Drones Team Up for Spying

Drat. I had been meaning to blog about Darpa's multi-drone surveillance project for most of the year, but never quite got around to it. Now Wired News has beaten me to the punch. So let me try to play catch-up.drone_city.jpgThere are now 19 types of U.S. military drones flying in the skies above Iraq, shooting video of what's below. But it's tough to put those images together in any kind of coherent way. The average soldier or marine on the ground can't see most of that footage. And he doesn't have the authority or technical ability to order one of the unmanned aerial vehicles to go check something out.There are exceptions to this -- which Wired News doesn't note. The hand-held Raven or Dragon Eye UAVs, for example, are controlled by frontline units. Marines on the ground during the taking of Falluja last year were able to see Pioneer drone footage as they moved through the city. But, for the most part, infantrymen don't have access to the drones-eye view.Darpa would like to change that with the HURT program -- short for "heterogeneous urban reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition." The idea is to give soldiers the ability to see all kinds of UAV footage, and command all kinds of drones, from a single device. And, the agency wants the machines to be able to translate simple, high-level orders into complex manuevers.It ain't easy. First of all, automatically choosing which soldiers' requests for drone coverage should get top priority is a nigthmare, just by itself. How do you program a computer to decide who gets first dibs? Then there's the question of how you take all those 19 drones -- many of which are controlled by their own proprietary software -- to talk to each other. Finally, you've got the problem of giving machines that are currently remotely-operated some measure of autonomy. Because if a captain tells a group of drones to "show me what's inside that window," they've got to be able to organize themselves for that recon mission. Gizmag gives another example: "the HURT system must be able to simultaneously order the UAVs to conduct wide-area surveillance while dispatching an individual vehicle to a location requested by a soldier for a close-up look."Northrop has a contract from Darpa to develop HURT. And the company put on a little demo in the fall, Wired News, relying on this Northrop press release, notes.

Two fixed-wing UAVs, a Raven and a Pointer, along with an Rmax rotorcraft, were put aloft under the control of the system. Participants on the ground were able to view wide-area surveillance of the battle zone on handheld monitors, but could also send one of the UAVs in for a closer look at a suspected enemy position by merely moving over the subject with their cursor.For the demo, a soldier observed a distant garage with a van backing out of it, and selected this target on his handheld screen. HURT autonomously selected the best UAV for the job based on location, and dispatched it to "shadow" the van. It also re-tasked the remaining three aerial units to secure a wide-area perimeter...The elasticity of the HURT concept means that UAVs plugged into the system don't need any special modification. The system could also combine ground-based surveillance sensors with airborne platforms, with the potential to reduce manpower demands and risks to friendly forces associated with urban operations, according to a report by Rand.
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