The Blimps Have Eyes

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

It looks like 24/7 overhead surveillance is coming home from Afghanistan:

The latest state-of-the-art surveillance system, called Kestrel, was tested this year during operations on the U.S.–Mexico border. The video system uses a single, continuously swirling camera to monitor about 70 square miles. The electro-optical day imager (Kestrel sees in wide-area infrared at night) produces more than 200 megapixels per second. Every second the system geotags and reconciles the images for a seamless, medium-resolution image of the terrain below. Not only does Kestrel give operators real-time images, it also records every event that happens below for later recall.

“The idea behind persistent surveillance is to make a movie of a city-size area with the goal of tracking all the moving vehicles and people,” says John Marion, director of Persistent Surveillance at Logos Technologies, the company that developed Kestrel. “Our engineers will tell you that it’s easier to build the cameras than it is to program the software that tags and stitches the images together.”

In field tests, Logos mounted Kestrel on a blimp that also carried six other cameras with narrower fields of vision but higher resolutions. If Kestrel sees something of interest, the other cameras get a tight, detailed picture. That’s not all—other sensors can be married onboard to work together. For example, aerial cameras have been meshed with signals intelligence eavesdropping equipment to immediately record people using certain radios and cellular phones. Marion says Logos demonstrated such a system in Iraq in 2008. “We can correlate for any data that has a time and place attached to it,” he says.

Wide-area surveillance data is only as good as the system’s ability to screen items of real importance from the morass of noise. Right now, the best systems can only filter so much: Kestrel helps its operators watching the screens in real-time by giving them the ability to designate boxes; the software then alerts operators when anything moves inside the area, Marion says.

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