Hummingbird robo-drone gets 1.8-gigapixel camera

The Army is getting ready to ship a trio of A160 Hummingbirds to Afghanistan for a trial run with the Argus sensor system.

A160 Hummingbird
U.S. Army

Starting in the spring, the Hummingbird will be on sentry duty in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army is getting ready to deploy a trio of prototype A160 Hummingbird drones as it evaluates the aircraft for a more full-fledged development program. One key characteristic that sets these unmanned air vehicles apart from others, such as the Predator, already more famously serving in the war zone is that the Hummingbirds are rotorcraft--that is, they fly like helicopters rather than planes.

The Hummingbirds will be equipped with DARPA's Argus-IS sensor system, which features a 1.8-gigapixel color camera--gear that the Army a year ago described as "the largest video sensor ever used to conduct tactical missions." The Army said at the time that Argus can track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet and, attached to an A160, should be able to scan almost 25 square miles. It will allow operators to scan a wide field of view and download images in real time.

Here's more on the cutting-edge capabilities that Argus offers:

This represents a big technological leap over current airborne surveillance systems...Those that deliver high-resolution images are limited to very small fields of view...and those covering broader areas provide low-resolution imagery.

In addition, ARGUS-IS operators on the ground can designate "windows" around up to 65 specific sites or targets they want to monitor. They can choose buildings, road intersections or other fixed locations the system will "stare" at, or people or vehicles to trail, even if they're moving in different directions.

"And if you have a bunch of people leaving a place at the same time, they no longer have to say, 'Do I follow vehicle one, two, three or four'" [Argus program manager Brian] Leininger said. "They can say, 'I will follow all of them, simultaneously and automatically.'"

The Boeing-built Hummingbirds , which can fly for 12 hours at a stretch, are now set to arrive in May or June of next year. Initial deployment had apparently been intended for the first half of 2011.

For the record, Argus-IS stands for "Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System." Those of you who recall your junior high school classics lessons will recall that, in Greek mythology, Argus was a watchman (or a monster) with 100 eyes.

At the moment, Army developers and engineers are doing wiring work on the A160 and performing ground tests with ARGUS.

"The ARGUS sensor suite has never been flown on this platform before so we have to make sure that the integration is complete. We are finishing that up now and adding some different types of antennas. We begin flight testing of the UAS at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, early next year," Lt. Col. Matthew Munster, product manager for UAS modernization, said in a statement last week.

The Hummingbirds will be deployed for up to a year.

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About the author

Jonathan Skillings is managing editor of CNET News, based in the Boston bureau. He's been with CNET since 2000, after a decade in tech journalism at the IDG News Service, PC Week, and an AS/400 magazine. He's also been a soldier and a schoolteacher, and will always be a die-hard fan of jazz, the brassier the better.

 

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