System Matches Spectral "Signatures" -- Great SAR, Security
"What are you writing
about?" Dave, a partner in the FBO, asked.
"Civil Air Patrol's new thing, ARCHER," I replied. Dave
immediately perked up. He and his wife Lisa were involved with CAP
for years, both in the Cadet and adult programs.
"What's the CAP doing with an Archer?" He asked. "I mean, they
have more Cessnas than anybody, and they have those cool new
Airvans. But an Archer?"
I explained that what CAP rolled out today at Davison Army
Airfield at Ft Belvoir (VA) wasn't a Piper Archer -- not a bad
plane, but I don't think the CAP has any -- but a new Hyperspectral
Imaging System called ARCHER. ARCHER stands for "Airborne Real-Time
Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance," which gives you the
idea that they were really, really reaching for that acronym.
As an old CAP hand, Dave understood immediately what this meant,
especially for CAP's bread-and-butter search and rescue mission.
But I didn't understand until I read about it myself.
Hyperspectral imaging (HSI) is new technology made possible by
the marriage of electronics, vey powerful computers and optics.
What HSI allows, in the ARCHER configuration, is for an airborne
sensor to scan the ground for the unique reflected light signature
of a certain object. So, if the system is set with the "signature"
of a Cessna 172, it will find objects with the same reflectivity as
a 172 -- one of which, if you are over an uninhabited area, has
pretty good odds of being the 172 you're looking for.
It can also be used to pick out the item whose reflectivity does
NOT equal that of its surroundings. In essence, this system extends
frequency (color) discrimination beyond the limits of human
Once ARCHER has detected a target, the human operator has a
number of options, including taking another pass at the target,
storing the data for subsequent follow-up, analyzing it right there
in the plane, or transmitting it. The ARCHER system interfaces with
CAP's state of the art satellite digital imaging system (SDIS),
which can send a detailed image of the target area in under two
minutes. The ground station that receives the SDIS image -- say, a
Search and Rescue task force or Homeland Security headquarters --
can then analyze the image in detail and pass instructions to the
aircraft, or to ground teams. The HSI system can detect a target as
small as a meter from as high as 10,000 feet.
CAP deploys the system in a custom-built station in a CAP
Gippsland GA8 Airvan. We've written a lot about this sturdy,
simple, field-repairable utility plane. The CAP folks seem to hold
it in equally high regard.
ARCHER is a very powerful system, but it has some limitations.
For instance, because it depends on reflection of ambient light, it
needs ambient light. CAP warns that "it cannot detect objects at
night, underwater, under dense cover, underground, under snow or
The CAP has invested over four years' R&D and a great deal
of money in ARCHER -- over $5 million, not including the Airvans
that will deploy the systems. The bill would certainly have been
higher were it not for CAP's ability to call on volunteer help. The
project office that fielded ARCHER, CAP's Advanced Technologies
Group (ATG), is an all-volunteer effort. Col. Drew Alexa,
CAP, director of ATG, worked closely with the Naval Research
Laboratory, the Air Force Research Lab, and the Coast Guard R&D
Center. "The inter-agency cooperation throughout this project has
been unprecedented in CAP’s history," Alexa said. Key
contractors have included NovaSol Corp. of Honolulu and Space
Computer Systems of Los Angeles.
Maj. Gen. Dwight Wheless, CAP national commander, saw benefits
across several of CAP's taskings. "This technology will increase
CAP’s effectiveness in search and rescue, disaster relief,
and homeland security missions," he said. He sees this new
technology making CAP "a leader in low-cost, on-demand aerial
imaging technology for homeland security and emergency