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Military struggles to process all drone video

Dec. 20, 2012 - 08:27AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 20, 2012 - 08:27AM  |  
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JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. - Can SportsCenter teach the military something about combating terrorists?

After rapidly expanding the number of drones around the world, the Air Force is now reaching out to ESPN and other experts in video analysis to keep up with the flood of footage the unmanned aircraft are transmitting.

"They're looking at anything and everything they can right now," said Air Force Col. Mike Shortsleeve, commander of a unit here that monitors drone videos.

The remote-controlled aircraft are mounted with cameras that transmit real-time video of terrorism suspects to military analysts in the U.S.

The amount of video streaming into this base, one of a number of sites that monitors and analyzes the images, is immense. Drone video transmissions rose to 327,384 hours last year, up from 4,806 in 2001.

Given the huge amount of feeds, the Air Force has launched an aggressive effort to seek out technology or techniques that will help it process video without adding more people to stare at monitors.

"We need to be careful we don't drown in the data," said David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and a senior military scholar at the Air Force Academy.

Air Force officials have met with the sports cable network ESPN to discuss how it handles large amounts of video that stream in. The visit resulted in no technological breakthroughs but helped in developing training and expertise, the Air Force said.

Here at Langley, Air Force analysts sit for hours at a stretch in a vast room that is illuminated only by bank after bank of monitors. The drones are piloted elsewhere, often at a base in Nevada, but the video arrives here. The video is analyzed and fused with other types of intelligence, such as still photos or communications intercepts.

Much of what drones do now is called "pattern of life" missions, which involve staring down at a compound for days. That information can help avoid civilian casualties, for example, by determining when children leave for school every day before a raid is launched.

It can also tell military analysts when something seems amiss, perhaps signaling the arrival of a terrorist leader. It's time consuming work that could be made more efficient if there were technology that could automate the monitoring of videos, looking for signs that seem out of the ordinary.

"The real value added would be if I could have that tool go back and say, ‘How many times has this vehicle appeared in this geographic area over the last 30 days?' and it automatically searches volumes of full-motion video," said Col. Jeffrey Kruse, commander of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing.

The importance of video analysis is apparent in the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

It took 6,000 hours of surveillance video to pinpoint the location of the al-Qaeda leader who oversaw a bloody insurrection in Iraq as drones followed the movements of his known associates. On June 7, 2006, two Air Force jets dropped two 500-pound bombs on the building in which he was located in Iraq.

"You can't catch bad guys unless you know where they are and what they're doing," Deptula said.

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