Real-time Exploitation and Dissemination of Tactical Reconnaissance Imagery During Operation Iraqi Freedom for Ground and Maritime Operations
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Optical Sciences Division
Introduction: The technology of reconnaissance, both manned and unmanned, has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. The availability of digital electro-optical cameras has enabled the switch from wet film cameras and enables potential near-real-time transmission of imagery. However, increased focal-plane pixel count and frame rate result in data rates that stress the capability of the highest-bandwidth communication links, even with data compression. Advanced processing hardware and techniques are therefore needed to control data rates and to reduce the timeline for imagery products to reach front-line forces. Such capabilities were demonstrated during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
Two Reconnaissance Systems: The Navy, in generating strike missions and assessing battle damage, continues to use high-speed, carrier-based, multimission fighter aircraft equipped with reconnaissance pods to rapidly reach target areas, to allow timely retasking, and to obtain up-to-date imagery of large areas under a variety of conditions. In OIF, the Navy used the F-14 wet-film Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) pod, and also introduced digital reconnaissance systems that offer imaging at other wavelengths, including infrared for day/night operation. The basis for this new Navy capability are two reconnaissance systems developed by NRL — the Full-Capability (F-CAP) version of the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod-Completely Digital (TARPS-CD) System1 for the F-14, and the Shared Airborne Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) System2 for the F-18 Super Hornet. The F-CAP system was deployed with the USS Harry S. Truman and Air Wing CVW-3 with F-14 squadron VF-32, while the SHARP system was deployed with the USS Nimitz with F-18 squadron VFA-41.
Imagery Upon Demand: During OIF, near-real-time high-resolution images were supplied to ground Special Forces in Northern Iraq using F-CAP capabilities, using the F-14's Fast Tactical Imagery (FTI) radio, the Common Data Link (CDL) capability on the pod and the ship, and other communication channels. This appears to be the first time such forces could obtain "virtually real-time imagery upon demand," according to unclassified reports. Front-line troops were able to receive targeting-level imagery without the reported three-to-nine day delay associated with existing image dissemination channels or the set-up times associated with special "stove-piped" dissemination channels from operations centers using imagery obtained from satellites and other aircraft. By using an available voice channel between the F-14 and ground forces, the aircrew used the F-CAP Airborne Image Exploitation System (ARIES)1 to effect real-time "sensor to shooter" targeting of time-critical targets. ARIES-processed images, along with a voice channel, were transmitted to ground forces equipped with portable FTI receivers. ARIES represents a planned future capability for SHARP.
Crucial Images Transmission: TARPS-CD/F-CAP is a risk-reduction effort for SHARP developed by NRL. Its purpose is to transform the Navy from film to the new digital reconnaissance technologies and demonstrate emerging SHARP capabilities. F-CAP includes a pod built to the SHARP architecture.2 It communicates with a carrier-based NRL-built Navy Input station (NAVIS) connected to the ship's CDL. NAVIS receives, displays, manipulates, and exploits imagery and connects to communication channels to disseminate imagery products. The NAVIS ground station has also transitioned into full-rate production as the Navy's Tactical Input Segment (TIS), version 1.5, to support SHARP and other imagery sources. The F-CAP pod is the latest in a series of TARPS-CD technology prototypes that have been evaluated during four Fleet exercises and deployments. The earlier carrier-based F-14 exercises with the TARPS-CD pod demonstrated the system's capability as an organic asset for the carrier group commander to perform reconnaissance and battle damage assessment, to rapidly capture imagery on wide-area missions, and to supply imagery to the carrier in near-real time using the high-bandwidth (>200 Mbps) CDL. However, the limited range and availability of CDL, coupled with the crucial need for rapid image exploitation, established the need to transmit urgently needed images to the user, even at reduced bandwidths. This can be accomplished if the F-14 aircrew is able to select the crucial images and transmit them over the FTI system. The NRL-developed ARIES allows the back-seater (the Radar Intercept Officer/ RIO) aboard the F-14 to use an analog video display to view and select from a stream of still images from the reconnaissance sensor (a very sophisticated and fast high-resolution digital camera). NRL built a low-bandwidth interface to the pod and a cockpit control console, so the RIO can roam, pan, and zoom in on selected images on the back-seat display to highlight target areas for digital capture and transmission by FTI. ARIES overlays key information on the video image, such as latitude and longitude. High-speed computation is done within the pod payload, while low-bandwidth commands and analog imagery are communicated between pod and cockpit. This architecture could also be used for remote operations with low-bandwidth links from other locations, e.g., from the ground for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) payloads.
Event-marked Frames: Figure 9 shows an example of ARIES-transmitted imagery for relocatable targets. During the deployment of the USS Truman, F-14 aircrews used the high-coverage rate of F-CAP to perform real-time wide-area maritime reconnaissance and exploitation in the cockpit. Target frames, i.e., images containing a ship, can be "event-marked" by the RIO and re-displayed later. Figure 9(a) shows an array of seven event-marked frames on the RIO's display. The RIO then zooms into one frame to the desired resolution (Fig. 9(b), with the white dot in the checkerboard indicating the selected frame). The overlay provides the latitude and longitude of the crosshair position, and the notation DEC: 1:4 in Fig. 9(b) indicates that further zoom is available in the video display (1/4 of full resolution is shown). The ARIES software is capable of displaying a wide range of user-selected system parameters as overlays for the final imagery product.
In OIF, the TARPS-CD F-CAP system validated the use of fully digital technology as a superior replacement for wet-film based systems and provided risk reduction for the emerging capabilities of the Navy's SHARP System for the F-18.
Acknowledgments: The TARPS-CD F-CAP and SHARP prototype developments were led by NRL's Optical Sciences Division. F-CAP Fleet deployments were managed by NAVAIR PMA-241, and SHARP developments were transitioned to PMA-265. Other Team members were: Recon Optical, Inc.; Smart Logic, Inc.; V-Systems, Inc.; SFA, Inc.; DCS Corp.; Space Dynamics Laboratory; Geologics Corp.; and Raytheon Technical Services Company.
[Sponsored by NAVAIR]References
1J.N. Lee, D.C. Linne von Berg, M.R. Kruer, and M.D. Duncan, "Demonstration of a High-Rate Tactical Reconnaissance System with Real-time Airborne Image Exploitation," 2003 NRL Review, pp. 151-153.
2M.D. Duncan, M.R. Kruer, D.C. Linne von Berg, R.A. Patten, and J.N. Lee, "Report on the SHARP Prototype Effort," NRL/FR-MM/5633-01-10,015, December 17, 2001.