Bad connections: incompatible technologies weaken utility of aerial spies.

Author:Erwin, Sandra I.

The military services operate nearly 4,000 unmanned aircraft, most of which have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Army alone is flying 1,200 drones in surveillance combat missions.

Such wealth of reconnaissance drones has been welcome by U.S. troops as they hunt for insurgents. Tactical commanders, however, may not be making the best use of the technology because the data collected by the unmanned aircraft --still images and video--often cannot be shared across branches of the military, nor can they be made available to troops in the field who don't have access to the Defense Department's classified computer networks.

Unmanned air vehicles are valuable tools for commanders, but their utility is limited because systems are not interoperable, said Army Brig. Gen. James Terry, director of the future force integration directorate at Fort Bliss, Texas.

"The UAV solutions we have today are point to point," Terry said at a Pentagon news conference.

The Army has yet to figure out how to integrate multiple sources of data in order to get a better understanding of what's happening in a large area of operations, not just in the narrow sector surveyed by a single UAV, Terry explained.

A lone UAV flying over an area of interest can stream live video to an operator on the ground who is equipped with a so-called "remote operations video enhanced receiver" (Rover), a line-of-sight wireless system about the size of a laptop computer. That technology is useful but still does not solve the problem of how to make the data more widely available, Terry said. Most Rover terminals today are mounted on vehicles, although the Air Force has begun to procure some handheld models.

"I can have the UAV fly over, get a Rover downlink ... But how do I push that data down to soldiers and leaders on the ground exercising battle command?" Terry asked.

Senior commanders both forward deployed and back in the United States watch Predator feeds around the clock, but that may not be the best way to exploit the technology, he added. Under an ideal scenario, the small units below battalion level that directly engage in combat should have access to the video, Terry said. The Army's current communications systems only can push data down to the battalion, and even with modern systems, there is latency in full motion streaming because of satellite delays.

The connectivity gaps eventually may be fixed if the Army can successfully develop its next-generation Future Combat Systems...

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