Information Warfare: Petabytes Go To War

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March 22, 2010: The U.S. Air Force is spending $29 million to install a vidcam images storage and retrieval system in Afghanistan. This effort employs commercial technology, as used by TV (mainly sports) and police (security videos) organizations. The military version will handle UAV and security videos, and is called Valiant Angel. The system can hold over 20 petabytes. That's a thousand terabytes, which is, in turn, a thousand gigabytes. A gigabyte is a billion bytes. Each byte being eight bits, the smallest piece of digital information. A byte is commonly used to represent a numeral, letter of the alphabet, special symbol, or color of a pixel on an electronic display.

Over the last five years, both the army and air force developed a need to rapidly access stored intel images. The army system (Constant Hawk) uses digital still photos, while the air force used videos. For example, the air force Angel Fire intelligence collection system used wide angle, high res (11 megapixel) cameras mounted in aircraft, and streaming the live video to hard drives. This system is basically airborne security cameras that cover large areas below. The ground troops like this because it allows you to go back and look at what led up to a roadside bomb attack, ambush or whatever. The resolution is half a meter, so you can make out vehicles and people. The air force got a working prototype of Anger Fire up and running three years ago, and ground troops who saw it were impressed. But for Angel Fire to be useful, it needs one or more racks full of hard drives to store the videos. 

 The army Constant Hawk system is an image analysis system that's basically just another pattern analysis application. It's been very successful. The army named Constant Hawk one of the top ten inventions for 2006. The army does this to give some of the more obscure, yet very valuable, developments some well deserved recognition. But Constant Hawk now uses lots of video, and also needs substantial storage to manage it.

Valiant Angel will initially hold 14 petabytes (14 million gigabytes), but that can be expanded as needed. Special software enables the video to be searched and quickly retrieved for intelligence analysts and field commanders. The system (which takes up about as much space as a large refrigerator) can be expanded, and probably will be.

Constant Hawk used pattern analysis to detect slight changes on the ground, and past knowledge of what such changes meant, to find roadside bombs and terrorists. These systems are now working in Afghanistan, using still images and video.

Pattern analysis is one of the fundamental tools Operations Research (OR) practitioners have been using since World War II (when the newly developed field of OR got its first big workout). Pattern analysis is widely used on Wall Street, by engineers, law enforcement, marketing specialists, and now, the military. Constant Hawk uses a special video camera system to observe a locality and find useful patterns of changing behavior. Some of the Constant Hawk systems are mounted on light aircraft, others are mounted on towers or other ground structures. Special software compares photos from different times. When changes are noted, they are checked more closely, which has resulted in the early detection of thousands of roadside bombs and terrorist ambushes. This has largely eliminated roadside bomb attacks on some supply convoys, which travel the same routes all the time. Those routes are also watched by Constant Hawk. No matter what the enemy does, the Hawk will notice.

While pattern analysis works better with large amounts of images, the main reason for Valiant Angel is simply to have past videos quickly available for the troops.

 

 


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