John Marion never thought he’d change the face of airborne ISR. Surely not at the tactical level, with infantry platoons and even smaller units. But what began as an idea at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, in 2001, to use a constellation of small satellites to track the WMD development efforts of rogue nations morphed into something else entirely—something revolutionary.
Led by Marion, the Sonoma Persistent Surveillance Program at Lawrence Livermore would pioneer the world’s first wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) system. Unlike the still imagery pulled from satellites or the “soda straw” view of standard video cameras, WAMI could image in real time, as well as record for forensic use, hundreds of moving targets over an area kilometer in diameter, all at once.
WAMI’s potential for intelligence-gathering was off the charts. With a single sensor, an operator could monitor a suspected WMD site and all its surrounding environs—tracking the coming and going of personnel and vehicles, identifying them, and following them back to other locations. Still, when pitched the concept, the National Reconnaissance Office balked at the cost of building a prototype satellite.
Ultimately, it would be the U.S. Army that stepped into the breach. In 2005, the Army Research Laboratory adopted the project, with the aim of developing an ISR tool that could defeat insurgent networks planting IEDs. And very shortly afterward, the first operational WAMI system, called Constant Hawk, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, and to Iraq in 2009, on manned turboprop aircraft.
The aircraft-mounted Constant Hawk proved to be extremely capable, so the U.S. Army followed up in 2010 with another request from Marion, who was now working at Logos Technologies. This time around, the service wanted a WAMI system that was light enough for aerostats, thus combining the sensor with a persistent surveillance capability. Logos Technologies obliged with Kestrel.
Since the deployment of both Constant Hawk and Kestrel to theater, Marion and Logos Technologies have been further refining the WAMI concept, developing smaller, lighter, and more versatile systems. These include the 80-pound Kestrel Block II for aerostats, the RedKite and BlackKite systems for tactical UAS (including the Insitu Integrator), and even a MicroKestel option at less than five pounds, for small, tethered drones.
Indeed, no longer are WAMI systems the monopoly of brigade-level military commanders. The dramatic reduction in the size, weight, power, and cost of these sensors means that operators further down the line—an infantry platoon, sheriff’s office, or Customs and Border Patrol unit—can also use this solution. And for new missions: overwatch, border security, small policing, disaster response, event security, etc.
It’s amazing to think about it. But what began some 20 years as a sensor modality for satellites can be deployed from the truck of a car! That is the revolution in airborne ISR that John Marion wrought.