Aerospace - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 56
PROFILE- With Eagle eyes
Spacemetric delivered the video data management subsystem for the Swedish Army's UAV-03 Írnen (Eagle) in summer 2011, just 12 months after the original order from SAAB, the overall system integrator. The first of two Eagle systems, each consisting of four aircraft and the ground systems (launcher, control station, data management and exploitation), was deployed to Afghanistan only a few weeks later, providing a significant boost in the tactical surveillance capability of the Swedish ISAF contingent. This brought to a successful end a project combining the double challenge of technical ambition and a compressed timescale.
Development of the new UAV leveraged tried and tested capabilities to minimise technical risk and to deliver on time.
The Eagle system replaces the Ugglan (Owl) UAV, which was acquired from SAGEM in 1999. Eagle is a tactical UAV based on a well-proven airframe and a digital video sensor, providing full motion video in line with the NATO video standard. The critical requirements of the project from the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV) were a tight schedule alongside ambitious technical capabilities. The strategy chosen was to make extensive use of pre-existing, off-the-shelf components in all the main elements of the system. Proven components included the Shadow 200 from AAI and Spacemetric's Keystone data handling system COTS with technological heritage including the JAS Gripen swing-role fighter.
Spacemetric's technical niche is server-based management systems for geospatial imagery, particularly when used in time-constrained operational applications. The Keystone product suite delivers a powerful set of capabilities for effective management of any geospatial imagery and had already been used in an earlier cooperation with SAAB. In that case it was employed to manage the image data from the Modular Reconnaissance Pod System (MRPS) carried by the Swedish Air Force's JAS Gripen. Keystone serves priority images to analysts immediately after each mission by making smart use of the image metadata to actively identify the data corresponding to critical targets. This system saw action during 2011, operating from Sicily as part of Operation Unified Protector and proved to be one of NATO's main sources of image intelligence over Libya. INTREPs were typically delivered to NATO staff within an hour of each sortie and were much sought after for their quality and timeliness. By the end of the Swedish operation, Gripen had collected 340,000 images and delivered 2,300 intelligence reports.
Unlike Gripen's stills camera the Eagle requires the provision of a real-time cataloguing and playback capability for full motion video. This encompasses support for the STANAG 4609 Digital Motion Imagery standard that specifies KLV-encoded metadata alongside the video. Both of these streams arrive via the UAV's radio downlink and are passed directly to the data management system. The fundamental goal of the Keystone system is to facilitate an efficient workflow by streamlining the data housekeeping tasks, as far as possible placing this complexity 'under the hood'. Recent studies demonstrate that data sorting and preprocessing can take up to two-thirds of an analyst's time so the potential gains in analyst effectiveness are very significant.
From Spacemetric's perspective, the availability of comprehensive metadata is an absolute must for providing an effective solution. Starting directly from the sensor data, the workflow makes maximal use of the metadata that describes, among other things, the timing, position and pointing of the sensor. From this data the Keystone server calculates the on-ground location of the imagery and applies this knowledge as required. Meanwhile, the Keystone client incorporates a map view based on a 3D 'spinning globe' built using technology from NASA. Any of the data managed in the Keystone system can be displayed in this geographical perspective, including real-time playback of videostreams draped over the terrain.
Being able to calculate the geographical location and knowing when the data was acquired means the video can be made searchable. All of the incoming metadata and derived geometrical properties are ingested into a relational database that sits at the core of the system. This means that any data can be retrieved on the basis of space and time, and also using any of the other metadata fields. The metadata can also be complemented with custom parameters, including keywords and tags, which mean that more complex searches and multistage workflows can be supported. For instance, a pre-assessment of incoming data enables segments of interest to be flagged in the database. These can then be more easily retrieved in subsequent stages for deeper analysis. Much of the metadata capability applied for Eagle was already available within Keystone from long experience of working with various satellite and airborne sensor data. The new element was extending this to the specifics of the video data from the Shadow 200.
The Keystone product is continually evolving in response to customer requirements and broader market trends. Developments undertaken in customer projects eventually make their way into the software's core capabilities. Preliminary video management functionality had already been developed in cooperation with the National Aerospace Laboratory in the Netherlands. There it was used by police and fire services in demonstrations that investigated the utility of small UAVs in a range of scenarios. The system for the Eagle project built upon this technical baseline, added customer-specific functions and performing the integration with a video exploitation package, in this case BAE System's Socet GXP, selected by the customer to align with existing skills and training programmes.
As anticipated from the start of the project, there were challenges along the way. The compressed timescale meant that not all information and supporting material was always available at the ideal time in the project. For instance, test data from the Eagle's video sensor first became available once the bird had been delivered to Sweden. Clearly, the advantage of basing the solution on the NATO video standard is easy to appreciate in this situation. Where the challenge lies, however, is in seeing how any given vendor has interpreted the standard. This means refining the integration so that different 'flavours' do not present a problem. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so the saying goes, and so it is with data – you never know exactly what it will look like until you actually see it.
As noted already, the Keystone software had already been used to manage imagery from Gripen and now has also been used for the Eagle UAV. The video capability remains the subject of ongoing development to further enhance the COTS offering. And here it is worth noting its original application and continuing use as a solution for management of satellite imagery. This space heritage means that today it supports not just video and airborne IMINT, but also all the main commercial sources of satellite imagery, including data from suppliers Digital Globe and GeoEye, as acquired in volume by the US military through their NextView and EnhancedView procurement programmes. As a ready-made hub for managing multisource IMINT, the Keystone product offers powerful and readily accessible capabilities.
The experience with Eagle has demonstrated to all involved that UAV procurements can be quick and lean. Using proven technologies and standards reduces risk and even facilitates better capabilities at lower cost. In terms of multisource analysis, all data must share a common reference system. Video's zoomed-in view in particular needs to be set into the broader context but supplied with the right metadata the data management infrastructure can instantly do this. Geo-location and integration with other intelligence layers and services becomes standard practice. Unfortunately, smaller UAVs and even some larger systems do not prioritise metadata, a situation that can undermine the asset's utility and value, particularly in the network-enabled scenario. Ian Spence- Sales and Marketing Director
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