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  • Putting the "I" in Intelligence Gathering
May 2011
ORLANDO, Fla., April 27, 2011 — The power of social media, most recently demonstrated in the uprisings in Iran, Tunisia and Yemen and the revolution in Egypt, will also figure prominently in the next generation of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) technology, said DARPA Director Regina Dugan in her plenary talk Tuesday morning at SPIE Defense, Security and Sensing 2011.

Dugan outlined a few sensor programs now in development that address the problem of the limited amount of information human observers can process by providing better sensors that provide better data, which in turn will lead to better automation and better analysis. The ARGUS-IS (Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System) program, for example, can observe an area of 7.2 km at a time, almost twice the area conventional unmanned aerial vehicles can monitor, and at a frame rate that is five times faster.

Another system Dugan discussed, VIRAT (Video Image Retrieval and Analysis Tool), is an automated activity recognition system. For example, an analyst can focus the sensors on a particular area and asks the system's software to find a specific type of behavior, such as carrying, or digging. To achieve a detection accuracy of 98 percent, it takes a human analyst 300 minutes to study 30 minutes of video, while VIRAT takes 90 minutes of processing and five minutes of analyst bandwidth, she said.

But with the ability to harvest larger and larger amounts of data comes the question, "How much data is enough?" For observing an area the size of Bagdad, for example, the data volume required is equal to one second of US Internet traffic in the US for all of 2009, Dugan said, adding that she didn't have an answer and expected the question will be one that is struggled with for some time.

Discussing the power of social media, Dugan described the network challenge DARPA issued in 2009 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, a challenge to be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-ft, red weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental US.

The most successful teams were able to harness the power of social media and use it to their advantage. The winning team, from MIT, used its social network to report the correct locations of all 10 balloons in just under 7 hours, and received the $40,000 prize.

Social media is not a fad, but a powerful tool that has "created more than a few strategic surprises," Dugan said, referring to the weather balloon tracking contest and the recent revolutions and uprisings in the Arab world. "The uprising has been hash-tagged," she added, quoting a journalist who covered the uprising in Tunisia.

These recent events have led DARPA to make some changes in its view of ISR, that it needs to choose architectures that are resistant and adaptible to all. The result is the concept INSIGHT, or one unified global ISR workstation.

"We envision significantly broadening the number of people who can participate, creating real data sets that people can access at a non-classified level," Dugan said.

Mindful of her audience of engineers, techicians and others who develop and manufacture the technology used by the armed forces, Dugan said the data management challenge was one of the most significant facing the community, and urged those present to develop systems that both enable fast analytic development and process data in real time.

The title of Dugan's talk was "On Choosing...", and she described the first visit she made to troops as DARPA director, and the fact that the troops had lost faith in the science and technology community to provide immediate solutions to their challenges, saying instead DARPA was about addressing problems over a 5-to-10-year time frame.

Dugan said her efforts to bring "geek warriors" into the fight has resulted in 100 scientists and engineers, as of April 2010, serving side-by-side with troops. She cited the HALO program as one example of a program that is helping troops today. HALO (High Altitude Lidar Operations) incorporates advances in shortwave detection to be able to collect data down to a 10-photon level, and is 10 times faster than state-of-the art systems and 100 times faster than conventional systems.

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Melinda Rose, senior editor

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