America to trial high-flying vehicle spotter

US defence research agency DARPA is preparing for tests of a system that uses airships and unmanned planes flying at heights above 20km to pinpoint and track vehicles as they travel along busy city streets.

The trials will be part of the second phase of the Large Area Coverage Optical Search While Track and Engage project. Under a DARPA contract worth $22m, UK-based research firm QinetiQ will spend the next three years continuing development of a sensor system designed to provide persistent tactical surveillance and precision tracking capabilities.

DARPA wants the resulting technology to be capable of continuously tracking large numbers of moving vehicles in dense urban areas with a high degree of accuracy. This means sensors need to be small and light, but have high resolution and sensitivity.

QinetiQ's solution is based on adaptive coded aperture imaging, a new camera technology it believes will have a wide range of applications in defence, security and industry. The technique draws on several elements of the company’s technology base, combining leading edge micro electro mechanical systems, optical and sensor physics, signal processing, image recovery, tracking techniques and systems engineering.

“It is an example of a new wave of disruptive, computational imaging systems that offer orders of magnitude improvement in mass, size, economy and performance when compared to conventional sensor technologies," said Dr Chris Slinger, principal investigator on the LACOSTE programme.

QinetiQ is working on LACOSTE with Goodrich ISR Systems, will be responsible for designing the optical system, assisting with architecture development, and performing laboratory and flight testing.

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