Even if Iran has, as it claims, shot down a RQ-170 unmanned aerial system (UAS), the single-channel, full-motion video capability that made the stealthy flying wing so invaluable when it debuted in Afghanistan about two years ago is considered outdated, potentially limiting the intelligence fallout.
For now, U.S. intelligence- and surveillance-related sources only will say the downed aircraft was “possibly” the RQ-170 Sentinel. One source tells Aviation Week there is a “50-50” chance it is the Sentinel.
Nonetheless, both assessments put the aircraft that was in operation over Iran as well as Afghanistan. From the beginning of RQ-170 operations, indications from the intelligence community were that Iran’s missile program was one set of targets of interest, as was its nuclear weapons program.
But even if it is the RQ-170, systems now moving into an operational role are scores of times more effective than the Sentinel’s full-motion video (FMV), assuming that technology has not been significantly upgraded or replaced covertly.
Perhaps the most important data point to have emerged from the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan was its reliance on activity-based intelligence. Bin Laden was never seen, but the coming and going of other important players revealed that he was there. The information was gathered by the FMV sensor system on the U.S. Air Force’s RQ-170, and the data were analyzed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
The need for a more activity-based intelligence capability is underscored by NGA. “We’re moving into more of an anticipatory [style of operations],” a senior agency official says. “We look at key intelligence questions and bring as many pieces of information together as we can, using multi-intelligence fusion and nontraditional sources.” The bin Laden residence was identified by “pattern of life activity and [NGA] worked with the assault team to look at the best way to get there,” the official says
Now, the single-sensor capability is being multiplied by 65 times, resulting in an exponential increase in data, packaged for carriage by UAS and automated so it can be monitored by significantly fewer intelligence analysts than the current model of FMV exploitation. The-developed, wide-area, persistent surveillance sensor called the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (Argus-IS) will provide that level of functionality in a single sensor operating on a single platform.
Argus-IS is considered part of a whole new class of sensor. In this package it combines wide-area coverage (40 sq. km) with impressive detail (15-cm-resolution ground sample distance per pixel). Moreover, the imagery resolution allows tracking of moving vehicles and dismounted individuals.
“The way the sensor actually operates is to continuously image an area on the ground about the size of a small city, and it stores the data onboard for the entire mission,” says Jeremy Tondreault, program director of BAE’s electronic systems business. “Each of the  video windows is analogous to what [we get] today with narrow-band FMV.”
The U.K.in Afghanistan is using the Raptor reconnaissance pod, which houses the DB-110 dual-band (infrared and visual), long-range oblique photography (Lorop) camera. In addition, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is advocating to provide more money for a new DB-110 demonstration on the MQ-9A Reaper UAS, while an earlier demonstration on a pre-production Predator B supported Britain’s interests.
The Lorop camera system was developed by what was then Litton’s Itek division, which has been associated with CIA reconnaissance programs. For nontraditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Lorop has the advantage of being able to image a large area—such as a road, its surroundings, a valley—quickly and in detail from standoff range.
Israel-based Rafael’s Recce-Lite uses the Litening pod shape and other components, eliminating the laser in favor of bigger optics. The U.S. Air Force has tested a Goodrich MS-177 camera with a multi-spectral, 177-in. focal length on an E-8C Joint Stars as a means of identifying targets detected by radar.