An MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.(Photo: Lt Col Leslie Pratt, U.S. Air Force)
JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. -- Can SportsCenter teach the military something about combating terrorists?
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.
looking at anything and everything they can right now," said Air Force
Col. Mike Shortsleeve, commander of a unit here that monitors drone
The remote-controlled aircraft are mounted with cameras
that transmit real-time video of terrorism suspects to military analysts
in the USA.
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
Given the huge amount of feeds, the Air Force has
launched an aggressive effort to seek out technology or techniques that
will help them process video without adding more people to stare at
"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
Much of what drones do now are 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
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
The importance of video analysis is apparent in the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
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
U.S. 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.