Electronic Weapons: March 17, 2004

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Generally unnoticed technical developments often have enormous impact on military operations. The combination of videocam technology and satellite telephone technology produced the UAVs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. These UAVs were able to watch large areas below them around the clock, making it much more difficult for the enemy to sneak around. This changed the way wars are fought, especially those against irregular and guerilla forces. 

Two new technical developments are about to knock this use of "persistent UAVs" up a notch. First, there is the new flash memory hard drive. Using the flash memory (memory chips that retain their information when you turn the power off) used in digital cameras and memory sticks, flash memory devices with the capacity of hard drives have been produced. This was possible because flash memory was becoming smaller and cheaper. The current products put 90 gigabytes of flash memory into the same container that normally holds a 2.5 inch hard drive found in notebook computers. The "flash" hard drive uses less power (3-5 watts), the same electronic connections as a regular hard drive, and moves data faster as well. 

A flash memory hard drive has no moving parts and works more reliably in places like a UAV. This is very important. One of the problems with UAVs and their video cameras is that there is not enough communications satellite capacity available to support all the UAVs that can be put in the air. With a 90 gigabyte flash hard drive, you can hold 11 hours of high resolution video, or 80 hours of lower resolution stuff. This means that a UAV can record everything it sees, and send it when satellite transmission capacity is available. It's also possible for the UAVs computer to scan the video and only alert the UAV operator when something possibly interesting shows up, and then send it. 

But the other new technology, allowing for high quality 100:1 compression of video files, means less communications satellite capacity is needed. This software, operating like the JPG, ZIP or MPG compression computer users are familiar with, smashes video files down to remarkably small sizes. There is some loss of quality with the 100:1 compression, but if something interesting appears to be down there, the UAV operator can call for a more detailed video file. 

The flash hard drives and better compression technology make UAVs much more effective and make it possible to keep more of them in the air at the same time. This will triple, or more, the effectiveness of UAVs. Both of these developments will go generally unrecognized by the mass media, but for the troops, it makes a huge difference. 

 


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