The U.S. military is relying on an increasing amount of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct both strike and observation missions without putting U.S. armed forces personnel at risk. Many of the UAV's are used in observational roles where they stream real-time footage of battles or situations required close observation.
Video captured by UAVs is sent to U.S. intelligence personnel to be analyzed for insights into what enemy combatants or persons of interest are doing, who they are meeting with, and where they are going.
We know the UAV can stream the real-time footage to operators, but the exact capabilities of the UAV have remained largely unknown for many reasons. DARPA has put out a new contract with a description that hints at some of the capabilities of the UAV.
The contract description is for a contractor to develop a method of indexing video shot by UAVs from the air and the program is apparently called VIRAT. According to the description the contractor would be developing ways to index video based on activities including, but not limited to a single person digging, loitering, picking up, throwing, exploding/burning, carrying, shooting, launching and doing other activities.
Video would also be sorted into person-to-person categories like following, meeting, gathering, moving as a group, dispersing, shaking hands, kissing, exchanging objects and more. Other categories would include various person to vehicle interactions, person to facility interactions, vehicle activities like accelerating, shooting, and others. VIP activities like convoy, parade, troop formations, and others are included in the description as well.
Part of the reasoning for being able to sort video quickly by the U.S. military and security organizations are described in a DARPA paper and quoted by The Washington Post. The paper said, "The U.S. military and intelligence communities have an ever increasing need to monitor live video feeds and search large volumes of archived video data for activities of interest due to the rapid growth in development and fielding of motion video systems."
The first phase of the contract was won by a company called Kitware in conjunction with 9 other companies and universities. The initial phase is worth $6.7 million and is not expected to conclude until 2011.
The Washington Post reports that the resolution of video systems ranges from four inches to a foot depending on the collector and the weather at the time. Video shot from UAVs is shaped by the angle of the aircraft to the ground and software is available to allow viewers to manipulate video to see objects from different vantage points.
According to The Washington Post, there are also systems that allow UAVs to track moving targets under a forest canopy or other cover and determine their exact location. Systems are under development that would allow the identification of specific individuals from facial recognition and gait.
Analysts today have a wealth of video data to watch for suspicious behavior. Future video systems will provide even more information analysts need to view. DARPA describes one use of the video indexing system as allowing an analyst looking for U-turning cars to check archived video of cars making U-turns before a previous attack. The full capabilities of the UAV surveillance system are likely much more than what the contract describes.