Monday, January 11, 2010

Military Is awash in data from drones

Master Sgt. Demetrius Lester/U.S. Air Force, via EPA - An MQ-1 Predator drone returned from a mission to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2008.

In Body of Lies, both the book and the movie, drones appear.

As the military rushes to place more spy drones over Afghanistan, the remote-controlled planes are producing so much video intelligence that analysts are finding it more and more difficult to keep up. Air Force drones collected nearly three times as much video over Afghanistan and Iraq last year as in 2007 — about 24 years’ worth if watched continuously. That volume is expected to multiply in the coming years as drones are added to the fleet and as some start using multiple cameras to shoot in many directions.

A group of young analysts already watches every second of the footage live as it is streamed to Langley Air Force Base here and to other intelligence centers, and they quickly pass warnings about insurgents and roadside bombs to troops in the field. But military officials also see much potential in using the archives of video collected by the drones for later analysis, like searching for patterns of insurgent activity over time. To date, only a small fraction of the stored video has been retrieved for such intelligence purposes.

Col. Daniel R. Johnson, right, in the intelligence center at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., where analysts watch every second of drones’ video footage live as it is streamed there.

There is too much data, and not enough analysis, as has been made clear. If one knows what one wants to look for, then there is a marker; but if one is conducting an open search, there are no markers, and it has to be exceedingly difficult to make sense of the available data.

Mindful of those lapses, the Air Force and other military units are trying to prevent an overload of video collected by the drones, and they are turning to the television industry to learn how to quickly share video clips and display a mix of data in ways that make analysis faster and easier.

Watching the film, I wondered where the line between truth and fiction really lies.

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