U.S. Air Force Sets Fall Debut for Gorgon Stare Camera System

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WASHINGTON — Gorgon Stare, the wide-area camera system the U.S. Air Force says will revolutionize the way troops receive imagery, won’t arrive in Afghanistan until the fall.

The first versions of the 500-kilogram sensor were scheduled to be flown aboard MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles starting this summer. However, problems arose in testing, said Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“The problems appear to be resolved now, and I don’t expect the program to be delayed any further,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Named after Gorgons — mythical creatures whose gaze turns enemies to stone — the ISR aircraft pods are at the heart of the Air Force’s plan to use one aircraft to feed video to many troops.

The service took up the program as a rush development project ordered by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force.

Gorgon Stare will use multiple cameras to record images of a 4-kilometer radius underneath the Reaper at several frames a second, during both day and night operations. Troops and intelligence analysts will look at the entire area or receive only the portions relevant to their operations.

That would be a huge change. Reapers now send only one full­motion video feed that covers just meters of territory. Intelligence officials compare the view to looking down a soda straw.

Gorgon Stare would transmit 10 feeds — but at several frames a second, far fewer than Reaper’s full-motion 30 frames a second.

“You can see we are going to be able to dramatically increase the output of each MQ-9,” Deptula said. Gorgon Stare “can provide oversight over a much larger area than any other motion video capability,” he said.

Prime contractor Sierra Nevada delivered the first four pods to Air Combat Command in late May and early June, Deptula said. The next six pods will be delivered in fall 2011, he said.

The Gorgon Stare pods will be shipped this fall to Afghanistan, where they will be installed onto Reapers, Deptula said.

Reapers are set to be the first aircraft to fly with the Gorgon Stare, but the RQ-4 Global Hawk and manned aircraft could fly with it later.

Other options could surface if engineers can lighten the 500-kilogram sensor, said Robert Marlin, technical adviser for Air Force ISR capabilities.

Deptula said Gorgon Stare will not create the image-processing nightmare some have predicted.

“People presume that you have to analyze everything that is collected,” he said. Gorgon Stare “will increase the situational awareness of individual users by directly giving a soldier, sailor, Marine and airman on the ground a signal that he can see of the area he is interested in. You don’t have to process the entire image that is being beamed down to result in a dramatic increase in capability.”