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DARPA's vision for getting instant satellite pics to troops (photos)

The SeeMe program seeks to develop a constellation of small low-orbit "disposable" satellites to provide on-demand imagery to troops.

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James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
James Martin
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A new network of satellites

DARPA this week put out a request for submissions to build a new network of low-orbit satellites to enable near real-time satellite images enabling active ground troops to plan military missions directly from the field.

The program, the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements -- dubbed SeeMe -- aims to give individual fighters the ability to immediately call on low-cost satellites for up-to-the minute visual information.

Moving away from the slow, expensive, bulky, and complicated current satellite systems, DARPA envisions a swarm of small, easily deployable, and disposable satellites which will use non-aerospace hardware and manufacturing techniques to provide quick and cheap visual information anywhere on the ground -- for less than $500,000 each.
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On-demand satellite imagery

Currently, individual ground troops in remote locations are unable to obtain on-demand satellite imagery in a timely manner during missions. Lack of satellite overflight opportunities, delays due to current satellite mobility, and the inability of individual ground troops to to receive direct satellite information, are hindering military operational capabilities, says DARPA.

The SeeMe program seeks to offer nearly real-time tactical information directly to troops, giving them critical planning information for specific locations requests within minutes.
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Launched from airplanes into very low-Earth orbit

Launched from airplanes, the very low-Earth orbit satellites aim to provide more extensive coverage than current eye-in-the-sky systems. DARPA says SeeMe needs to "address a change in the satellite build model from 'performance centric' to 'cost centric'" by relying on non-aerospace vendors -- even conforming to internationally accepted commercial packaging, transport, and storage methods, such as FedEx, for logistical ease.

As satellite cost goes down, DARPA says, the constellation size increases, and information delay request times due to satellite overpass and travel-time decrease.
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A cost goal of less than $500k each

The small, missile-like launch vehicles will be deployed from planes into low-Earth orbit at an altitude of around 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers. DARPA says the initial SeeMe satellite cost goal is less than $500,000, a fraction of traditional satellites, which cost millions of dollars to manufacture, and millions more to launch.
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Non-aerospace components

Once the missile reaches orbit, the disposable satellites would deploy with non-aerospace components such as solid state, embedded control CMOS optics, lowering the fixed costs, and start providing coverage in as little as 90 minutes.

Troops on the ground will be able to directly contact the satellites to request information directly to their devices.
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Imagery at a fraction of the cost

Swarms of the SeeMe satellites will deliver information to troops at a fraction of the cost of current airborne UAV systems. The proposals detail satellites each lasting 60 to 90 days, which will completely burn up in the atmosphere when no longer needed.
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Working demo by 2016

DARPA's timeline for the eye-in-the-sky project envisions a working demo of the SeeMe project by 2016.
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Tablet sized images, downlinked within 90 minutes

The program envisions swarms of satellites at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems, sending information to existing handheld devices, such as iPhones, to receive a satellite images of their precise location within 90 minutes.

One goal states capability for "'tablet' sized images, downlinked within 90 minute revisit time. Capable to respond to about 10 users requests simultaneously."

DARPA says rapid, low-cost manufacturing technologies from the mobile phone industry, propulsion technology from the automobile racing industry, solid state components from electronics manufacturers, valve technology from the medical pneumatic industry, and advanced optics, might all play a part in the next generation of battlefield planning and logistics.

“With a SeeMe constellation," says DARPA program manager Dave Barnhart, "we hope to directly support warfighters in multiple deployed overseas locations simultaneously with no logistics or maintenance costs beyond the warfighters’ handhelds.”

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