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U.S. Military Lacks Analysts to Review Aerial Drone Video

The armed forces need 2,000 to process the video feeds collected by drone aircraft.

The U.S. military is quickly running out of human analysts to process the vast amounts of video footage collected by the robotic planes and aerial sensors that blanket Afghanistan and other fronts in the war on terrorism, says published reports.

The need for more analysts was voiced by Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who spoke on Nov. 4 at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation conference in Washington, D.C. Cartwright said the armed forces need 2,000 analysts to process the video feeds collected by drone aircraft fitted with next-generation sensors, reports The Washington Times.

If the military scores a target based on video from a single sensor, there is the problem of generating analysts that currently cannot be solved, because 19 analysts are needed to process video feeds from a single Predator using current sensor technology, Cartwright said.

The unmanned Predator and Reaper drones are the primary weapons the military and CIA deploy against al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, more recently, Yemen.

It is a classic conundrum for U.S. intelligence: Information-gathering technology has far outpaced the ability of computer programs—much less humans—to make sense of the data. Just as the National Security Agency needed to develop computer programs to data-mine vast amounts of telephone calls, Web traffic and e-mails on the fiber-optic networks it began intercepting after Sept.11, 2001, the military today is seeking computer programs to help it sort through hours of uneventful video footage recorded on the bottom of pilotless aircraft to find the telltale signs of a terrorist that a drone is collecting data on.

The military’s surveillance technology includes the newest generation of sensors and cameras fitted on the bottom of spy planes, pilotless drones and blimps or placed on telephone polls. These ball-shaped sensors give military and intelligence agencies the capacity to monitor cell-phone calls and e-mails, to illuminate landscapes at night with infrared cameras and to record high-definition video of targets from the sky.

With names like Gorgon Stare and Constant Hawk, the newest generation of these dense data sensors also can mesh together thousands of video feeds to cover a geographic area the size of a city.

However, great advantage gained in surveillance, is boring intelligence analysts to tears. Forced to watch what Cartwright called “Death TV,” bleary-eyed analysts at ground stations and other outposts spend hours wading through useless data until they spot signs of a target and recommend that the drone fire its missile.

An analyst will sit and stare at Death TV for hours on end trying to find the single target or see something move or see something do something that makes it a valid target. “It is just a waste of manpower,” Cartwright said.