DARPA is working on Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) program. ARGUS-IS is to provide military users a flexible and responsive capability to find, track and monitor events and activities of interest on a continuous basis in areas of interest.
Wired provides some details The Army launches a quest for a 2.3 gigapixel camera that could be packaged aboard a drone or a manned aircraft. The new device would be smaller and lighter than previous systems – and it would work in the infrared range too.
Airborne surveillance is moving fast. We’ve seen the 66-megapixel Angel Fire and 39-megapixel BuckEye sensors being used in operations, while the even more powerful Gorgon Stare is being flight tested next year. In February we reported on Darpa’s Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance – Imaging System (ARGUS-IS ), a 1.8 gigapixel flying eye which will be mounted in a 500-pound pod carried by a Predator or A160 Hummingbird robocopter. The ARGUS-IS makes for an impressive camera, with the resolution and processing power to track a large number of separate items including “dismounts” — people on foot — over a wide area, as well as “a real-time moving target indicator for vehicles throughout the entire field of view in real-time.”
In a new request for solicitations, it outlined the concept for a novel visible/infrared sensor that will cover a much larger area on the ground — with much higher resolution.
The sensor is required to be lightweight with low power consumption and to have significantly lower operating costs compared to existing systems, and must be able to operate from small aircraft, either manned or unmanned. In terms of specifics, the Army is looking for 2.3 gigapixels running at two frames per second. By my reckoning, this suggests continuous coverage of area of around sixty-two square miles at 0.3m resolution with a single sensor. That’s quite a step up from Angel Fire, which covers a tenth of the area at much lower resolution. And the new camera will work in the near-infrared range as well. This is useful for analysis, as sometimes things that are invisible in the normal range can be picked out easily in infrared; it also means that people can be illuminated without being aware of it.
At this point, the Army is still looking for proposals, and actual working hardware is some years down the line. However, the technology is moving fast and there is little doubt that the following generation will be much smaller than the 500-pound ARGUS. The PANOPTES being developed by Marc Christensen at Southern Methodist University with Darpa funding could potentially cut camera weight by a factor of ten by using a large array of small imaging elements.
Panoptes technology uses the power of a computer to combine overlapping images of dozens of tiny lenses — producing a clear picture without the size and weight of a large lens. The research should eventually provide helmet-mounted surveillance equipment for soldiers on the ground. Lens performance tends to improve with size, which is why a small cell phone camera can’t produce a very good image.