Increasingly reliant on drone technology, the United States Army is developing helicopter-style drones with vertical take-off ability and carrying 1.8 gigapixel color cameras offering "an unprecedented capability” of ground surveillance."
The new helicopter drone, the A160 Hummingbird, is scheduled to be deployed in Afghanistan as early as May or June and will have "an unprecedented capability to track and monitor activity on the ground," the Army said in a statement.
The drone’s vertical take-off means runway access is not required. The new drone also has hovering capabilities, a feature non-existent in current unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Built by Boeing, three units are scheduled for service in Afghanistan by mid-year.
“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 Lt. Col. Matthew Munster, the Army’s Unmanned Aerial System Modernization unit product manager, the BBC reports.
Test flights are scheduled in Arizona early this year and the drones will then be shipped to the Middle East.
The Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (Argus-IS), first deployed in 2011, will be the basis for the new helicopter drone’s technology. According to BBC, the Argus-IS acronym is used in reference to Argus Panoptes, Greek mythology’s one-hundred-eyed giant.
The 1.8 gigapixel camera will be the largest video sensor used in the Army’s tactical missions. It offers 900 times the resolution of some mobile phones with a two megapixel camera and it has the ability to produce real-time 10-frames-per-second video streams.
The Army notes the quality is capable of tracking people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet and with its wider field of view, can cover almost 65 square miles. Additionally, the new technology allows ground operators 65 steerable “windows” which can follow, or “stare” at separate targets.
These different targets - including people, vehicles and other objects - can be tracked even if they all move in different directions.
“If you have a bunch of people leaving a place at the same time, they no longer have to say, ‘Do I follow vehicle one, two, three or four’” said program manager Brian Leninger, according to BBC. “They can say: ‘I will follow all of them, simultaneously and automatically.’”
In addition to the current Argus-IS technology, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.K.’s BAE Systems have teamed up to develop an advanced version offering night vision.
The infrared imaging sensors will reportedly be sensitive enough to follow “dismounted personnel at night”. The new upgrade will have the capacity to follow up to 130 “windows” simultaneously.
The Obama administration’s growing dependence on drones has come under fire from various angles, including Pakistan, where 24 of its troops were killed in a U.S. drone strike in November.
Most recently, a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone in Iran’s airspace had its operations transferred to Iranian control and was successfully landed by the Iranian government. The oil-rich Middle East country is now negotiating with Russia and China over the drone’s technology.
Under Obama’s watch, the use of drones for lethal attacks and stealth surveillance in the Middle East has risen dramatically from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. At the time Obama was sworn into office in 2009, Pakistan was the sole target of America’s drone war, having suffered 44 strikes in the previous five years which killed around 400 people.
Since then, drone strikes have escalated to 240, and by conservative estimates, quadrupling the number previously killed.
Obama’s drone apparatus now involves dozens of secret facilities and includes two operational hubs on the U.S. East Coast, the Washington Post reports.
Other parts of the drone operation include “virtual” Air Force cockpits in the American Southwest as well as covert bases in at least six countries located on two continents.
According a study by the Congressional Budget Office, the number of U.S. drones has now reached 775, with hundreds more in the works. These drones include Predators and Reapers, as well as other medium- and long-range drones.
The only known member of Obama’s team to raise objections to the rising use of drones is Dennis Blair, who had served as director of national intelligence. In a 2009 National Security Council meeting, he sought to override the agenda, according to WaPo, and force a debate on the drone use issue.
Blair was fired in 2010.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is one of the few politicians who will speak, guardedly, on the massive increase in drone use. “Whenever this is used, particularly in a lethal manner, there ought to be careful oversight, and that ought to be by civilians,” Feinstein said, WaPo notes. “What we have is a very unique battlefield weapon. You can’t stop the technology from improving, so you better start thinking about how you monitor it.”