Wide-Area Persistent Surveillance (WAPS) systems operate in the atmospheric domain or space and typically consist of two primary components – a high pixel density camera(s) with multispectral capacity and some form of aircraft or satellite.
Note: The term ‘multispectral’ refers to a number of differing electromagnetic frequencies/ wave-lengths represented in an image such as infrared, microwave, visible light, etc.
The aircraft used for WAPS can vary from small, commercially available drones, to massive multi-million dollar gliders. For example, the ARGUS-IS (Automated Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imagery System) of BAE Systems and DAARPA is one such WAPS system which boasts an unprecedented capacity for unmanned aerial surveillance from a predator drone. The 368 cameras used on ARGUS–IS collectively possess a 1.8 gigapixel imagery capability that allows for adequate resolution of a 6 inch object from an altitude of 3.78 miles (20,000 feet) and can survey a land area of 25 square miles at a time. The raw data captured from the ARGUS-IS is then fed into a super-computer at ground station where personnel can monitor 68 individual points of interest of the surveyed area simultaneously.
Deployment of WAPS systems affords law enforcement and military personnel the capability of acquiring a target ‘after-the-fact’ or after a crime has been committed by simply reviewing the previously captured imagery – hence the ‘persistence’ of the acronym. For example, in a documentary video of a WAPS system utilized by the Baltimore police department, a mugger was apprehended after initially evading police when surveillance personnel reviewed the incident through WAPS feed. The feed was rolled back to the time and place when the mugging occurred and thereafter surveillance personnel simply rolled the feed forward, following the muggers movements to a getaway car some length down the street. The transit of the getaway car was then monitored which gave way to the suspect’s location. This is the power of WAPS systems of the aerial type.
Satellite WAPS Systems
Since 1955, the use of satellites for reconnaissance, surveillance, or espionage has captured the attention of the U.S. military.1 As one can imagine, the passage of time since 1955 has been marked with great advancements in satellite technology for a variety of governments. But, despite these advancements (and depending on the satellite type), the functions of satellites remain essentially the same – to gather information for the generation of intelligence.
The specific missions of deployed satellites have ranged from the detection of nuclear arms detonations and apprehension of enemy/allied/unknown radio signals, to radar tomography and photo/video surveillance. Respecting the question of capabilities present day surveillance satellites possess, it is worth appreciating the Gaofen-4 imaging satellite of the Chinese. The Gaofen-4 is a geo-synchronous satellite that can persistently survey an area of 49 million square kilometers (approx. 28 million square miles) which equates to about 10% the total surface area of the earth. Its photographic capabilities allow for image resolution of up to 50 meters and will provide data for an estimated 8 years until newer satellites slate it for obsolescence. The Gaofen-4 satellite launched and became operational December, 2015.
Satellites like the Gaofen-4 can be arrayed to provide comprehensive intelligence of weather, troop/ personnel movements, anomalous atmospheric phenomena, and a wide assortment of other missions significant to the governing body. It is important to note that the resolution capabilities of the Gaofen-4, touted as the world’s most advanced spy satellite, can, will, or already has been exceeded. Persistent surveillance technologies, when coupled with these satellite systems, can lead one to suspect that in the near future the whole surface of the earth will come to be under continuous watch from above.
The data garnered through the operations of these satellites will impart intellective derivatives that afford a comprehensive understanding of the earth, its peoples, and systems –even more so with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI). CosmiQ Works, an organization largely associated with the CIA that specializes in exploring “how the U.S. government can leverage new and emerging commercial space capabilities against national security problems”, is currently working with Amazon and a satellite mapping group known as DigitalGlobe in an attempt to couple AI with global satellite surveillance.(2)
The ultimate objective of the project is to capture and store “60 million images” of geo-activity, both human and natural, which will subsequently be fed into an AI that can sieve through and analyze the imagery with “smarter algorithms” so as to “see and learn things from imagery about our planet that we simply cannot know today through manual techniques.” The images collected via satellite will be stored on Amazon’s Spacenet, which holds “approximately 1,900 square kilometers [of] full-resolution 50 cm imagery collected from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 commercial satellite” which “includes 8-band multispectral data.” The time-lapse collages such imagery espouses is revolutionary, as Digital Globe is apt to admit in consideration of its business associates who seek to form conclusions on the basis of its aggregated content. The question one should bear in mind though is whether such a surveillance platform will be utilized for nefarious purposes counter to popular consensus. Either way, the above mentioned is categorically a satellite-mediated WAPS system.
Wide area surveillance isn’t anything new. Police departments, such as Baltimore’s, have been actively utilizing cameras mounted to single-engine planes to record imagery of crime-related areas for their investigations, much to the public’s unawareness. However, the fact that these technologies are presently in use does not therefore make them welcome. It is up to the present generation to determine whether existence under the lens of a camera is acceptable, for as is evidenced, the technology of an Orwellian era us upon us.
1. Erickson, Mark. Into the Unknown Together – The DOD, NASA, and Early Spaceflight.
2. Hamilton, J. (2016). EYES IN THE SKY. CIA training artificial intelligence to spy on Earth from SPACE using ‘computer vision’ https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1673802/cia-training-artificial-intelligence-to-spy-on-earth-from-space-using-computer-vision/