During the SPIE Defense, Security + Sensing show in Baltimore, I had a very interesting conversation with John Marion, who is director of persistent surveillance at Logos Technologies, based in Fairfax, VA. Our talk was about surveillance imaging from aerostat balloons tethered to the ground to continuously observe what Marion said could be a “small-city size area”.
Aerostats made news in May with a New York Times article describing life in Afghanistan under the eye of the many spy balloons tethered at military bases and in cities. At a relatively low cost, such balloons provide the military with an unblinking, long-term view of important areas, helping to catch insurgents planting bombs and deterring ambushes.
In 2010, General David Petraeus, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, had asked for help from all available intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. In partial response, a 300-ft-long, untethered hybrid airship called LEMV (long-endurance multi-intelligence vehicle) was developed by Northrop Grumman for the US Army. Its first flight has been repeatedly delayed and now may be scheduled for November, according to one report.
To enhance the imaging capabilities of the much smaller aerostats, Logos Technologies developed its Kestrel system, which is a wide-area persistent surveillance system for forward operating bases. Its development includes novel imaging and stabilization capability for day/night operation.
To date such aerostats have relied on narrow field-of-view ball gimbal sensors to identify targets of interest. The Kestrel sensor enables 360° coverage out to extended ranges at moderate resolution, while cueing a narrow field of view camera to provide high resolution imagery of targets of interest.
The ground station system enables operators to monitor multiple regions of interest in real time, and allows for backtracking through the recorded imagery while monitoring ongoing activity (see video). This backtracking capability allows operators to detect and understand threat networks and operations. Since July, ten of the full day/night surveillance systems have been deployed to Afghanistan, with six more available as spares.
This spring the US Department of Homeland Security tested the Kestrel system for border security around Nogales, Arizona. A Raven Aerostar aerostat was fitted out with a Wescam MX-15 hi-res, narrow-field camera from L-3 Communications and a Kestrel day/night medium-res, wide-area persistent surveillance system. Thanks to the system, authorities apprehended 30 suspects on the first night of the demonstration and made a total of 80 arrests over the course of the week.