The Army is looking for light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, solutions that process data more quickly, are easier to use, and meet the complex size, weight and power constraints imposed by a fleet that includes multiple aviation platforms.
In fact, CERDEC, the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, likes to refer to itself as "the Army's sensor developer."
To that end, the center put out a call to industry in December seeking improved designs for military LiDAR. Planners have now begun to mull over the feedback in an ongoing search to improve airborne intelligence gathering.
"We keep our pulse on the market as best we can. This is our opportunity go out and make sure we have captured anything new," said Ryan R. Close, lead for ISR systems in the CERDEC Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate.
The multiplicity of aircraft in use by the Army can make it difficult to find sensor solutions that are sufficiently broad. "With any ISR sensor, one platform may have a power constraint, but the weight is not as critical. Another may have more of a size sensitivity or a weight sensitivity. So when you look across multiple platforms you can have multiple constraints on your system," Close said.
Some of the chief constraints surrounding aviation ISR have proven manageable. Factors such as air speed, ground speed, vibration profiles and mission types can be factored into the LiDAR hardware.
Issues on the software side are not as easily resolved. In particular, CERDEC is looking for new approaches that speed up the flow of sensor information from the receiving point to the end user.
"We want to get data to the soldier in the ground ASAP. Every minute they don't have data is a potential opportunity lost," Close said.
With this in mind, planners are looking at solutions to remove as much manual work as possible from the process of gathering and forwarding critical information. "One of the things we want to do is to get data in an automated fashion from the sensor to the soldier, with the fewest possible stops in the middle of that," Close said. "That sounds straightforward, but from a technical perspective it asks for a lot of automation capabilities that aren't there yet."
Emerging solutions also will need to demonstrate more robust processing capabilities than are apparent in today's LiDAR products. Along with automation, enhanced processing power should help speed critical data to its end point.
"What do we do with the data when it comes off the sensors? If we want to get the data to the soldier faster, maybe we can provide a low-resolution data product using a very small data pipe, and then the soldier could request a high-resolution subset," Close said.
Robust algorithms could help move information through the pipe more efficiently. They also might help the service layer on additional intelligence tools such as target recognition and automated feature extraction.
If CERDEC can get these kind of performance enhancements, that might give war fighters an added edge. In addition to being able to more rapidly access data, users might be able to expand their searches. A faster feed could allow a single sensor to cover a wider area without increasing cost or complicating the procedure.
Keeping it simple is a top priority, even as planners seek out these technologically complex fixes.
"One criticism of these things is that you need a Ph.D. to operate them" Close said. "We want this to be usable to the soldier. We want to put more intelligence into that automated algorithm so the soldier is just getting product."
In its search for enhanced LiDAR, CERDEC took a somewhat unorthodox course. Rather than wrap up sensors and algorithms in a single package, it specifically asked industry partners to break out their proposals along hardware and software lines.
This opened the door for CERDEC to hear from a new group of aspiring vendors — startups and academic groups, for example, who typically wouldn't have the resources to weigh in on a request that require a hardware component.
"There are some small businesses with very smart, innovative algorithms who don't have the scale to build up a full sensor operation but who are very creative in what they do," Close said. "This gives us a chance to hear from some new voices."
The present technology evaluation is expected to run for about two years, to be followed by a prototype development phase.