Teaching Drones How To See: Fire Scout & Kestrel

Teaching Drones How To See: Fire Scout & Kestrel image
June 3, 2015 | Source: Breaking Defense

The military is drowning in video. Figuring out what’s worth watching can literally be a matter of life and death.

The standard technique today is to sit young servicemembers down at screens to stare at live feeds or archived video — from drones, from satellites, from static cameras — until their eyes glaze over. But that’s labor-intensive and unreliable: Human beings aren’t good at paying close attention to the same thing for hours on end. So the military will pay good money for software that can automatically detect patterns and tell the humans when and where to focus their attention.

This is the big picture behind the US Navy’s recent contract with Australia-based Sentient to install “automated detection software” on the MQ-8 Fire Scout drone. An unmanned helicopter available in two sizes, the Fire Scout has already deployed as a reconnaissance asset on Navy frigates and will go on the controversial Littoral Combat Ship. But as with other drones, having no human being aboard hardly means there’s no human controller required. Different unmanned vehicles have different degrees of autonomy: The Predator requires human hands constantly on its controls, while the Global Hawk can fly itself from point to point. But all of them need a human to go through the megabytes of data they beam back.

Sentient’s software, called Kestrel, automatically picks out objects from the background and highlights them for the human operator, in real time. Video on the company’s website shows the program highlighting tiny specks in the distance or through cloud — things I certainly wouldn’t have noticed amidst the whitecaps — that turn out on closer inspection to be boats. The company claims it can pick up small wooden boats and even individual humans cast overboard.