There are a variety of interesting military technologies engineered for the Global Hawk drone which may have proven useful for Haiti relief efforts following the devastating earthquake in 2010; Electro-Optical/Infra-Red 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 thirty-four hours. This kind of durability 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 artificial intelligence-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 means the faster more lives can be saved.
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.