Scientists at Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) are working with counterparts from the United States to demonstrate the capabilities of hyperspectral imaging for use by the Australian Defence Force.
Hyperspectral imaging exploits the unique spectral characteristics of targets to aid in detection and identification of materials.
DST scientist Tim Bubner said it was very hard to hide from these spectral sensors, which scan across multiple electro-optical frequency bands.
“While artificial camouflage does the job matching the surrounding environment in the visible spectrum, it actually can make you stand out in the other bands, if you can exploit them,” he said.
Mr Bubner’s team has been collaborating with a team from the US Naval Research Laboratories (NRL) for several years, honing skills in exploiting hyperspectral phenomenology and developing state-of-the-art sensor technology and systems for use in airborne surveillance.
“Hyperspectral sensing is unique,” Mr Bubner said. “Very seldom can you create camouflage that defeats all the wave bands that are accessible to us."
"In the past, hyperspectral sensors were predominantly used in the daytime, but a thermal hyperspectral sensor currently operating on DST’s Defence Experimentation Airborne Platform (known as the DEAP aircraft) gives us both a day and night time capability.”
Another advantage of this type of sensing is that it allows users to scan the environment accurately and silently from a safe distance.
Jonathan Neumann, an NRL scientist integrated with the DST team, said the partnership had been valuable for his team. “Very seldom can you create camouflage that defeats all the wave bands that are accessible to us. There are limits to what we can accomplish back in the US,” Mr Neumann said.
“DST Group nicely complements what our research is aiming to achieve. The partnership has included experiments of direct relevance to Australian and US Defence problem spaces, including supporting the Australian AIR7000 and US PMA290 programs.
“DST’s DEAP aircraft, which has flight-certified pods custom-built for mounting advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, was a key enabler for the program.
“Recent flight trials, including experiments in tropical North Queensland, were exceptional. The DEAP aircraft carried dual Reflective (daytime) and thermal hyperspectral payloads, enabling our respective teams to do everything necessary to support the trial objectives.”
A key focus of the research has been to demonstrate to Defence the unique capability that hyperspectral technology offers.
Keen to see the uptake of this technology, the experiments carried out by Mr Bubner and his colleagues have informed Defence of the wavebands, spectral resolution, pixel size and other parameters that should be considered when defining future capability options.
Underlying it all is an understanding that hyperspectral sensing is an evolutionary and complementary enhancement over high-resolution motion imagery video snapshots or video clips.
DST scientist Gavin Fowler said it was much more than just looking at a picture.
“Hyperspectral sensing provides an understanding of the target materials’ properties, which is not available from other imagery,” Mr Fowler said.
“We’re working with high performance thermal sensors and extremely long-range, short-wave IR (SWIR) hyperspectral systems for surveillance tasks, including maritime surveillance, target detection in cluttered environments, stand-off gas plume detection and overwatch.
The other real strength of our system is that it allows for automated processing.
“If we can retrieve the spectral characteristics of the target, analysts get a much better understanding of what’s happening on the ground.
“The other real strength of our system is that it allows for automated processing. You can have an on-board processor which can auto-detect, identify and geo-locate targets of interest. We’ve demonstrated automated stand-off detection of invisible gas plumes in near real-time and automated anomaly detection in the maritime environment.
“A main theme for us now is to promote how Defence can use hyperspectral sensing by showing how we can insert these products into an enterprise level situational awareness capability into the bigger picture. That’s the next big challenge.
“No sensor will provide all the answers but we’ve reached a level of maturity with these that allows us to say that if you had these sensors you could work out if that was a life jacket 'anomaly' at sea or a camouflage net in a natural hide, or that there is an invisible gas plume in this location.”
Mr Bubner said having Mr Neumann and his US colleagues embedded in the DST team at RAAF Base Edinburgh had been crucial.
“We’ve been doing real research work, side by side. The trust and friendship that builds up is critical to collaborative success. It’s been a classic partnership, allowing DST to build an indigenous capability that our partners can engage with,” Mr Bubner said.
“Because it’s been an integrated team, we’ve all been learning from each other. Everyone’s got such a variety of skills and experience – it’s a real melting pot of technologists, sensor operators, engineers, image exploitation experts and spectroscopy specialists.
"That variety of skills and expertise has allowed us to fulfil the outcomes we’ve been demonstrating.”