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Eyes in the sky

Is airborne surveillance a recent phenomenon?

Actually, no. Its history dates back to the late 18th century when the French Aerostatic Corps launched ‘Entreprenant’, the world’s first surveillance balloon. In 1794 it was used in the Battle of Fleurus to observe the movements of Austrian troops. The pilot would record his observations and either drop his reports over the side or communicate by semaphore.

It is satisfying that the nation which first experimented with airborne surveillance continues to lead the industry more than 200 years later!

What are some of the challenges today?

Asymmetric warfare is one of the biggest challenges. A terrorist might be operating from within an urban environment, surrounded by civilians, for example. And we need to be able to make the distinction between friend and foe. That can take a lot of information processing and ‘big data’ techniques on the ground, but it all starts with high quality imagery captured from above.

The intelligence has to be processed much more quickly, too. If, as often happens, the enemy is using pickup trucks to speed from location to location, perhaps advancing on friendly forces, we not only need to distinguish between civilian and hostile vehicles, but we need to act on that intelligence while it is still relevant. The opportunity to defeat a threat can be very brief indeed.

Fast jets are playing an important role in reconnaissance and surveillance but that introduces further challenge of designing systems that are as user friendly as possible. Our main goal is to provide new features without increasing the pilot’s workload.

What technology is being used at the moment?

The standard today is to equip aircraft with optronic pods, and this is something that Thales has been doing for around 40 years. Pods use high resolution imaging technology to capture and record a scene of interest. The crew can zoom in on the image to examine it more closely, and the system extracts the precise target coordinates, which are then used to guide the weapon, or friendly forces, to that particular location.

Our current pods support intelligent identification of objects, determining the make, colour and model of a vehicle, for instance, or comparing an object to known structures held in an intelligence database.

What does the future hold?

You can expect to see TALIOS, our next-generation multi-function pod entering service this year.

Designed with support from the French defence procurement agency, TALIOS is the first and only system merging high performance targeting and reconnaissance features in a single pod, covering the entire decision chain, from intelligence gathering through to threat neutralization.

Decide and act in time critical situations is today and tomorrow’s armed forces primary objective. But the most important advances will come from big data analytics, machine learning and augmented reality. There is a drive to get clear and accurate intelligence to where it is needed as fast as possible, whether that is to another aircraft or a commander on the ground. This is what saves lives. Therefore Thales develops innovative functionalities such as Automatic Target Detection and Recognition through onboard Artificial Intelligence.

With the new Permanent Vision™ technology, TALIOS also provides constant situational awareness to the pilot and to the ground forces, by incorporating the pod's real-time imagery into a 3D mapping display.

As time moves on there is no doubt that technology will continue to evolve. But one thing will never change: it is the actions of people, not technology that saves lives. The goal is to get the right information to the right people at the right time. And that is the true value of optronics. That is what makes the world a safer place.