By Jim Kouri
On Thursday, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the impending cuts to the U.S. military including a reduction in the number of service members. While explaining their visions for the future of the U.S. Armed Forces, the Defense Secretary mentioned use of unmanned equipment such as UAVs.
In fact, the Pentagon had announced prior to New Year’s Eve that a new state-of-the-art helicopter-style Unmanned Aerial Vehicle –commonly called a drone — with 1.8 gigapixel color cameras, is being developed and perfected by the United States Army.
A Pentagon statement said this latest technology will give the military a never-before-seen ability to conduct surveillance of activity on the ground.
The statement added that three of the sensor-equipped drones are expected to be deployed in the Afghanistan theater of battle in either May or June 2012.
While Boeing built the first drones, other firms were invited to bid on contracts to manufacture others.
“These aircraft will deploy for up to one full year as a way to harness lessons learned and funnel them into a program of record,” said Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Munster, product manager at the US Army’s Unmanned Aerial System Modernization unit.
These systems — A160 Hummingbirds — perform vertical take-offs much like a manned-helicopter and therefore runways are not necessary as they are now with current UAVs (drones). Army officials also stated these new drones possess hovering capabilities in the same way helicopters operate. Existing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles do not possess that capability since they are more like airplanes.
The UAVs will be tested at the start of the new year before they are deployed to the Middle East.
The camera technology is based on a 1.8 gigapixel camera — the largest video sensor used in tactical missions.
It offers almost 1,000 times the resolution of the 1 or 2 megapixel camera found in some high priced cell phones. The system can provide real-time video streams at the rate of 10 frames per second, according to the Army’s statement.
The army said that is sufficient to track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet across almost 65 square miles.
In addition, operators on the ground can select up to 65 steerable “windows” following separate targets to be “stared at.” Vehicles, people and other objects can be tracked even if they move in different directions.
After completion of a one-year trial, the Pentagon will open a competition for defense companies to bid on the next phase of the helicopter-drone technology.
“I applaud the use of these state-of-the-art machines, but Obama’s use of them to replace men and women in the armed services would be wrongheaded,” said former U.S. Army Lt. Col. Diane Poulos.