Magazine Article | August 2, 2013

The Role Of COTS Hyperspectral Sensors On Tactical UAVs

By Christopher Van Veen, Headwall Photonics

Commercial off-the-shelf sensors offer key size, weight, power, and cost benefits for high-volume, low-altitude tactical platforms.

Technical instruments developed initially for military and defense applications tend to be quite adept at meeting mission objectives but are also very expensive to develop and deploy. While the proverbial “$10,000 toilet seat” often performs no more capably than one purchased off the shelf, the point is well taken and reasonably accepted when it comes to specialized imaging and sensing equipment. Sensing instruments must perform their tasks with utmost precision, so multi-milliondollar price tags have been accepted as the cost of doing business. However, instrument manufacturers are successfully challenging this approach with highperformance hyperspectral sensors designed for lowcost, high-volume program deployments.

As the Department of Defense (DoD) moves into an era of constrained budgets and financial sequestration, it has become readily apparent that steep prices — for anything — will be difficult to justify and support. Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) sensors thus become much more attractive, especially as these readily affordable instruments equal and sometimes exceed the performance of well-known multi-million dollar systems. While sensors such as Raytheon’s ACES-Hy have found a home aboard a few midaltitude aircraft and UAVs for the benefit of key strategic missions, these sensors are not viable in terms of unit cost or SWaP (size, weight, and power) constraints for higher volume, low-altitude tactical platforms. In an era of competing financial resources for multiple programs, low-altitude UAVs — such as L-3’s TigerShark and Insitu’s ScanEagle and Integrator platforms — can be deployed with high-performance COTS hyperspectral sensors that satisfy mission objectives at much lower per-unit price points.