Military Wants Space Camera for All-Weather Video
The TerraSAR-X satellite made by Astrium uses synthetic aperture radar to take all-weather photographs of Earth.
CREDIT: EADS Astrium
It provided NASA with crystal-clear pictures of Venus and is the technology behind the imagery provided from generations of spy satellites. But for DARPA, the Defense Department’s research arm, the high-powered imaging technique known as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) just isn’t good enough anymore.
Often mounted on satellites, SAR can shoot high-definition still photos through any kind of weather, and from any height. But a new business solicitation released by DARPA May 9 makes it clear the U.S. military wants that capability in video, too. Oh, and if it's small enough to fit onto a drone or a micro-satellite, even better.
The project, codenamed ViSAR, invites companies to produce both the camera hardware and the software needed to run it.
“The objective is for the ViSAR system to provide the same targeting capabilities through clouds as current infrared targeting systems are able to provide in clear weather,” reads the online project description.
Currently the U.S. military uses infrared video to overcome the darkness of night and the cover of clouds. However, infrared video, which uses a target’s heat signature for identification, lacks high resolution and has trouble differentiating between different objects with the same heat signature, such as a bunker and a farmhouse. With ViSAR, the military could target a location, day or night, clear skies or blizzard, and get back an image that closely resembles what one would see under clear, well-lit conditions.
Considering that the solicitation also calls for any proposed ViSAR system to fit on a swivel, the military is probably looking to mount these powerful, cloud-penetrating cameras on its ever-expanding fleet of drones. The project description mentions hovering over a battlefield and tracking moving objects, all tasks performed by today’s drones with the aid of swivels; Predator and Reaper drones use them for their suite of cameras and sensors. And if the ViSAR system is small enough to fit onto a drone, it should fit onto a tiny satellite as well.
Moving from still photos to moving video would represent a huge advance in the field of radar photography, but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency rarely goes in for half-measures. The DARPA solicitation explicitly states that “proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, algorithms, components or systems. Specifically excluded is research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice.”
So for any small businesses out there thinking of trying its hand on producing ViSAR, all it has to do is totally revolutionize a technology that has worked perfectly for decades. No pressure.