Tuesday, September 13, 2005

An Airborne ARCHER

Last night I was at my Civil Air Patrol squadron meeting and learned about a bit of science fiction that has become reality. We've all seen episodes of Star Trek and other science fiction shows in which a sensor operator runs a scan of a planet's surface and locates a lifeform or an object hidden on the surface. This is actually a very, very difficult task. The competing problems are resolution versus area scanned. If you want to have a high resolution, you generally can't scan from very far away, so you have difficulty covering a large area. The Civil Air Patrol, in conjunction with the Air Force and a number of other agencies, has begun testing a system called ARCHER, Airborne Real-time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance. This is a hyperspectral imaging system that measures the intensities of visible and near infrared light in fifty-two different spectral bands coming from the ground. This spectral signature is compared to a library of spectral data (such as that from humans, vegetation of various types -- including drug plants, aircraft hulls, roads, etc.). The onboard computer analyzes the data and creates a real time multispectral image of the ground, detecting anomalies (such as a downed aircraft) or searching for pre-targeted spectral signatures. In effect, it works exactly like those Star Trek sensors. While CAP doesn't propose to use it for this, the near infrared portion of the spectrum can also be used to measure the mineral composition of rocks on the ground -- we can do a Star Trek plantary geology scan. The whole system is carried aboard a general aviation aircraft only slightly larger than the Cessna 172 I fly.

It's a pretty amazing system, and even more amazing to see a staple of science fiction coming to real life. They are taking applications for 160 training slots for the system, so of course I've applied. As I've mentioned in previous essays, the ability to draw experiences from life is essential to dynamic writing. Where else can I get the feeling of being a sensor operator onboard the Enterprise? I went through the on-line introductory training and took the screening test (which also involved an essay -- being a writer is handy), so we'll see if I manage to snag one of the spots. Given that I have a background in hyperspectral imaging through my work with the Mars program, I think I've got a decent shot. Time will tell...

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