Getting the big picture

The Army and Marine Corps will soon have a 360-degree view of the battlefield, giving them the ability to identify everything from tanks to people, day or night, without having to put their troops in harm's way.

The OmniSense Visually Enhanced Tracking System (OVETS) will collect thermal infrared video images captured by a network of sensors spread across a region. The system — which also includes acous.tic, seismic and magnetic sensors — will fuse the information to create a comprehensive picture of the battlefield and deliver it to commanders who can use it to detect, classify and track potential targets.

The military frequently uses sensors in the field, because they make it possible to gather data without sending people into dangerous environments, but sensors typically provide only spotty coverage. By combining information from a network of sensors, commanders will have the sweeping view they need.

The Army and Marine Corps had already specified a need for OVETS before Sept. 11, and other agencies have since followed suit, said Thomas McKenna, program officer in the Office of Naval Research. "As soon as it's completed and the product is delivered, there are lots of people who would like it," he said. "There's no shortage of applications."

McQ Associates Inc., a Fredericksburg, Va.-based firm specializing in remote surveillance, security and environmental monitoring products, is developing the system under a Small Business Innovation Research contract awarded by the secretary of Defense and managed by the Office of Naval Research. The proj.ect is also receiving separate funding from the Army for a mine-detection program.

The Phase II contract, awarded in September 2001, is scheduled for completion in one year, said Russell Thomas, advanced development director for McQ Associates. However, he said the project might be accelerated, at the government's request, if more funding becomes available. The total cost at press time was $1.25 million.

McQ Associates is responsible for integrating the camera, communication electronics, and sensor fusing and tracking, while RemoteReality Corp., a provider of omni-directional still and video imaging technology, is providing the advanced optical system, including the rugged 360-degree camera.

McQ Associates' OmniSense system is typically used to monitor activity in remote areas and automatically report activities of interest to the user. Applications include detecting vehicles or people moving along roads or pathways and detecting aircraft operations in remote areas, such as overflights or landings and takeoffs from rural fields.

Constant operator monitoring is not required because the system automatically detects all activities and sends an alarm when a specified activity occurs. Alarms can be sent via numerous means, including satellites.

"The ultimate sensor is video," Thomas said, "but the problem is getting video to cover an entire area so you're sure you're going to catch a target. Generally, you don't miss with video, but with 360-degree [capability] and infrared for military and surveillance it's the ultimate sensor."

But OVETS' main mission is on the battlefield, providing remote sensing, object tracking and situational awareness to soldiers, while keep.ing them out of danger.

"The system will provide advanced situational awareness, including the 360-degree information back to the command post," said Hapet Berberian, senior vice president of corporate development and government systems at RemoteReality. "Battlefield information-gathering is quite pertinent to today's mindset. It's an intelligent surveillance system that performs the traditional function of a forward adviser in an unmanned fashion. It reduces risks for military personnel."

The system's potential uses will expand as the technology improves, Thomas said. "I suspect we will continue to see more development and miniaturization of optics and development of the infrared camera technology, making it smaller and [available] at a lower cost," Thomas said.

But McKenna just wants to get the project done and deployed in places where it can add protection. "First, let's finish the project and demonstrate it.... I'm sure facilities that are at risk around the world will be asking for it."

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A bright outlook

Hapet Berberian, senior vice president of corporate development and government systems at RemoteReality, said the technology being developed for OVETS could be used for other intelligent monitoring applications, including:

* U.S. border patrols.

* Search and rescue operations.

* Perimeter monitoring for embassies and nuclear facilities.

* Security systems for commercial and government buildings.

* Environmental tracking of animals.

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