I first became aware of this type of technology during my first deployment to Afghanistan. Some of the stuff that the technicians had in their inventory was truly impressive but what Wired is reporting simply takes this technology to the next level. Previously, sensors had to be manually installed (for the most part) and retrieved later on. Now the military is looking at delivering massive amounts of sensors via UAV drops. Each sensor can be solar powered and remain in place for perhaps decades at a time. Seismic sensors can record the passage of man and vehicle while cameras and other detection equipment can gather more specific intelligence. Such technology isn’t completely new – we dropped seismic sensors all over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Vietnam as I wrote about in a fictional context in PROMIS: Vietnam.
Some of these sensors will be disguised as rocks or other debris and transmit directly to satellites. Others may communicate by a relay system on an unmanned military airship hovering overhead. The Wired article mentions how huge sensor networks may be left in Afghanistan as “stay behinds” to monitor the situation on the ground and drive intelligence for future Special Operations missions. The same type of networks can also be used to help secure America’s borders, a worthwhile endeavor in my opinion, and a technique that would be light years ahead of anachronistic methods, such as simply building a big wall as some suggest. See for yourself, the future is here… – Jack
America is supposed to wind down its war in Afghanistan by 2014. But U.S. forces may continue to track Afghans for years after the conflict is officially done. Palm-sized sensors, developed for the American military, will remain littered across the Afghan countryside – detecting anyone who moves nearby and reporting their locations back to a remote headquarters. Some of these surveillance tools could be buried in the ground, all-but-unnoticeable by passersby. Others might be disguised as rocks, with wafer-sized, solar-rechargeable batteries that could enable the sensors’ operation for perhaps as long as two decades, if their makers are to be believed.
Traditionally, when armies clash, they leave behind a horrific legacy: leftover mines which can blow civilians apart long after the shooting war is over. These “unattended ground sensors,” or UGSs, won’t do that kind of damage. But they could give the Pentagon an enduring ability to monitor a one-time battlefield long, long after regular American forces are supposed to have returned home.
“Were going to leave behind a lot of special operators in Afghanistan. And they need the kind of capability that’s easy to put out so they can monitor a village without a lot of overt U.S.-made material on pathways and roadways,” says Matt Plyburn, an executive at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor.
The U.S. military has used unattended ground sensors in one form or another since 1966, when American forces dropped acoustic monitors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Tens of thousands of UGSs have been emplaced around Afghanistan and Iraq, forming electronic perimeters around combat outposts and keeping tabs on remote locations. It’s a way to monitor the largest possible area with the smallest number of troops.
“You use them to cover up your dead space – the areas you’re concerned about but can’t cover with other ISR [intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance] assets,” says Lt. Col. Matt Russell, an Army program manager overseeing the deployment of unattended sensors.
But earlier UGSs – even ones of the recent past – were relatively large and clunky, prone to false alarms, and had lifespans measurable in days or weeks. “What we found in the field was significant under-usage,” Russell tells Danger Room. Plans to incorporate them into every combat brigade fizzled as the Army’s proposed $200 billion revamp, Future Combat Systems, went south.
The new models are dramatically smaller and consume far less power, enabling them to operate for months – maybe even years – at a time with only the slimmest chance of being detected. Lockheed calls them “field and forget” systems for “persistent surveillance.”
And they won’t just be used overseas. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol today employs more than 7,500 UGSs on the Mexican border to spot illegal migrants. Defense contractors believe one of the biggest markets for the next generation of the sensors will be here at home.
(Featured Image Credit Lockheed Martin via Dangerroom)