The huge pods slung under this USAF MQ-9 Reaper represent the most game-changing aerial surveillance technology of at least the last decade. Known as Gorgon Stare Increment II, it features two massive sensor balls packing 368 cameras, and is one of the most advanced forms of Wide Area Aerial Surveillance to date.
Make sure to read this in-depth special feature detailing how Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) will change the battlefield and the homefront of the future:
Gorgan Stare Increment I, which was developed rapidly under the USAF's Big Safari Office, only featured one sensor ball, which packs dozens of cameras that stare in all directions. The other pod was used for processing and as a communications relay to push the WAAS feed off to 'customers' in the theater and around the globe via data-link. Increment I was a success and racked up over 10,000 hours of operation since its first combat use in 2011, although the system was highly experimental in nature and was never intended for wide use.
Gorgon Stare Increment II is said to feature improved system stability, double the definition, a much wider surveillance area (about 40 square miles as opposed to around six square miles with the original version) and two sensor balls instead of one, packing a total of 368 individual cameras whose images are then digitally "stitched" together. Gorgon Stare's sensor system is also multi-spectral in nature as it records on both the visible and infrared spectrum. This means it works well during the day and the night, as well as during "transitional" periods of dawn and dusk that have been historically challenging for infrared sensors to contend with.
The system is capable of being parked high above a small city or town, with the whole area being observed persistently, allowing for tagging and tracking of multiple vehicles and even people via advanced software. At the same time, the system can also record patterns of life in real time, making notes when certain tagged vehicles or people come within proximity of one another or when large congregations of people or vehicles appear in certain areas. Additionally, multiple users can use a single Gorgon Stare WAAS feed at any given time, making the system's God-like view of the terrain below a major force multiplier.
WAAS concepts, including Gorgon Stare, have been quietly evolved over the last decade. With their reality changing, the Orwellian-like capabilities are largely kept out of the limelight due to privacy concerns. Such an effective and relatively cheap capability that tracks terrorists today will almost certainly end up flying over our own cities here at home. As I discuss in detail in my prior special feature all about WAAS technology, domestically, these systems could be lifesaving when it comes to responding to natural disasters, fighting forest fires and providing over-watch for very high-security events. They could even be used one day to solve crimes by virtually traveling back through time. Yet at the same time they can also keep tabs of pretty much everything and everyone within the purview of their unblinking eyes, leaving any level of personal privacy while outdoors a thing of the past.
Photo via USAF.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com