Award-winning MITRE Technology Keeps Drones on TargetJune 2016
Topics: Unmanned Systems, Computer Vision, Information Systems
In a May 2013 speech, President Barack Obama explained why, despite controversy over civilian casualties and worries that such deaths flame anti-U.S. sentiment, the use of weaponized drones in antiterrorism efforts actually lowers the risk to civilians. "Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage."
The more accurate their targeting systems, the more successfully drones can carry out their missions with less risk to civilians. Drone targeting systems often rely on video supplied by surveillance planes. Determining the precise location of a ground object from surveillance video requires analysts to painstakingly compare still images from the video to previous images of the target area.
"Reference images generally come in the form of satellite imagery," says MITRE's Scott Robbins, an information systems engineer. "The problem is that satellite imagery can very quickly go out of date. Or your target object may not even be present in the reference imagery. That makes it very difficult to generate a precise targeting coordinate."
Full Motion Video Optical Navigation Exploitation (FMV-ONE), a software system developed by MITRE for analyzing surveillance video, promises to improve both the speed and accuracy of drone targeting by eliminating the need to conduct image comparisons.
Point, Click, and Target
Adapting machine vision technologies developed for movie special effects, FMV-ONE combines real-time analysis of orbiting, airborne surveillance video with a drone's GPS readings to produce highly accurate targeting information. Since FMV-ONE runs the targeting analysis down at the ground, the equipped drone requires no expensive modifications to its sensors. A drone pilot points and clicks at objects on the ground. FMV-ONE then pinpoints its position.
"The primary customer for FMV-ONE is the Marine Corps," says Robbins, the project team leader. "The Marines often have to operate in austere environments. Reference imagery can be hard to come by. A good example is the Horn of Africa, for which there has not been a great deal of accurate satellite imagery recently."
Without the need to scour satellite imagery for landmarks, FMV-ONE will free up Marine intelligence analysts to conduct other critical mission work. "After demonstrating some of FMV-ONE's capabilities to a Marine unit," Robbins says, "the commanding officers observed that the system would let them take the two Marines assigned to generating grid coordinates from reference imagery and reassign them to battalion intel where they could do much more good."
The Many, the Proud, the FMV Capabilities
"The Marines believe that FMV-ONE has the potential to help them meet other mission needs besides improved targeting," Robbins says. Generating maps from surveillance data is one such need.
"One of the things we can do with FMV-ONE is generate accurate satellite-style imagery from the UAV data. From that data, you can build custom maps."
Something else the Marines will generate from future versions of FMV-ONE data are detailed 3-D models of landscapes. The Marine Corps currently uses large and expensive LIDAR (laser-based radar) sensor systems to construct its models. FMV-ONE will provide a cheaper and nimbler data source.
A Salute from the Marines
FMV-ONE began life in MITRE's research program as a method for helping robots navigate through buildings. After seeing a demonstration of the technology, a MITRE colleague working on an aerial project asked Robbins if it would work from the sky. From a simple question posed in the research lab, this technology has grown into a program that promises to deliver a ten-fold improvement in speed and accuracy on current targeting methods.
"It’s a good example of the flexibility of MITRE's research program and the value that offers our sponsors," he says.
FMV-ONE's order-of-magnitude potential prompted General John M. Paxton, Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and Brigadier General Michael Groen, Marine Corps director of intelligence, to present the team with its Director of Intelligence Innovation Award this past September. The officers cited the team for their success in developing, testing, and transitioning FMV-ONE's capabilities into the field.
—by Christopher Lockheardt