Navy zooms in on imagery intelligence
- By Dan Verton
- Jul 17, 2000
Technology that has delivered high-definition television to tens of thousands
of "Monday Night Football" fans may soon furnish the military with digital
Through a partnership with Silicon Graphics Inc. and SGI subsidiary
Alias Wavefront, the Navy Research Laboratory plans to harness the next
generation of TV technology to capture high- resolution digital images from
moving video clips. Soon, imagery intelligence analysts will be able to
capture images from near-real-time video streams and process, annotate and
store that imagery for use by senior decision-makers.
The project uses SGI's Video Acquisition and Exploitation System to
capture still images from high-definition video cameras. VAES includes Alias
Wavefront's Maya Composer image editing software application, as well as
an SGI Onyx2 workstation with a video graphics adapter to HDTV capability.
Although Maya Composer has been used throughout the entertainment industry,
the company has developed specialized plug-ins for use in the intelligence
"We're trying to pull our people off of proprietary government systems,"
said Henry Dardy, chief scientist for Advanced Computing at NRL. "The real
goal is to give people an intuitive interface so that the imagery can be
displayed in the way you want to interact with it."
The NRL effort, known throughout the lab as "motion imagery," started
two years ago when NRL entered into a research consortium with the National
Security Agency, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Panasonic, Polaroid
and other companies to develop the first studio-grade progressive scan camera.
Unlike interlaced scans, where odd and even rows of video data are scanned
as separate fields, progressive scans capture all lines in the image one
after the other. The Defense Department chose to focus its efforts on 1,280
pixel-by-720 pixel resolution progressive scan technology, as opposed to
interlaced video, because it delivers the best image at the lowest practical
With progressive scan technology, "every frame is one complete image,"
said Kirk Kern, system engineer specialist at SGI's Government Technology
Center. That means the new technology does not require analysts to "de-interlace"
the image, assemble separate video image fields into a single frame for
still imagery and then remove any flaws.
The software also offers an intuitive user interface that limits training
requirements. "People immediately start to interact with [the imagery] as
if they were there," Dardy said. "It's not something that we have to explain
Jeff Meeker, application engineer at Alias Wavefront, called the Maya
Composer software application "the Swiss Army knife of the motion picture
industry." Unlike other electronic light table software, Maya Composer allows
imagery analysts to scrub through terabytes of data in a short time, and
it provides tools to conduct movement tracking and analysis. In fact, security
officials recently put the entire package of hardware and software to work
during the return of controversial Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker to
Shea Stadium in New York. HDTV technology and Maya Composer's movement-tracking
tool allowed officials to scan the stadium for potentially dangerous activities.
Navy officials are planning to incorporate the technology into the next
generation of unmanned aerial vehicles, which operate in limited bandwidth
conditions. UAVs proved their worth as a remote-controlled intelligence
and reconnaissance asset during the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. However,
the camera developed by the NRL consortium to do progressive scan image
capture remains too heavy for use in the current fleet of UAVs, according
to officials. Design work is ongoing, however, to shrink the camera down
to an acceptable size for use on UAVs.
"We tried to simulate what a UAV would do," Kern said, who demonstrated
the camera's image-capture ability on the maiden voyage of Fuji Phot Film
Co.'s airship. "I think that's happening right now in the commercial marketplace,"
Dardy said. Soon, however, camera technology will improve to camcorder-like
imagery capability, he said.