A Look at the Leading Edge in Geospatial Information Gathering

By Hal Reid

Sometimes technology that originates from within the government or military has a way of moving down to the private sector. In order to see what is coming, we have to look at what these people are using now.

An integrated system that was shown at GEOINT 2004 was the Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) from Northrop Grumman, and the supporting Global Hawk Ground Segment by Raytheon.

The global Hawk UAV is a high altitude surveillance unmanned aircraft with a range of 12,000 miles and a total in-the-air time of 35 hours. It is flown from a consol and the take off and landing processes are all automated.The Global Hawk is flown by a real pilot, communicates with Air Traffic Control, through controlled airspace, just like a manned airplane.

The aircraft itself has several sensor configurations which include Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) with Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI - one of many military acronyms), Electro Optical, infrared, and a traditional visible light image collector.The output of these sensors is moved either via wideband line-of-sight digital radio or via satellite data link.The mission can be either visible surveillance or it can be configured to monitor communication or other electronic signals.

All of this data can be moved from the UAV, through the ground support system and to the intended customer in near real time. That means that the information is processed and packaged for delivery through the ground support system so it has maximum value to the end user in a very timely manner.

This image shows how the ground support links the launch and recovery, the flight path control and the ground processing system together.

Click image for larger view.

The logistics of this entire system allow for one real pilot to control up to three UAVs, the entire ground support can redeployed in 24 hours, and the whole thing can be moved by three C141 transport planes. That also includes all the maintenance equipment and supplies for 30 days of autonomous operations.

The control panel for the pilot below shows the map covering flight path operations and control, the basic aircraft situations indicators (heading, altitude, systems status, etc.) and information on sensor status.

Click image for larger view.

This is what inside the ground station looks like.

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This last image shows integration within this system of standard off-the-shelf software for visualization.

Click image for larger view.

After all this data is collected and processed, it has to be stored and ultimately de-classified.If the UAV was being used for homeland security, it could provide the commercial market with some very high resolution images in a number of formats depending on the sensors used.

What is probably the most important part of this technology is that it establishes a process and a set of standard procedures for unmanned remote sensing.Not all of this type of collection needs to involve high altitude stealth technology UAVs, satellite data links and major collections of technology.

For example, at Bridgewater State College, near Boston, the GIS department is experimenting with model airplanes, digital cameras and simple data links to capture imagery over areas that may include wetlands, new real estate developments and other areas of local interest.The cost is far cheaper than flying the subject area using commercial aerial photography, and the end results can be in near real time.

The payoff is that the data may be available at a reasonable cost, the process for collections could become available to commercial users, and like many technologies, it may herald a standard method of imagery collection.

It is also quite possible that these systems will be available on the military surplus market in a few years when we have moved to even more advanced technology.Is it conceivable that a company could buy several of these systems, and in a nomadic pattern touring the country, create current imagery for various local government entities? If you imagine that the level of automation includes automatic ortho-rectification of the imagery, far better than sub-meter resolution and the fast creation of useable multi-spectral products (remember near-real time?), this could make imagery the commodity we all have wished it could be.

If you are an instrument-rated, private pilot with a few bucks, it might be wise to begin revisiting the Army surplus store and thinking about becoming an entrepreneur...

Published Wednesday, December 8th, 2004

Written by Hal Reid

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