Can the Air Force Draw Lessons From Reality TV?


HAMPTON -- For the record, the Air Force doesn't care about Honey Boo Boo, isn't buying gifts for Snooki's baby and has no stake in who wins The Amazing Race.

But when it comes to reality TV, the technology behind those shows may provide answers to a genuine challenge facing the service: How to process and analyze an avalanche of video and data from manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft.

Think about it: The average reality TV show shoots hours of footage that must be whittled down to a few key moments. The quality of acting aside, those folks in the studio are adept at analyzing raw tape and tagging a few key moments for later reference.

The Air Force faces significantly higher stakes on the battlefields of Afghanistan, and in places like Yemen and Pakistan, but the technical challenge is similar -- find important images in a sea of video and find them quickly. In fact, the Air Force has expanded its reach beyond reality TV to commercial operations like ESPN that deal in large amounts of video, hoping civilian techniques can be adapted to the military world. Even the layout of TV studios has been examined.

The demand hits home at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, the home of a secretive, intelligence-gathering hub where airmen work 12-hour shifts in a darkened computer room to analyze and catalog thousands of hours of video while communicating via chat rooms to soldiers in combat zones.

The end of the Iraq War and the drawdown in Afghanistan will not lighten the workload here on the Peninsula. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently told ABC News that drones would be "a continuing tool of national defense"

Langley is the headquarters of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, the largest such wing in the Air Force with more than 5,000 airmen organized into six groups that span four states, Germany and South Korea.

One of those groups is the 497th ISR, also based at Langley and under the command of Col. Patrick M. Shortsleeve. Within the past 1-1/2 years, his mission workload has increased 80 percent.

"The Air Force has made an concerted effort to really look at what technologies exist out there, what processes exist out there, so that we can take what somebody is using at ESPN, reality TV or even closed-circuit television, and looking at how that can be applied to what we are doing," he said.

Exponential growth

The National Football League televises 256 games a year. That translates into 768 hours of video.

The Air Force's intelligence-gathering effort produces that much video in a single day –multiplied by two. More than 1,600 hours in an average work day, Shortsleeve said.

Airman at the 497th last year worked on 9,300 missions, analyzed more than 84,000 targets and took in 57,000 hours of full-motion video. A large room at the 497th building holds more than 135 computer servers. The information stored daily equates to 8,000 iPads worth of data.

While the other sectors of the military are bracing for deep spending cuts, the 497th has added more than 400 airmen over two years to help analyze and process the information, going from about 350 people to around 800. Add up the support staff and others, and the group totals about 1,200 personnel.

The analysts here work with Air Force personnel at other locations who remotely pilot the drones, and together they communicate with soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Adding more people helps to ease the workload, but it is not the solution, according Dr. Mark Maybury, a top-ranking Air Force scientist. Simply put, the technology is moving too fast.

Consider the surveillance technology known as Gorgon Stare, named for the mythical Greek monster. It can send up to 65 different images to users. Ten years ago, such a system would have been difficult to envision.

"Could we put 65 times more people on this project?" Maybury asked. "At some point, you run out of people on the planet."

Tag, you're it

It's not that the Air Force doesn't have a sophisticated operation, Shortsleeve said, but a look at the civilian side might give airmen an edge. For example, reality TV producers have the ability to tag an image and include text with the clip.

"Putting words with the clips is something that would be useful to us," he said. "That's one of the areas we'd obviously want to look at."

Ever watch a NASCAR race and see how technicians "mark" cars as they speed around the track? That can work in a more sophisticated way for airmen who are monitoring life on the ground half a world away.

"That type of application can easily be applied when you're looking at days or weeks worth of video . . . to automatically tag certain things for us," Shortsleeve said. "Say, I want to know how many vehicles come into this compound. If I have that criteria set, maybe it can tag those for me."

Maybury said the Air Force is looking at machine "learning techniques" which can automatically catalog changes in activity or numbers. Then an analyst can go back and look for changes in patterns.

Maybury, Shortsleeve and other Air Force leaders agree on one thing, however: Despite technological advances, men and women must make the ultimate judgment calls.

"Intelligence is inherently a human endeavor," Shortsleeve said. "There has to be a human in the loop somewhere. Honestly, there is something to be said about just the gut feeling . . "

Stress reliever

An analyst at the 497th doesn't come under enemy fire. They return home to their families and live in a secure world. That doesn't mean they are free of combat stress.

During their 12-hour shifts, analysts can be tracking enemy targets or trying to protect someone. They talk via chat rooms to soldiers going into harm's way. The decisions made at Langley carry very real consequences in Afghanistan.

Given that, any piece of technology that makes life easier for an analyst has the added benefit of reducing stress. Shortsleeve says the mental health of his men and women is extremely important as they deal with an ever-increasing workload and balance their lives at home. It's a unique type of stress.

"You go home and the kids want attention," he said. "There's no real decompression time for you. If you were deployed, you'd have the downtime. You could go work out . . ."

The 497th has an embedded chaplain and a clinical psychologist. Although its work is classified, the unit has held an open house for families of the airmen, providing demonstrations of what goes on every day. Family members were amazed.

"I had so many comments like, 'I had no idea that this is what they were doing. This explains a lot -- why they're so tired when they get home,' " Shortsleeve said.

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