An official U.S. Air Force photo depicts a drone on the ground at Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan with two, ahem, interesting pods under its wings.
The Aug. 18 image shows MQ-9 Reapers belonging to the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, one of America’s main drone units in Afghanistan. One of the Reapers—which the 62nd launches, lands and repairs, but which are remotely operated by pilots in the U.S.—sports two sensor pods, one under each wing.
These could comprise the latest “Increment 2” version of the rarely-seen Gorgon Stare system, which can monitor nearly 20 square miles at a time — the size of a small city — with its electro-optical and infrared sensors. Look closely at the official photo, and you can seen “EO” markings on one pod and “IR” on the other.
According to Sierra Nevada Corporation, the contractor that makes Gorgon Stare, the Increment 2 system “features two state-of-the-art imaging sensor turrets—an electro-optical sensor derived from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s ARGUS technology and manufactured by BAE Systems, and an infrared sensor integrating the largest IR arrays available manufactured by Exelis.”
With 1.8 billion pixels, ARGUS was the highest-resolution camera in the world when it first appeared in early 2013. ARGUS is composed of 368 five-megapixel smartphone cameras clustered together and peering through four telescopic lenses.
You can see Gorgon Stare in action at the 32-minute mark in PBS’ recent Rise of the Drones documentary, below.
The older version of Gorgon Stare also includes two pods—one carrying the camera, the other with networking and communications equipment. The original Gorgon Stare entered service in early 2011.
Air Force testers were unhappy with Gorgon Stare at first. In December 2010, the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, which ran the operational trials for Gorgon Stare, complained about the new sensors’ performance—specifically the relatively low quality of its video footage and glitches in the data link.
Nevertheless, the Air Force sent some of the $15-million Gorgon Stare systems to Afghanistan. Between March 2011 and July 2014, Increment 1 achieved “10,000 hours of direct combat support,” Sierra Nevada Corporation boasted.
The Air Force once had plans to install Gorgon Stare on a massive, robotic spy blimp called Blue Devil II. But the Air Force cancelled Blue Devil II in mid-2012. Today only the Reaper drone carries Gorgon Stare.
Increment 2 debuted in Afghanistan “earlier” in 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation revealed in July. The new system corrects some of Increment 1’s deficiencies, with four times the field of view and twice the resolution of the initial version.