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Sat, Mar 05, 2005

CAP Rolls Out ARCHER Hyperspectral Imaging System.

System Matches Spectral "Signatures" -- Great SAR, Security Potential

"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 eyesight.

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 inside buildings."

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 management."

FMI: www.cap.gov

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