Tag Archives: Predator

Inside the Predator Ground Control Station, Herat, Afghanistan

Predator UAVs have often been the subject of articles published on this site as drones are some of the emerging technologies of the modern battlefield. Recently, the Aeronautica Militare opened the Ground Control Station (GCS) of the Predators currently deployed at Herat, in Afghanistan, to SKY TG24 that had the possibility to interview Maj. Lury Tupini, Commander of the Task Force Astore. Maj. Tupini gave to the reporter Pina Esposito an insight into the GCS, showing footage recorded by the Predator and explaining that crew required any time the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) is keeping an area under surveillance is made of 4 military: a pilot, who’s responsible of the flight; a sensor operator, who moves the aircraft cameras and sensors; a mission monitor, who receives requests from “customers” and send them the required images; and a flight engineer, who checks the status of the aircraft by means of telemetry. There’s also a fifth person, an image expert, whose duty is literally “to explain what the aircraft is seeing”.
Low visibility, long persistence on the target and no-risk for the mission crew are those features that make the Predator the ideal asset to provide surveillance of high-lethality areas.

Click on the image below to watch the report.

Smile and say "cheese": postcards from the "Black Cats"

After publishing the video taken by an Italian AMX over Afghanistan I’ve received, through the Italian Air Force Press Office the following pictures taken by the Task Group “Black Cats”, deployed to Herat. The TG has recently reached the 2.000 flying hours milestone, flying ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions in support of the ground forces and local population. As Maj. Michele Grassi, commander of the “Black Cats” recently affirmed: “The 2.000 hours we have achieved allowed us to process and interpret more than 17.000 photographs and to perform an accurate analysis of about 1,300 targets in support of ground security forces. Reconnaissance sorties have also been useful to check the status of bridges, roads and schools, rebuilt even in areas outside the Italian area of responsability”. Manned and Unmmanned aircraft (like Predator UAVs) provide a privileged and complementary perspective of the area of operations: the Predator, in fact, can remain airborne for more than 20 hours and, with its sensors, it can seamlessly control a specific purpose for long time slots; the AMXs move faster and achieve their goals in a shorter time, even at great distances, ensuring the immediacy of the action.

The false problem of the armed Predators

On Sept. 18, 2010, Lt. Alessandro Romani of the Col. Moschin was killed by the Afghan insurgents in a shooting in the area to the East of Farah, Afghanistan. Lt. Romani was a member of the Italian Special Forces team of the Task Force 45 flying on board a CH-47. The Chinook, escorted by two A-129 Mangusta, was approaching the spot pointed out by a Predator of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) where some terrorists, that had just placed a bomb on a nearby road, had taken refuge. The chopper was landing when it was hit by some Kalashnikov shots that caused the death of the Italian officer.
In the aftermath of the shooting, some experts claimed that the use of armed Predators would prevent such accidents to occur: an article, written by an expert suggested that an MQ-1 equipped with Hellfire missiles would have saved Lt. Romani’s life. A direct hit into the terrorists refuge would made the Special Forces’ intervention unneeded. True, theoretically. False, if we analyse Italy’s attitude in Peace Keeping and Peace Enforcing operations. Italian forces, whose partecipation to such operations are usually strongly opposed by certain parties and are the cause of strong debate in the Parliament, have strict Rules Of Engagement, much more complicated than “Don’t fire until fired upon”. Historically, Italians are neither warmongers nor willing to use arms: for better or for worse, we tend to use diplomacy, to talk with the local people. The option of firing a couple of missiles from high altitude, from a UAV, towards some insurgents sheltered in a building, is simply something not in our DNA. What if the terrorist have hostages with them? What if the Italians cause “collateral damages”? Unacceptable for the public opinion in Italy, that still considers the Armed Forces a sort of burden, an unworthy cost, a diabolic means of destruction and war. Wisely, Italy decided to purchase only unarmed UAVs (even the MQ-9 Reaper will not carry missiles or bombs): cheaper and “safer”.
Hence, not even an armed Predator could save Lt. Romani’s life…….unless it was American.

The following images are courtesy of the Italian Air Force.

NFL technology for UAVs video analysis

American Football is one of my favourite sports and in these days I’m enojoying the NFL (National Football League) playoff of 2009 – 2010 season, whose apex will be the Super Bowl XLIV at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium on Feb. 7, 2010. Games coverage by both CBS and Fox provides images full of data, statistics, facts and replays while most important plays are analysed with the telestrator “a device that allows its operator to draw a freehand sketch over a motion picture image” that is widely used in broadcasts of all major sports. According to an article written by Christopher Drew Jan. 11 New York Times, the military is currently experimenting the telestrator and other TV tools used to “enrich” NFL games to make sense of the videos broadcasted by UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles). As exmplained in the NYT article, the US drones operating over Afghanistan and Iraq have shot some much footage that if one analyst had to watch it continuosly, he would need about 24 years! As the amount of video grows, as a consequence of the number of Predator and Reaper being detached in theatre and their high-tech cameras, it becomes much more difficult to make sense of the flood of data collected real time and archived for intelligence purposes. Analysts watching the live feeds have to quickly pass warnings to the ground troops but that kind of information is most of times difficult to understand. It is like tuning in to a football game without the scoreboard, the quarter, the down etc. That’s just raw data and that’s how the military have been using it. TV techniques could be used to automatically send alerts with attached comments and graphics, while a sort of telestrator could be used to highlight a threatening vehicle or to circle a compound that should be attacked. Provided that the feeds can’t be easily intercepted……

Even Predator UAVs face Information Security problems

A series of interesting articles, dealing with the interception of live video feeds broadcasted by the Predator UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) operating in Iraq and Afghanistan by the local insurgents, was published today on worldwide newspapers.

Evidence of the hack was found in the insurgent’s laptops that contained video files intercepted by the aircraft’s unencrypted downlink to the ground stations. Obviously, being a live video feed from the aircraft’s on-board camera, the insurgents could only “eavesdrop” the communication between the Predator and the ground station and could not take control of the drones or interfere in some way with their flight.

Nevertheless, being able to intercept the images gave the insurgents the advantage of determining which building, roads, tents etc were under surveillance before either the aircraft or the ground troops could intervene. One might think the hack was done using sophisticated tools but according to the information released so far, the insurgents used a commercial software, SkyGrabber, from Russian company SkySoftware, that can be purchased for as little as $25.95 on the Internet. The stolen video files show once again how the most advanced military technologies can lose their effectiveness because of very well known vulnerabilities, exploited with cheap off-the-shelf code.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who oversees the Air Force’s unmanned aviation program, told the Wall Street Journal that some of the drones would employ a sophisticated new camera system called “Gorgon Stare,” which allows a single aerial vehicle to transmit back at least 10 separate video feeds simultaneously. But since the UAVs need to send their feeds over great distances they are subject to listening and exploitation: in other words, as we have already explained many times on this blog, Confidentiality (the attribute of Information representing the assurance that information is shared only among authorised persons) was compromised.

Since the U.S. government has known about the vulnerability since the U.S. campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, it is clear that the Pentagon assumed the risk of data being intercepted by local insurgents or enemies, unimportant. An effective countermeasure that could prevent anybody from intercepting the video feeds is obviously encryption. Someone wondered why there are plenty of systems to encrypt radio transmissions while there’s almost nothing to encrypt video feeds. Simple: because encrypting a hi-definition video streaming is much more demanding (in terms of computational needs, hence hardware equipments) than encrypting audio.

Therefore, fixing the security hole would have caused additional costs and delays (because of the time needed for procurement, testing, implementation etc). Even the MQ-9 Reaper (whose version order by the Italian Air Force is known as Predator B), whose cost is around 10 million USD each, despite being faster, better armed and more capable than the Predator, will be subject to the same problem…an issue that will have to be fixed as soon as possible since the aircraft is already operating in Afghanistan, Iraq and it is also involved in anti-piracy combat patrols in the Indian Ocean.