INTELLIGENCE ALOFT

King Airs carry ISR equipment to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

ASSI teams with Stevens to outfit KA350s with sensors. Customers for SkyEye aircraft are in the US and overseas.

By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo. Challenger 604,
Bell 222/412, Eurocopter AS350B3


This is the prototype Beech King Air 350 that ASSI and Stevens worked on to develop the various types of ISR sensors and their location such as FLIR, searchlight and cameras for ISR use. Aircraft is parked on the Stevens ramp at GSP (Greer SC). Belly pod houses most of the ISR gear.

ISR, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, 3 essential components of the war we've been fighting since the world changed forever on Sep 11, 2001. For those dedicated to their demise, hunting terrorists who hide in the harshest, most remote regions of 4th world countries has become a complex, 3-dimensional game of cat and mouse.

The mission is a challenge because sensor systems in use up until 2001, designed to track vehicles, aircraft and ships, cannot track the new enemy, 1 or 2-man Al Qaeda units carrying AK47s or hand-made bombs. And the aircraft that carry them have difficulty communicating with the wide variety of new-generation combat radios in use by today's ground troops.

A different sort of sensor was needed, something other than radar, that could track individuals day or night with sufficient clarity to determine if they are carrying weapons or bombs. The answer: infrared. More precise than radar and more easily packaged for airborne operations, infrared sensors can image a single person on foot from altitudes sufficiently high that the target has no idea he is being watched.

FLIR

FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed)Systems, in Wilsonville OR, supplies a product line of highly efficient infrared sensors. Mounted in a spherical container that protrudes downward from the fuselage of an aircraft, the FLIR unit scans the earth's surface and generates images of anything or anyone whose temperature varies from that of its surroundings.

In the current product models, the image is digitized from the sensor raw data, and can be viewed realtime on a computer monitor, recorded on digital medium and transmitted anywhere in the world via datalink. The images are sufficiently precise that the surveillance operator can clearly see anything the target may be carrying: weapons, explosives, or anything else that might be a threat.

FLIR units also carry a highly sensitive camera that can produce a sharp, full-color digital image of a person on foot from an altitude as high as 15,000 ft. This is the electro-optical (EO) component of the sensor package.

Sharing the intelligence requires up-to-date airborne communications systems that can select from any of a diverse group of secure frequencies used by operators from military and paramilitary organizations the world over, and at the same time communicate with command centers sometimes thousands of miles from the aircraft.

The frequency bands include VHF and UHF spectrums transmitted via line-of sight (LOS) radios, or microwave and satellite-based systems for over the horizon, or Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS).

King Airs work well for ISR over wide areas

FLIR System StarSAFIRE 380HD IR-EO Sensor in its stowed position for takeoff and landing. In flight the sensor is electricallly extended for surveillance operations.

The battlefields spread over millions of square miles of desolate territory all over the world. Those hunting Al Qaeda need dozens of aircraft that can move easily to remain involved with rapidly shifting conflicts.

In response, the US Army and the Air Force have begun adding to their fleets of Beechcraft King Airs and equipping them with EO/IR sensors along with satellite and other heavy duty communications systems. While the Army has long operated small units of special mission RC12 King Airs, their numbers have increased significantly to support the war on terrorism.

But, with this conflict spilling over into dozens of different locations, police and military organizations of a number of nations have joined the fight. And many of them are woefully short of ISR-equipped aircraft.

Airborne Surveillance Systems Inc and Stevens Av

Mission work station includes 2 LCD 19-in monitors. Maps, IR and EO images as well as input from the mission operator are displayed on monitor screen and can be recorded for later playback.

Mike Donahoe, a corporate officer of Airborne Surveillance Systems Inc (ASSI), spoke about his company filling the gap. "We saw a need in the burgeoning ISR marketplace for a cost-effective ISR platform that our allies hunting terrorists could afford."

Donahoe went on to describe how some of the large companies in aerospace were developing ISR packages for smaller aircraft like the King Air. Through his many contacts within the Air Force and DoD he saw that he and the newly formed team at ASSI had an opportunity: use general aviation expertise and resources to, in a relatively short time, design and build an affordable ISR package.

They identified a large prospect base in the foreign military and police organizations that couldn't afford the expensive systems from large aerospace companies.

ASSI proceeded with the development of the ISR system and, thanks to the strong support of Stevens Aviation in Greenville SC, within 12 months of project startup had its first ISR King Air 350 in operation. They began flying demonstrations with the US military to validate the concept of a low-cost ISR system.

The King Air flew demo missions at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin CA with an Army battalion that was training for deployment to Afghanistan, and with Marine Special Operations (MARSOC) units at their mountain training base at Bridgeport CA in the Sierras and at MCAS Yuma. The airplane was then assigned to Vandenburg AFB to surveill a classified ICBM missile launch.

Donahoe described a significant tactical benefit of their ISR system. "UAV data, the predominant source of tactical intel these days, is streamed to a command center where analysts review it, looking for signs of enemy activity. Then, after they've done their analysis, they inform the appropriate command authority, where they decide on a course of action.

We simplify that process, because the analyst is in our airplane, observing the data in real time. Once he identifies enemy activity, he analyzes it, and then communicates his findings directly to the command authority, in essence, removing a step in the process and generating a more rapid response."

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