Navy’s Smart Robocopters are going to Spy the Pirates in the Crowd

By Curious

The unmanned Navy aircraft are going to be able to distinguish small pirate boats from other ships when an Office of Naval Research (ONR)-funded sensor begins airborne tests this summer.
The robocopter is called Multi-Mode Sensor Seeker (MMSS). That sensor is a mix of high-definition video cameras, mid-wave infrared sensors and laser-radar (LADAR) technology. It is going to be placed on a robotic helicopter called Fire Scout. Carrying advanced automatic target recognition software, the sensor prototype is going to allow Fire Scout to autonomously identify little boats on the water, reducing the workload of Sailors operating it from control stations aboard Navy vessels.
“Sailors who manage the robotic systems can become overloaded with data, often sifting through hours of streaming video searching for a single vessel,” said Ken Heeke, program officer in ONR’s Naval Air Warfare and Weapons Department. “The automatic target recognition software gives Fire Scout the ability to distinguish target boats in congested coastal waters using LADAR, and it sends that data to human operators, who can then analyze those ship in a 3-D picture.”
Navy-developed target recognition algorithms aboard Fire Scout is going to exploit the 3-D data collected by the LADAR, utilizing a long-range, high-res, eye-safe laser. The software compares the 3-D imagery to ship templates or schematics stored in the system’s memory.
“The 3-D data gives you a leg up on target identification,” said Dean Cook, principal investigator for the MMSS program at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD). “Infrared and visible video cameras produce 2-D pictures, and subjects in them can be difficult to automatically identify. With LADAR data, each pixel corresponds to a 3-D point in space, so the automatic target recognition algorithm can calculate the dimensions of an object and compare them to those in a database.”
The algorithms have been successfully tested in shore-based systems against ships at sea. The software is being integrated into a BRITE Star II turret by a team from NAWCWD, Raytheon, FLIR Systems, BAE Systems and Utah State University for airborne testing aboard a manned test helicopter. The flight assessment is going to be conducted against groups of approximately seven small vessels in a military sea range off the California coast later this summer.