Sky eye offers airborne security

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By Roger Snodgrass

Although still somewhat under wraps, a project known as Angel Fire has been mentioned enough recently to arouse some curiosity.

Described formally as a “wide field of view persistent surveillance (WFVPS) aerial collection asset,” in an Air Force document, it is also less formally described by Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Michael Anastasio as technology for real time situational awareness on the battlefield.

In testimony last year before the House Armed Service Committee, Terry J. Jaggers, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force called Angel Fire, “a staring array.”

He said, “Angel Fire will allow the war fighter to zoom in and observe more closely any area within the collected image cone, as well as allowing playback of significant events, essentially providing a ‘GoogleEarth, TIVO-like’ capability to monitor areas of interest.”

Speaking at a media round table recently in Washington, D.C. Anastasio referred to Angel Fire at the top of his list of the kind of project that the lab could accomplish for the wider range of customers to be served as the nuclear weapons laboratories shift emphasis in the coming years.

When the Angel Fire Team won LANL’s 2006 Director’s Distinguished Performance Award in December 2007, it was also described as the kind of bright idea the lab would like to reproduce in other ways.

The technology was developed locally and then adapted for battlefield use working with the Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. Marine Corps.

“The team’s work makes it possible for battlefield commanders to be kept informed through a real-time view that was unimaginable just a few years ago,” an article in the laboratory’s newsletter states.

The technology is also called, “an aircraft-deployed prototype system that uses a 24-camera, mosaic sensor system to display battlefield conditions,” but “the images are steady despite the inherent motion of the aircraft.”

Angel Fire has been compared in some reports to an Army image analysis system called Constant Hawk that uses “pattern recognition” to detect suspicious behavior in a wide area.

David Cremer, the senior project leader in charge of Angel Fire acknowledged in a guarded interview last week, “There is a lot going on here that we have to keep quiet about.”

He said an Air Force colonel from the U.S. Strategic Command had been assigned to Los Alamos to “roam the halls,” looking for ways the lab might help in the war effort.

“He hit on Angel Fire,” Cremer said. “It started seriously about two years ago, transitioning out of our hands and over to the Air Force for their use.”

While it is currently deployed on a piloted aircraft, the plan is to use it with an unmanned aerial vehicle.

“In general terms, it’s helping a lot,” Cremer said. “Specifically how it is helping, we can’t go into that.”

Some of the tests are conducted at the local airport.

“We periodically bring an aircraft in and try something out with it,” Cremer said. “A lot of good science is going on up here.”

Cremer said a core team of about 10 people are engaged in Angel Fire, but perhaps twice that many are involved in one way or another.

“Now we are looking at what we can do next to push the envelope,” he said, noting again the shift in the way the laboratory does business.

“We won’t spend years on this. We hope to keep working on it, but it morphs from one thing to another,” he added.