January 26, 2011:
Sometimes high-tech is not always the solution. A recent example is the U.S. Air Force's new UAV mounted multi-camera system, Gorgon Stare. Sent to Afghanistan late last year, air force users quickly found that the equipment was too unreliable and poorly thought out to do what it was supposed to do in a combat zone. Gorgon Stare consists of two (quarter ton each) pods carried on one of the wing hard points of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Currently, each Gorgon Stare contains nine cameras (five day and four night/infrared). Aside from enabling several camera operators to work from one UAV, the camera system also has software to enable covering a larger area, by having the cameras cover adjacent areas. The cameras can also look at the same area, from slightly different angles, and produce 3-D images. Two or more cameras can be used over the same area, at different resolution to, for example, search for a specific individual (who is on the Hellfire delivery list), and have another camera focus in on suspect individuals to get a positive identification. The system software also allows for rapidly shifting from one area to another, in response to requests from the ground. Since the RQ-9 operates at higher altitudes (7,000 meters or more), the cameras can zero in on particular patches of ground, over a wide area.
In reality, the Gorgon Stare cameras were providing poor quality images and were unable to stick with people or places operators were trying to keep an eye on. This doesn't mean Gorgon Stare is a failure, it does mean that whoever was responsible for testing the system back in the United States, screwed up. Or maybe someone further up the food chain decided to send Gorgon Stare to a combat zone and test it there (without telling the troops that they were testers, not users). But someone in the air force leaked the unflattering initial user reports, and the media is demanding blood (and getting some very profitable attention as a result.) The real story of what was actually going on here will not be nearly as headline-worthy. It might be something as mundane as a clash of personalities, or no one willing to pay for perform adequate testing back in the United States. Reality is rarely as exciting as speculation.
Systems like Gorgon Stare will keep coming, and will be made to work, as they are a way of addressing the UAV shortage. One method is to equip a small aircraft (manned or not) with more powerful cameras, and multiple ones at that, so that the one aircraft can monitor several different ground operations at once. Another method is to install more powerful cameras in smaller UAVs. This has been an ongoing effort, with smaller UAVs having gone through several generations of sensor packages in the last six years. The army recently developed a three-camera system for their Gray Eagle UAV (an aircraft about the same size as a Predator). Multiple systems are the future, no matter what happens to Gorgon Stare.