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« Afghanistan war exit pushed back, officials now targeting 2014 | Main | Security Council Gets North Korea Nuke Report »

Drone footage overwhelms analysts

Pentagon looking for better ways to sift through data.  HUMINT required?  I am available!  I need the funds!

A U.S. Predator drone flies over southern Afghanistan. Drone aircraft unleashed two missile attacks in a lawless tribal region on the Afghan border in September. The stepped-up campaign is focused on a small area of farming villages and mountainous, thickly forested terrain controlled by the Haqqani Network, a ruthless American foe in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say. (Associated Press)

The U.S. military is fast running out of human analysts to process the vast amounts of video footage collected by the robotic planes and aerial sensors that blanket Afghanistan and other fronts in the war on terrorism.

Speaking at an intelligence conference last week, Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would need 2,000 analysts to process the video feeds collected by a single Predator drone aircraft fitted with next-generation sensors.

"If we do scores of targets off of a single [sensor], I now have run into a problem of generating analysts that I can't solve," he said, adding that he already needs 19 analysts to process video feeds from a single Predator using current sensor technology.

The unmanned Predator and Reaper drones are the primary weapons the military and CIA deploy against al Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, more recently, Yemen.

It's a classic conundrum for U.S. intelligence: Information-gathering technology has far outpaced the ability of computer programs — much less humans — to make sense of the data.

Just as the National Security Agency needed to develop computer programs to data-mine vast amounts of telephone calls, Web traffic and e-mails on the fiber-optic networks it began intercepting after Sept. 11, 2001, the military today is seeking computer programs to help it sort through hours of uneventful video footage recorded on the bottom of pilotless aircraft to find the telltale signs of a terrorist the drone is targeting.

The military's surveillance technology includes the newest generation of sensors and cameras fitted on the bottom of spy planes, pilotless drones and blimps or placed on telephone polls. These ball-shaped sensors give military and intelligence agencies the capacity to monitor cell-phone calls and e-mails, to illuminate landscapes at night with infrared cameras and to record high-definition video of targets from the sky.

With names like Gorgon Stare and Constant Hawk, the newest generation of these "dense data sensors" also can mesh together thousands of video feeds to cover a geographic area the size of a city.

But the great advantage in surveillance is boring intelligence analysts to tears.

Forced to watch what Gen. Cartwright called "Death TV," bleary-eyed analysts at ground stations and other outposts spend hours wading through useless data until they spot signs of a target and recommend that the drone fire its missile. [...]
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