Two MQ-9 Reapers retrofitted with the new $15 million wide-area aerial surveillance sensors, or WAAS, will fly test missions later this year, and the Air Force plans to have ten such planes in battle by next spring, in rotation on a 24/7 patrol. “It’s an incredible force enhancer,” said Colonel Eric Mathewson, Director of the service’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force at the Pentagon. Sierra Nevada Corporation, makers of the WAAS, chose the name, a spooky reference to the cursed sisters from Greek mythology—Medusa being the Beyoncé of the trio—whose gaze turned men to stone.
“This would have been relatively easy on a manned platform,” said Mike Meermans, Sierra’s vice president of strategic planning. “But with the size and weight limitations, I would almost say we were trying to beat up on the laws of physics with this one.” Still, the package came together in less than 18 months.
To deliver the high data rates the Air Force wanted, the Gorgon’s cameras transmit images at just two frames per second, rather than the 30 fps of full motion video delivered by the MTS. According to Mathewson, that utility is enough to notice if anything changes in a given environment. He says the strategy is to park a Reaper over an area and monitor anything that moves within a four-kilometer square zone, versus the less-than-one-square-kilometer covered by the MTS ball.
The existing cameras obviously work, judging by stories such as the unsuspecting fate of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by a UAV-launched Hellfire in Pakistan as his wife administered his final rubdown. Yet the MTS alone is taxing to use. Zooming in for positive identification creates a “soda straw” view, forcing sensor operators to visually sweep a town along the street grid. But that same operator can use the Gorgon Stare’s image to direct the MTS’ full motion video cameras to a particular spot. “I put a WAAS on, and I can see it all now” said Mathewson.“All of it.”
And because all the digital imagery is stored, the Gorgon Stare allows for what you might call forensic surveillance—looking back to reconstruct an event after the fact, à la the time-folding surveillance system seen in the film Déjà Vu. If an IED goes off in a certain quadrant within the Gorgon’s gaze, analysts could re-examine the rest of the footage to see if anyone had visited that site, and where he had gone. Perhaps for a backrub on the roof of his apartment? If a Gorgon-Stare-equipped drone is on the scene, there’s no happy ending in sight.
For more on the Air Force's frantic unmanned reinvention, see our September 2009 issue cover story here, also by Hagerman.
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