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Aerial sensors get tech update

Army PEO IEW&S testing new tools for surveillance

Feb. 25, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By PAUL RICHFIELD   |   Comments
New single-sensor location technology would represent a significant upgrade to the Army's Guardrail tactical SIGINT aircraft, shown here, which depends on three-aircraft triangulation to pinpoint the locations of enemy units.
New single-sensor location technology would represent a significant upgrade to the Army's Guardrail tactical SIGINT aircraft, shown here, which depends on three-aircraft triangulation to pinpoint the locations of enemy units. ()
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Are you swimming in sensors and drowning in data? Encumbered with heavy, stand-alone boxes offering limited, stove-piped functionality? The U.S. Army can empathize, and its Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare & Sensors (PEO IEW&S) at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland is pushing ahead with new technologies designed to make airborne sensors and their electronic backbones smaller, lighter, cooler and smarter.

Leading the charge is the High Operating Temperature (HOT) infrared focal plane array. Packed in dense clusters, this new generation of sensor arrays offers performance levels equal to or better than the current-standard “77K” systems, with significant reductions in size, weight and power (SWaP) required. New digital interfaces, another focus area, stand to improve the image quality of cockpit displays and digital recording devices.

“Our lane is improving over multiple wavelengths,” said Adam Terio, technical director for the product manager, EO/IR Payloads. “HOT focal plane gives a lot of capability with higher temperatures. We’re also looking at improved geo-location accuracy with payloads able to deliver their own precise coordinates,” Terio added. “Right now, they’re often registered to an imagery database that might not be current, or even available.”

Capabilities advance

Sensor capability is moving forward as well. The newest multispectral devices will include combinations of short-, mid- and long-wave, visible, near-infrared and infrared as needed, reducing both the quantity and type of sensors aboard each aircraft.

Such sensors will not only support target recognition and identification at longer ranges, their reduced SWaP signature will allow aircraft to carry heavier fuel loads and loiter over the target area longer.

The challenge of precise geo-location of imagery, long an obstacle to aerial intelligence gathering, could soon go the way of the Warsaw Pact. Future sensors will always know exactly where they are and where they’re looking, and “single-ship geo-locating” of target emitters may soon be within the reach of field commanders.

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This technology would represent a significant upgrade to the Army’s Guardrail tactical SIGINT aircraft, for example, which have traditionally employed three-aircraft triangulation to pinpoint the locations of enemy units through their radio transmissions.

While the new sensors will likely be retrofitted to the existing fleet with a reduced number of new-build airframes, the platform mix is evolving with the technology. Upgraded and heavily modified Beechcraft King Air variants in their various guises are expected to dominate the Army’s manned space indefinitely, and be the subject of spar-up rebuilds as they accumulate cycles.

“Going forward, we’ll be moving away from a fleet that is to a large extent contractor-operated in Iraq and Afghanistan to more military operators,” said Chris Keller, a deputy project manager in PEO IEW&S.

The aging four-engine Dash 7 will likely be replaced with the twin-engine Dash 8, according to Keller.

“Certain sensors drive what you’re doing,” Keller added. “You want to get the data to the fight as soon as possible, but with some sensors, there’s going to be a delay. We can shorten a lot of those times with sensor geo-location and a discoverable network, with less time spent trying to find the location of the sensor.”

The nascent Dash 8 requirement is likely to fall under the anticipated Aerial Reconnaissance Low-Enhance (ARL-E) program, an effort to equip the Army’s large turboprop planes with a state-of-the-art sensor suite. If the Request for Information published July 15, 2013 is any indication, ARL-E will be a showpiece of exotic technologies.

Sensors considered in the baseline requirement include electro-optical/infrared, full-motion video, signals intelligence, communications intelligence, hyper-spectral imagery, foliage-penetrating radar, moving target indicator and synthetic aperture radar. ■

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