UAV Spy Platforms

Posted by Sam Churchill on

This fall, there’ll be a new supercomputer in Afghanistan. It’ll be floating 20,000 feet above the warzone, aboard a giant spy blimp that watches and listens to everything for miles around, says Gizmodo. The Air Force hopes it will stay aloft for as much as a week, nearly four miles up.

The $211 million “Blue Devil” blimp would be seven times the size of the Goodyear Blimp. A dozen different sensors could then “talk” to each other constantly. The supercomputer will crunch the data. The goal is to get that coordinated information down to ground troops in less than 15 seconds.

The Air Force hasn’t settled yet on exactly which cameras and radars and listening devices will fly on board. And it’s still an open question whether the military can handle all the information that the airship will be collecting from above.

The Blue Devil airship will also carry a wide-area airborne surveillance system, or WAAS. These sensors – like the Gorgon Stare currently being installed on Reaper spy drones – use a dozen different cameras to photograph areas up to two-and-a-half miles around.

Gorgon Stare’s payload is contained in two pods slightly larger than, but about the same total weight as the laser-guided bombs the Reaper often carries. A Gorgon Stare-equipped MQ-9 Reaper UAS/UAV will be capable of flying at 20,000-25,000 ft. for 14-15 hours at a stretch.

The Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) uses 92 cameras at once, says Wired Magazine, compared to Gorgon Stare’s measly dozen. The 1.8 Gigapixel video sensor is made up of 368, 5-megapixel video chips mounted in four separate cameras. It requires a 10 TeraOPS processor to crunch the 27 Gigapixels per second at a frame rate of 15 Hz. It uses two pairs of antennas for the Common Data Link and Tactical Common Data Link.

The first test flight using a UH-60 Black Hawk was declared a success by BAE in February 2010. The Boeing A160 Hummingbird will also eventually be used as a platform for the airborne video sensor and processor.

BAE Systems says it can process, store and downlink a minimum of 256 independent 640×480 video streams over a data link with a maximum effective bit rate of 200 Mbits per second. Each video window may be a “tracking video window” or a “fixed video window,” according to DARPA’s specifications.

The Global Observer, made by AeroVironment, is bigger than a 767, flies in the stratosphere up to 65,000 feet — out of sight and out of range of most anti-aircraft missiles. From there it will be able to see 600 miles in every direction, enough to cover the entire country of Afghanistan. It uses hydrogen for fuel, which has three times the energy density of gasoline, which enables it to fly up to 1 week. The video link uses the Small Unmanned Airborne Systems Digital Data Link.

The Air Force is exponentially increasing surveillance across Afghanistan, reports the Washington Post. The monthly number of unmanned and manned aircraft surveillance sorties has more than doubled since last January, and quadrupled since the beginning of 2009. Skynet, the UK’s single biggest space project, says their fourth satellite will increase the bandwidth available to British forces.

Boeing’s multibillion-dollar “SBInet” electronic border surveillance network along the Mexican border was canceled last week by the federal government. Homeland Security will instead adopt a mix of new technologies that may include blimps and UAVs. Raytheon is now pushing its system, called Clear View. Authorization for flying autonomous UAVs in the continental United States is being sought. Watch the skies.

Aerostats include free balloons, airships, and moored balloons.

An aerostat’s main structural component is its envelope, a lightweight skin containing a lifting gas to provide buoyancy, to which other components are attached.

The United Launch Alliance launched a KH-11 imaging spacecraft from Vandenburg this week, the largest rocket ever launched from the West Coast. In its day, the ability to snap hyperspectral photos periodically was invaluable, although optical resolution from several hundred miles up is limited by atmospheric effects.

Today these lumbering imaging platforms, without the ability to loiter, seem like relics from the past and may have to justify their expense.

According to aerospace journalist Roger Guillemette, who has covered military and intelligence space projects since the 1990s, “After massive cost overruns, missed schedule milestones and unresolved technical issues, the original version of FIA was finally killed in 2005 after more than $15 billion was spent on a program that never built a single piece of flight hardware.”

Needing to fill the void after the cancelled FIA program, the NRO ordered the construction of NROL49, one of two replacement KH-11s ordered from Lockheed Martin until a successor to FIA becomes available. The second one would replace the 2005 spacecraft, likely around 2013,” said Ted Molczan, a respected observer who keeps tabs on orbiting spacecraft. The first FIA launch probably is targeted for about 2017, by which time NROL-49 would be nearing retirement.”

By that time, Superlenses, satellite swarms, innovative instrumentation and post-processing techniques, may take LEO platforms into a whole new realm.

ESA has created an interactive game for user-controlled satellite tasking. The code was initially developed within the European Space Agency.

Surrey Satellite in the UK plans to use Google’s Android operating system to control a 30cm-long satellite and take pictures of the Earth in a mission later this year. The mission is known as STRaND-1 will use a more or less off the shelf Android phone to precisely point and maneuver the satellite.

SSTL’s Shaun Kenyon, Project Manager for STRaND-1 said the 4 kilogram nano-satellite includes a smartphone avionics suite, advanced guidance, navigation and control systems.

The satellite also has miniature reaction wheels, a GPS receiver, as well as innovative pulse plasma thrusters to propel it through space. The whole satellite costs less than a family car.

“If a smartphone can be proved to work in space, it opens up lots of new technologies to a multitude of people and companies for space who usually can’t afford it. It’s a real game-changer for the industry,” said STRaND-1’s lead researcher Dr Chris Bridges.

A Luneberg lens can track satellites moving only a small feed horn while the hemispherical antenna remains stationary. Online scholarly publications have the interesting stuff (if you’re a PhD).

Posted by Sam Churchill on Wednesday, January 19th, 2011 at 1:43 pm .

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