capability. Now, we have high-demand, low-number platforms.” AFRL is also looking at increasing sensor range. “We suppose threats will only get worse, driving us to greater standoff ranges.”
Angel Fire, Blue Devil, and ARGUS-IS and -IR paralleled other WAAS technologies. Pioneering work on WAAS sensors and image processing at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory launched the Army’s Mohawk Stare and Constant Hawk programs. The Army Product Manager for Airborne Reconnaissance and Exploitation Systems deployed the Constant Hawk Quick Reaction Capability to Iraq in 2006 in support of Task Force ODIN (Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize) to counter IEDs.
Constant Hawk initially collected persistent surveillance imagery, stored the data on board the aircraft, and downloaded it after landing to a ground processing station. Contractor Jorge Scientific operated Constant Hawk Iraq and supported four C-23 Sherpas with a ground analytical team of 22 people for imagery production, exploitation, and dissemination (PED). Constant Hawk Afghanistan in 2009 deployed three wide-area sensors on pressurized, higher-flying C-12 Huron/King Airs. A fourth aircraft modified by EOIR Technologies Inc. added a datalink, satellite communications capability, and a high-resolution WESCAM MX-15 gimbal with spotting camera. The Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate is looking for a second-generation day/night Airborne Wide Area Persistent Surveillance system with better resolution and update rate.