Intelligence Gathering Meets Information Overload

In 2007, the Air Force collected ca. 24 years’ worth of continuous video from Predator and Reaper unmanned drones in the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq, a fact first reported by the New York Times in the last few days.

Shall we drone on?

Shall we drone on?

All video collected is watched live by a team of intelligence analysts, so this translates into ca. 24 years of analyst team time being used in one year.

The amount of data (and the amount of time spent watching the videos) will only grow as more advanced drones are deployed that can record video in ten (with future plans for up to 65) directions at once instead of the one direction that is currently supported.

The use of  UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) is not only an expanding phenomenon in the military but also domestically as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and local police forces begin to use these tools.  The advantages are clear: pilots are not in danger, intelligence gathering capabilities are improved, and the ability to conduct strikes in remote areas is enhanced.

There are of course myriad issues that the use of UAVs for military operations present, ranging from humanitarian arguments that drone missile strikes are more likely to result in civilian casualties to political considerations about where they can operate, as seen in recent disagreements with Pakistan.

Complicating and contributing to these issues is the huge problem of how do deal with the flood of information that drones are returning to the analysts.

Mistakes such as falsely identifying threats can lead to unnecessary and potentially tragic civilian casualties, which could then inflame international public opinion and impair the ability for the military to operate effectively.  Likewise, missing a real threat because of Information Overload could also lead to fatalities.

The use of these tools will only increase, making it critical that we develop systems to organize, parse, tag, and act upon the data that is collected in an effective manner.  The Air Force in particular is working on this problem, but will have to move quickly to stay ahead of the mountain of incoming data.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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