Intelligence: Feed Management


April 6, 2010:  The U.S. Army and Air Force are both faced with a shortage of UAV operators, often for nearly identical aircraft (the 1.1 ton air force MQ-1 and the new 1.5 ton army MQ-1C). The shortage is more acute for sensor operators. That's because more sensors are being mounted on UAVs. For example, last year the air force began shipping half ton Gorgon camera pods to Afghanistan. Each of these pods, which are mounted on Reaper UAVs, contains nine cameras. One Reaper, flying at 6,500 meters (20,000 feet) requires nine sensor operators to get the most out of all nine cameras. The army and air force are also putting electronic monitoring equipment on their UAVs, to pick up radio or phone traffic. More sensor operators are essential if this multiplicity of sensors is to work.

The army and air force are scrambling to cope. The air force thought it had a solution with remote operation (the UAV operators are back in the United States). But the more sensors you put on one UAV, the more satellite bandwidth (capacity) you need to pump the data halfway around the world. The army puts its operators in the area where the UAVs operate, and is using more automation to deal with the growing number of sensors on each UAV (and the growing number of UAVs.) One big advantage the army has is its ability to recruit combat veterans as sensor operators. These men have invaluable experience down where the action is. It's also an opportunity for badly wounded combat troops, who are now handicapped enough to keep them out of the infantry (but not out of most support jobs), to stay close to the action. Even the air force has changed its sensor operator training, to get the operators to think more like a "warrior" while watching the video of the battlefield. If you know what to look for and are quicker to find it, your video feed is going to be a lot more useful for the combat troops.

The army is also equipping its combat helicopters to take over video feeds from nearby UAVs. Actually, what the army is setting up is a switchboard like system that enables many users to share access to video and other sensor feeds. This would include all combat commanders in the area, thus this would not require any satellite bandwidth. The air force has a similar system for allowing highly flying combat aircraft to share feeds. Both the army and the air force see UAVs as a solution to the problem of having more ways to attack targets, than to find them. There is never enough intelligence on where the enemy is, and UAVs are seen as a solution to that problem.

Ideally, the army and air force should combine their efforts on this "feed management", but the two services are at odds over army control of army UAVs. The air force wants to centralize all large UAVs under their control, not coordinate anything with what they see as a rival air force.




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