Air Force Global Hawk Shifts From Military to Life-Saving Humanitarian Missions

Warrior Maven

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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Buildings had collapsed, people were dying while others called for help, trapped beneath rock and debris, all while needed communications networks for rescue efforts malfunctioned … following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

Somehow, many lives were saved and many others recovered while earthquake-ravaged Haiti embarked upon a lengthy rebuilding period. One lesser known element of this is that, as part of the relief and recovery efforts, U.S. military war drones were used for extensive surveillance of damaged areas to support rescue efforts and generate high-resolution imagery for response planning.

Interestingly, an Air Force report from 2010 describes how RQ-4 Global Hawk drones surveilled damaged airport areas to find specific, safe landing sites for relief aircraft.

“We’ve got pretty good coverage of the entire country of Haiti,” (former) Col. Bradley Butz, 408th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing Vice Commander said at the time in the Air Force report.

As a communications ISR platform, something like the Global Hawk must have provided vital connectivity in Haiti, given that first-responders were forced to operate with impaired or non-functional communications networks. As part of the disaster relief, the Global Hawk helped provide images to members of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division who were deploying to Haiti to support relief efforts. Video from the Global Hawk also quickly helped those performing damage assessments to know where, specifically, damage had occurred by comparing post-earthquake images with images from before the disaster.

U.S. Air Force Global Hawks also took off from Guam in 2011 and helped survey damage and perform relief missions during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Part of the effort included surveillance needed to secure the safety of Japan’s nuclear facility. As an unmanned system, Global Hawk provided disaster response leadership an option to assess damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant without potentially exposing aircrews to harmful radiation as the facility began to experience a meltdown. This sort of platform flexibility draws attention to a perhaps overlooked benefit of unmanned systems – execution of critical surveillance missions without unnecessarily exposing humans to risk.

"The Global Hawk is an ideal ISR asset to aid in disaster relief," Retired Gen. Gary North, former PACAF commander , said in a 2011 Air Force report. "It directly complements ongoing efforts in the region and represents how advanced technology can provide crucial and timely support to senior officials and search, recovery and disaster relief efforts."

In this and other missions, the Global Hawk was able to leverage its endurance to sustain lengthy missions and beam back real-time video of key relevance to relief efforts. The added endurance of the Global Hawk, Northrop Grumman developers explain, enables the drone to quickly shift from humanitarian missions to military surveillance operations mid-mission should that be needed.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University

There are a variety of interesting military technologies engineered for the Global Hawk which may have proven useful for Haiti relief efforts following the devastating earthquake in 2010; of course EO-IR cameras could perform video imaging functions and beam back real-time feeds from disaster areas to ground control stations where human decision-makers could respond rapidly. As an unmanned system, Global Hawk did not have to accommodate pilot fatigue or schedule requirements and can therefore stay airborne for more than 34 hours, a circumstance which may have been useful in Haiti as it could have helped lessen the risks and burdens placed upon manned helicopters patrolling the area.

Also, in a manner that may have contributed to crucial life-saving efforts, Global Hawk infrared cameras would have been able to detect a heat signature emitting from an otherwise undetectable human body lying beneath concrete and rubble. Such sensor precision could have enabled rescue workers with cranes and other rescue equipment to try to locate survivors.

Infrared sensors of the Global Hawk were, in fact, also used in 2007 to help the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention by providing firefighters with a more complete and accurate picture of the wildfires.

“Unmanned aircraft like the Global Hawk provide extremely detailed infrared images to the National Interagency Fire Center to help better coordinate firefighting efforts,” (former) Maj. Gen. Hank Morrow, Air Force North, said in a 2007 Air Force report.

The Air Force’s Global Hawk drone also uses a Synthetic Aperture Radar, a technology which sends a forward electromagnetic “ping” to the ground and then analyzes the return signal to produce an image or rendering of the ground below. This technology can prove particularly significant in circumstances wherein rain, fog or clouds could obscure any kind of standard view from an EO/IR camera. Radar signals travel through clouds. The Global Hawk also utilized Ground Moving Target Indicator, a sensor which detects ground movement. While typically used to locate and track things like the movement of enemy armored vehicles, tactical trucks or other ground assets, it certainly seems feasible that GMTI might be able to detect relief vehicles moving on the ground in key areas and therefore function as an information relay “node” connecting otherwise separated rescue command centers potentially unable to communicate.

Interestingly, advances in autonomy, manned-unmanned teaming, sensing and computing might position a Global Hawk drone in an even more advantageous or helpful position today, should its military technologies be called upon for some domestic crisis or civilian disaster. Modern sensor cameras are not only longer range and higher fidelity than they were in 2010, but also much better networked and computer enabled.

For example, advanced on-board computer processing might be able to leverage advanced AI-enabled algorithms to process, organize and analyze incoming sensor data in order to discern key moments of relevance among hours of video feed surveillance data to expedite disaster response. Multi-node drone to drone and drone to manned aircraft connectivity is an area of emerging technical progress which might also streamline and accelerate information sharing, meaning rescue or relief workers might much more quickly learn of crucial development during a fast-evolving disaster scenario.

After reflecting upon the suite of technologies contained in a Global Hawk, it does not seem difficult to envision a wide range of non-combat scenarios wherein they might prove to have a decisive impact. For example, stranded survivors might need to be found during a massive flood, a mission possibly performed by Global Hawks to free up manned helicopters for rescue operations. Furthermore, many disasters such as floods, wildfires or hurricanes can span large swaths of territory, a circumstance which might make it difficult for manned platforms to sufficiently cover or patrol at-risk areas. Operating at high altitudes up to 60,000 feet for over 34 hours at a time, a Global Hawk might be positioned to efficiently blanket otherwise “un-coverable” or “unreachable” disaster areas. Perhaps the largest impact may simply be explained, quite simply, in terms of “time.” The faster a survivor is found...the faster a fire is contained or the faster damaged areas can be analyzed and determined … the faster more lives can be saved.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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