While UAVs have joined spy satellites as an indispensable part of America's military operations, they are not the end-all-be-all perfect solution, even in coordination. That's why DARPA plans to supplement these unmanned intelligence gathering platforms with jet-deployed constellations of micro-satellites. Soon, every grunt will have access to a real-time battlefield mini-map just in like video games.
Spy satellites and UAVs alike suffer from the same problem — availability. Sure some UAVs in the US arsenal can remain airborne for the better part of two days while providing focused area coverage but they eventually have to refuel which leads to intel coverage gaps. Orbiting satellites don't need to refuel but their operational windows — and therefore the wide area imaging they are able to provide — are limited by their overflight schedule (the amount of time they're actually overhead). When combined with information flow restrictions through the chain of command, actually delivering fresh, tactical intel can be a challenge. In response, DARPA has set about creating a hybridised, tertiary level of intelligence gathering that leverages the relative strengths of both technologies and delivers that information directly to the troops that need it most urgently.
"We're putting near-real time data where the warfighter needs it — directly into their hands — and providing them with vital, tactical intelligence they can control," said Tom Bussing, vice president of Advanced Missile Systems at Raytheon Missile Systems in a press release.
Last December, DARPA awarded Raytheon a $US1.5 million contract for Phase One development of the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) project. SeeMee will utilise constellations of micro-satellites to provide soldiers with accurate satellite imaging of their precise location within 90 minutes. Each SeeMe satellite will measure about a metre long, 30cm in diameter, weigh around 11kg, and carry a $US500,000 price tag. Two dozen such satellites would be shot into very low orbit via fighter jet (DARPA's hoping to eventually use the Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) for these deployments) and remain overhead for 45 days to three months before completely burning up on atmospheric reentry.
"SeeMe is a logical adjunct to UAV technology, which will continue to provide local or regional very high-resolution coverage, but which can't cover extended areas without frequent refuelling," DARPA program manager Dave Barnhart told United Press International (UPI). The project has just gotten out of the design phase so there's no timetable yet for deployment but Raytheon is reportedly already building a half dozen prototypes for Phase two testing.