They were first deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan back in 2006 and 2009. The objective was to help the U.S. military beat back the threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which have been responsible for at least half of all Coalition casualties in those two countries.
Since then, wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) systems have gotten smaller, lighter and more power-efficient thanks to advances in commercial off-the-shelf technology. This trend has also expedited WAMI’s availability to international customers – and not just for defense and homeland security missions.
WAMI sensors can also serve as powerful tools for firefighters and rescue crews. These systems house multiple video cameras that image in near-real time and record vast stretches of territory – kilometers in diameter – simultaneously detecting and keeping track of hundreds of people, vehicles, features, and phenomena.
In the field, WAMI sensors mounted on aircraft (manned and unmanned) or tethered blimps could help in the managing of complex disaster response operations, guide search parties to boats lost at sea or hitchhikers in open terrain, and aid in fighting wildfires.
In late August 2005, what began as a tropical storm around the Bahamas rapidly swelled into Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast of the United States. The hurricane – the deadliest the country had seen in 77 years – killed an estimated 1833 people and left more than a million homeless across the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Bridges were damaged, roads were flooded, houses collapsed, and phone service was severely disrupted. People were trapped all over the region. In New Orleans, where Katrina claimed more than half its victims, the levees and flood wall failed, leaving 80 percent of the city under water. In some areas, people had to climb to their roofs to keep safe.
To survey the devastation and direct rescue teams in the field, federal and state authorities relied on imagery pulled from satellites and snapped from airplanes. Even a U-2 spy plane was enlisted for a flyover. But that was it. There was no real-time wide-area solution deployed for Katrina (the technology was still experimental at the time) – nor for Hurricane Sandy, which hit the northeast seven years later.
But WAMI systems, matured and now available to both civilian U.S. and international agencies, are ready to fill the surveillance gap. Indeed, mounted on a plane, helicopter, drone, or – if weather permitting – a large tethered balloon, a single WAMI sensor can image an entire city-sized area in near-real time. With such a system, operators can detect, track, and record for later analysis the movement of people and vehicles over a span of hours, days, and even weeks.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, WAMI sensors have been deployed to roll up networks of insurgents. The system allows operators to focus on certain key zones within its vast field of view by either opening video windows on them or drawing a “watchbox” around them. These watchboxes then serve as a digital tripwire, sending an automated alert to the operator if movement is detected.
This same technology, in civilian hands, could be brought to bear before a hurricane, tornado, or other extreme event strikes. A WAMI system could, for example, be used by municipal governments to modernize evacuation plans by flying over roadways and bridges, recording traffic patterns, and identifying potential bottlenecks.
Likewise, WAMI sensors would be useful following a natural or manmade disaster. The system could track the advance of flood waters, monitor large surface cracks in case of an earthquake, and survey in near-real time the condition of roads and bridges leading in and out of affected areas to coordinate rescue efforts, aid delivery, and the establishment of temporary shelter.
Is there a family on their roof and surrounded by flood waters? Is there a car that’s run off the highway? A WAMI system could help direct rescue crews to these people. It could also work in tandem with high-definition, narrow-field cameras, cueing them to look for other potential survivors. Doing so allows authorities to cut down on sorties and time above any given area.
Finally, since a WAMI sensor can simultaneously look at multiple, large areas within its even more expansive field of view, the system enables operators to prioritize those that are hit the worst – something a standard camera looking at a single, circumscribed area could not do.
Besides disaster response, another mission area where WAMI sensors would be of value is combating wildfires, which have been growing increasingly dangerous with time. Indeed, last year was a scorcher for the United States, with 68,000 wildfires raging across 10.1 million acres. But more significant than the scope of the destruction was that it was accomplished with comparatively few fires. For example, in 2006, it took 96,000 fires to burn 9.8 million acres.
The National Interagency Fire Center attributes the rise of these newer, faster conflagrations to – among other factors – a warming global climate, and the U.S. Forestry Service estimates that the fires will get even stronger in the coming decades due to more frequent and longer lasting heat waves. Firefighters, therefore, will need a way to identify and stop fires more quickly.
In California, which is suffering from a six-year drought and is second only to Texas in number of fires in the United States, the local fire protection agency has stationed spotter aircraft – repurposed AH-1 helicopters and OV-10A planes – on 22 bases across the state, allowing for a response time of under 20 minutes to most emergency calls.
The U.S. Forestry Service, meanwhile, has been exploring the use of drones, to fly at night when manned firefighting aircraft are grounded. The hope is that the drones will provide an additional means to detect, assess, and prioritize fires; monitor fire behavior, rate, and direction of spread; and conduct post-fire assessments.
But that still leaves the issue of sensors. Satellites cannot provide real-time monitoring, while the infrared, low-light, and hyperspectral sensors (to detect trace gases from burning biomass) employed on spotter aircraft have a narrow field of view, requiring multiple sorties, which can be expensive and time-consuming. That’s why people are starting to look at WAMI.
WAMI supplements existing fire detection capabilities in numerous ways. For example, its ability to image an entire city-sized area and keep a watch over multiple areas at the same time provides a comprehensive monitoring solution for even the most remote wilderness. Should a fire break out, WAMI can also follow the effectiveness of retardant efforts. And by recording everything it images, it enables park rangers, environmental technicians, and other end users to document the origin and evolution of a fire, providing crucial insights for the future.
While many of the currently exportable WAMI systems only employ electro-optical cameras, others also have infrared cameras or are in the process of having them incorporated. These latter WAMI systems can detect – in addition to smoke and open fires – hotspots before they burst into flame, tracking potential threats, and keeping firefighters on the ground safe.
Search & Rescue
Finally, there is search and rescue.
For most cameras, it is a challenge to penetrate foliage to, say, find hitchhikers lost in the woods. Likewise, the effectiveness of infrared is limited when trying to locate someone floating in the water because most of the body temperature would be beneath the surface. Nevertheless, WAMI systems can find boats at sea or people out in open terrain – covering vast areas in a short period of time, where time can mean the difference between life and death.
Since first being fielded in 2006, WAMI sensors have proven themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have saved the lives of U.S. troops by detecting enemy ambushes in real time and rolling up IED networks by tracking movements through recorded imagery. This same technology in the hands of firefighters and disaster response teams could likewise save lives around the world. It’s just a matter of incorporating them into civilian toolkits.
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