Troops in Afghanistan are about to get a big help called Valiant Angel for sorting and moving the massive amounts of still and video imagery collected by dozens of aerial drones and other aircraft orbiting the region via the intel shop at Joint Forces Command. Troops and intelligence analysts are simply overwhelmed by the vast amounts of drone supplied digital video that is served up daily in massive quantities.
Digital connections worsen the farther one travels from large, fixed headquarters. Small units in isolated combat outposts, for example, are often stuck with the equivalent of a 56k dial-up connection; they lack the big data pipes to tap into video feeds or access the massive images stitched together by wide area surveillance platforms (WAS).
WAS aircraft, such as the Army’s “Constant Hawk” or the Air Force’s forthcoming “Gorgon Stare,” carry large suites of cameras that snap photos of areas up to four-by-four kilometers in size at two frames per second. WAS aircraft orbiting Afghanistan can easily spit out 7 terabytes (7,000 gigabytes) of data every day, and that’s just from one aircraft, said Air Force Col. Skip Krakie, on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
Before Valiant Angel, one of the only ways to get that massive amount of data back to intel analysts in the U.S was to ship on a plane.
The solution was to turn to the commercial video industry and buy largely off the shelf equipment, he said. “The commercial industry struggles with these same problems as well, how do you move large digital data around so you can stream it to somebody’s computer or television.” The Valiant Angel program doesn’t build anything new, rather it bundles commercially available hardware and software into something troops can use to work their way through massive volumes of digital data.
Drone video is fed into Valiant Angel hard drives and then made accessible to users, even those in remote locations, over the military’s Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (Siprnet). Troops can then use a JFCOM provided “Thick Client” software package to view video and images and discuss a video clip using instant messenger in a chat room. The software captures that chat and embeds it into the video stream, along with important key words, such as “IED explosions,” allowing end users to search for relevant streams, Krakie said.
JFCOM is also developing a web interface for users that might not have access to the software package. Video clips will also be tied to a “Google Earth like” interface, so they can see where the drone was scanning. Embedded in the software will be “YouTube like” instructional videos.
To collect and make useful WAS imagery, a data volume that is “almost incomprehensible,” Krakie said, JFCOM is providing a network operations center, co-located with Constant Hawk or Gorgon Stare ground control sites, that downloads the imagery and makes it usable to a much larger audience that might not have the big pipes. Today, only about a dozen analysts are able to view this data. “We’re going to expand that to everyone who is on the network,” he said. Units will be able to scan imagery of ground they might patrol for any signs of insurgents digging in IEDs, for example.
Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on Valiant Angel and it will be shipped to Afghanistan within the next two weeks, Krakie said. A 60-day assessment will follow, then the remainder of the equipment will be shipped over in late summer.