By Joshua Kopstein
As unmanned aerial vehicles continue to populate the skies above battlefields and college campuse faster than anyone can count them, the US government has taken a keen interest in equipping them with an increasing number of state-of-the-art surveillance technologies. The latest to be revealed is DARPA’s frightening ARGUS-IS, a record-setting 1.8 gigapixel sensor array which can observe and record an area half the size of Manhattan. The newest in the family of "wide area persistent surveillance" tools, the system can detect and track moving objects as small as six inches from 20,000 feet in the air.
But what’s most terrifying about ARGUS (fittingly named after Argus Panoptes,, the 100-eyed giant of Greek myth) is what happens afterward: the system gives its owner (and eventually, DARPA says, a well-programmed A.I.) the ability to scan an entire city for all sorts of "suspicious" activity, not just in real-time but after the fact. It all adds up to around 6 petabytes (6,000 terabytes) worth of 12 frames-per-second video per day.
What's really interesting is that the system is kind of a hack-job. Its massive resolution comes from chaining together 368 5-megapixel cellphone cameras — something similar doesn't seem like it would be impossible to reproduce on a civilian scale. The image processing, however, is another story. ARGUS' real-time surveillance capabilities rely on both on-board and ground-based processing, which need to transmit to the tune of 600 gigabits per second, though DARPA won't disclose exactly how they'd be able to run that kind of network from the air.
The new info comes from "Rise of the Drones," a new PBS NOVA TV special-bordering-on-infomercial which was funded in part by drone manufacturer Lockheed Martin — seemingly in direct violation of PBS' own underwriting guidelines. It's not clear where ARGUS-IS will be used just yet, but its probably a safe bet we'll see it as payload on the cheap and ubiquitous MQ-1 Predator drone. Don't expect it to stay in war zones, though — thanks in part to a recent Department of Homeland Security initiative, the FAA estimates 30,000 drones in US skies in the next 20 years, and it's a probably safe to assume that ARGUS isn't far behind, with a trail of potential Fourth Amendment violations in tow.