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THE COLONEL'S CONUNDRUM
Although the Aerosense Show in Orlando (April 22-24, 2003) turned out to be an excellent showcase for military technologies-such as 3-D imaging for laser-based radar, which may become commercial products in the near future-there are some nagging issues that still have to be addressed. The first is the export embargo on uncooled thermal imaging technology by the US Government. It was interesting to see thermal imaging being used at the Singapore and Toronto airports both in newspapers and on TV to detect potential SARS victims, but the technology was not supplied by US vendors. However, thermal imaging suppliers are looking at medical NDT (non-destructive testing) applications as the technology has been commercialized below the $2000 price point. Another nagging issue is how to bolster the detection of terrorist threats with technology, whether they be by land, sea or air.
At two of the nation's leading defense technology centers-NAVSEA Crane Surface Warfare Center Division and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA-these issues are getting serious attention. Maybe you caught a glimpse of the Naval research on PBS's Frontline, but a recent public release of information from a Doctoral candidate under the tutelage of Advanced Imaging editorial advisory board member, Don Brutzman, points to the need for more cutting-edge, near-real-time Web-based 3-D graphics visualization for detecting future threats such as what happened to the USS Cole.
Despite the advances made in visualization and multi-sensor image fusion technologies, there are many technical and logistics questions left to answer after the conflict with Iraq. For example, modeling and simulation technology has progressed to where it's being used for military and commercial planning, but not especially well for running "what-if" unexpected terrorists attack scenarios by land or sea. An open-ended research question at the US DOD is how best to leverage advanced IT technology-advanced analytical visualization capabilities-to bolster counter-terrorist capabilities, either directly onboard naval vessels or on land.
A different question is being asked by DOD for advanced image fusion, night-vision capabilities. The commonality is to detect the threat, whether on the battlefield or in an unexpected attack. The sensor technology being investigated is an attempt to fuse together different wavelengths of the photonics spectrum (see Figure 1, below). For example, thermal imaging provides enhanced contrast for detecting hidden threats, but has poor image detail. Conversely, image intensifiers provide better resolution and more features for identification, but require light and are limited on visual depth. A fused solution would result in good contrast from thermal imaging and good resolution from image intensifiers.
The other issue is identifying the best fusion methodology. Choices include optical (overlay with optics), electronic analog video mixing) or digital (primarily signal processing). While optical maintains a high quality resolution in a relatively simple overlay solution, it has limited control of fusion. Electronic fusion relies on commercial video mixer technology but has limitations since the fields-of-view must match optically. Digital fusion is being touted with good control of fusion quality and compensation by frame averaging.