UAS imagery can have more tactical value when viewed on mobile devices

Smart phones and tablets are emerging as essential UAS imagery viewing platforms.

With handheld devices such as smart phones and tablets on the way to becoming the most widely used electronic systems in military history, it’s not surprising that the people responsible for distributing unmanned aircraft system (UAS) imagery are taking a close look at the technology.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the nation’s primary source of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) for the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence community, is actively advocating handheld devices as a powerful and flexible viewing platform.

In a speech in October 2011 at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation's GEOINT Symposium, NGA Director Letitia Long spoke enthusiastically about the usefulness of handheld systems. Holding a tablet, Long demonstrated several agency-developed applications, including the Disaster Atlas, which provides a suite of applications for first responders that enables them to swap hard-copy atlases for electronic versions that feature thousands of pages of high-resolution images. “I can zoom in on the imagery,” Long said. “You can’t do that with the static [printed] atlas.”

NGA is testing an app that includes real-time video streaming, geo-tagged photo sharing and various other software tools.


Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force colonel who until 2010 was deputy director for training at the National Security Agency, observed that there are many advantages to displaying UAS imagery on handhelds as opposed to printed documents. “Most soldiers and marines who've been on patrol will tell you they need fine-grain geospatial imagery,” said Leighton, who now runs a Washington-based strategic risk-consulting firm.

“Geospatial imagery can also help aircrews and special operations units perform their missions; medical units can use imagery to help locate wounded soldiers, and that can speed rescue efforts and save lives,” he said.

With the help of UAS images and video streams, ground troops can “see over the next hill,” said Mark Bigham, vice president of business development for Raytheon Defense and Civil Mission Solutions, which has developed a variety of mobile GEOINT products. “On the ground, [troops] are looking for a blue-force tracking capability — onscreen maps with pins that show location information about friendly military forces and where the bad guys are.”

UAS geospatial imagery can be downloaded to a handheld device operating in either a tethered or untethered mode, said Tom Freeberg; geospatial programs director at Harris RF, which supplies GEOINT software and related technologies to government agencies. When a smart phone or tablet is tethered to a UAS or a UAS control station via a wireless connection, images can be delivered and updated in real time, individually or via a video stream.

“A user in the field could see what [an unmanned aircraft system] is showing on current operations [or] could look at positional pictures taken by a satellite,” Freeberg said. When wireless support isn’t available or isn’t needed, archived images can be retrieved from the device’s internal memory or a memory card.

Despite their compact screens, smart phones and tablets are capable of displaying highly detailed UAS imagery that’s equal to or better than printed document quality, Bigham said. He said the high resolution displays used on many current-generation handheld devices, such as Apple’s Retina, provide “a very nice viewing technology.”

Technical Challenges of Handhelds

Technical challenges associated with UAS imagery-compatible handheld devices are generally the same issues associated with all smart phones and tablets: size, weight, battery life, memory/storage capacity and wireless connection availability/speed, Freeberg said. “All of these issues can be managed by matching the device and its capabilities to the task that needs to be accomplished,” he declared.

Freeberg also said cloud technology has the potential to give handheld devices the large amounts of storage space necessary to accommodate multiple gigabytes of very-high-resolution UAS images without increasing device size, weight or battery requirements.

Handheld devices are on the verge of becoming a mainstream UAS imagery viewing platform, Bigham said. “You’re probably a year of two away,” he predicted. Security is perhaps the biggest roadblock preventing wide scale deployment. “There are some issues in terms of getting comfortable with the level of security that’s going to be required on the phones,” Bigham said. “We’re not talking about hardware crypto on the phone, but about a reliable set of security standards that the government is coming to grips with right now for commercial handheld-type devices.”

Leighton agreed about the importance of reliable and operator-friendly security. “Security is always a challenge when you bring information like this down to the lowest military echelon,” he observed. “Small units and individual soldiers are far more likely to have direct contact with the enemy, [so] soldiers need to be able to ‘zeroize’ [erase data from] things like smart phones and tablets if they feel they are at risk of being captured.” Losing an unprotected handheld device packed with UAS imagery would create a potentially serious security breach. “If the enemy sees our geospatial imagery capabilities, then they will try to conceal [their] activities from our satellites and drones,” Leighton said.

Although handheld devices promise to give troops and other personnel the ability to access and view UAS imagery virtually anytime, anywhere, the technology won’t make it any easier for users to squeeze full value out of the images they’re viewing.

“The military, especially the Air Force, used to train hundreds of people each year in the fine art of photo interpretation — it was one of the main intelligence specialties in the Cold War,” Leighton said. “There are still times when images need to be interpreted by someone who has been trained to find hidden or concealed things like IEDs, gun emplacements, secret tunnel entrances and the like.” Therefore, handheld devices aren’t likely to lessen the need for sharp-eyed experts who can detect subtle details in images. “Not everyone has the skill to be a good imagery analyst,” Leighton said.

There Always Will Be Paper Maps

Although Freeberg expects that handheld devices will soon be used for a wide range of UAS image viewing tasks, he doesn’t believe that portable systems will ever fully replace printed maps and photos, particularly in the field. “I just don’t see that happening,” he said. “Maps are just too cheap, durable and reliable to ever disappear.”

Leighton also sees printed documents sticking around for a very long time. “Maps will probably always have a backup function,” he said. “As long as the smart phones or tablets are ruggedized enough to withstand whatever harsh environment we happen to be operating in, and there's sufficient bandwidth to download and display the images, they will be the platforms of choice for this and subsequent generations of warriors — [but] the smart ones will have a map in their pocket just in case.”

Freeberg put it another way. “A bullet through an iPad creates a dead piece of hardware; a bullet through a map is just a hole.”