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The Goldilocks sensor

UTC Aerospace’s C-B4 achieves better performance by tracking a few spectral bands.

Mar. 12, 2013 - 03:00PM   |  
By JENNIFER RICHARDSON   |   Comments
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For all of the advances in ISR technology, certain missions remain tough, from finding emplaced improvised explosive devices to locating buried smugglers’ tunnels to spotting drug labs hiding under triple layers of jungle canopy. While gear for some of these missions exists, it is often large — both the sensors and the aircraft that carry them — and neither particularly adaptable nor cost-effective.

To deal with these and other pressing ISR challenges, UTC Aerospace Systems tried a different technical approach: a sensor that tracks emissions in several spectrum bands — not just one, like many full-motion video cameras, or too many, like hyperspectral systems. The result is the C-B4, a 48-pound electro-optical /infrared sensor big enough to do the job and small enough to put aboard a tactical UAV.

C-B4 doesn’t work like existing sensors. Instead, it combines many of the attributes of multispectral long-range oblique photography sensors and FMV sensors to form a multiband imager.

All objects reflect and absorb light in different ways, and C-B4 uses what nature provides by measuring these differences across a range of spectrum — from visible to infrared — allowing the substance in question to be positively characterized and identified. Judicious selection of the band passes employed in the system yields a sensor that is tailored for a particular mission. This fine sampling produces a spectral signature that may be matched to a database for identifying materials in a scene and discriminating among different classes of materials.

The sensor gathers this information, along with data on spatial positioning, then tells the user about the type and location of specific targets. Because it identifies the type of material involved, C-B4 can help determine what people are doing, not just where they are.

While hyper-spectral imaging, or HSI, sensors also work in this fashion, they do so in an extraordinarily inefficient manner, ingesting hundreds of spectral bands of data at once. This creates a deluge of data that does not prioritize the useful from the mundane and places a very heavy processing and data transmission load on the system, driving up cost and time.

Experience has shown that HSI and other technology works best when the target has “peaky” spectra, so C-B4 can easily be configured to find that “peaky” spectra. By prioritizing its focus only on those spectral bands that provide the most useful information, C-B4 is able to provide a high level of performance in a package with small size, weight, power and cost.

Using a historical review of systems tested or deployed to date, band selection, algorithm refinement, and sound hardware and software engineering, we developed C-B4 to, at any one time, gather data across seven spectral bands with the highest likelihood of finding useful information: green, red, near-infrared, short-wave infrared-1, and three bands within long-wave infrared. These are collected simultaneously, geo-tagged with metadata, corrected, aligned and transported within the onboard processing electronics.

Moreover, because the sensor suite inside C-B4 can be easily and quickly upgraded in a plug-and-play fashion above and beyond the seven-band baseline, other variants such as hyper-spectral imagers, radar, lidar or communications may be adapted to fit specific missions or work in tandem for tipping and cuing. These different system configurations would employ the C-B4 common electronics, controls, inertial navigation system, and packaging, thereby saving money and easing the logistical burden.

All variants of the C-B4 platform use an onboard processing system built upon an open Service Oriented Architecture. Using commercially available technology, the system can quickly perform data fusion processing of differing spectral bands, allowing information to be shared in seconds rather than minutes. Each C-B4 appears on a gigabit Ethernet network as an address, making integration simple and cost-effective. Additional processing and reporting is provided in a plug-in application that runs on a laptop or tablet.

Weighing about 48 pounds, C-B4 can be easily carried on tactical UAS or similarly sized platform flying up to 15,000 feet. Flight tests of the payload are underway; the product launch is scheduled for first quarter of 2013.

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Jennifer Richardson is the manager of New Products and Innovation at UTC Aerospace Systems, Charlotte, N.C.

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