Kestrel tracks moving objects in digital video clutter

Published on: March 2018

More than 1300 deployed for defence and civil operators

Sentient Vision’s Kestrel Moving Target Indicator system is a story of Australian ingenuity developed with Federal Government encouragement to solve a pressing problem.

Originally designed for unmanned systems operations, Kestrel is a software solution that interrogates the digital feed from airborne electro-optical surveillance cameras and infrared systems and autonomously detects small moving objects on land and small objects on the ocean’s surface.

With the ability to detect, track and highlight objects as small as two pixels by two pixels on screen, the system can also store and transmit precise location information and track multiple vehicles or moving objects at once. It effectively provides sensor operators with an extra pair of eyes, immune to fatigue or confusion, freeing them from the need to study each and every square metre of land or sea for contacts.

Developed partly through a Defence Science and Technology Capability and Technology Demonstrator Program, Kestrel’s first major deployment was aboard the Royal Australian Air Force’s Heron medium altitude unmanned aerial system in Afghanistan in January 2011.

In more than 15,000 hours of service with the Australian Defence Force in the Middle East, the system quickly developed a reputation for identifying multiple threats that would normally be missed by the human eye. By using a digital algorithm to identify objects it reduced the workload of sensor operators, allowed them to search larger areas on a single sortie without worrying about missing targets, and provided critical data that could be saved and transmitted to others in theatre.

“Before Kestrel, the forces on the ground were relying on human operators to literally watch full-motion video and detect operational threats,” said Simon Olsen, Director of Business Development,Strategy and Partnerships at Sentient.

“With Kestrel, threats and issues were suddenly more clear. The observer peering at a digital video shot from an aircraft thousands of feet in the air may not notice armed insurgents in the shadows alongside a road with a Coalition convoy approaching, but Kestrel would.”

It could also track and highlight the half dozen moving vehicles seen by an unmanned aircraft, offering a digital picture of their intentions that may not be so obvious to the naked eye. Kestrel’s “breadcrumb” mode, named for the trail of breadcrumbs children’s fairy tale characters Hansel and Gretel left to backtrack through a forest, can show operators the path a contact has taken to reach its current position.

The system works equally well on live or saved video, allowing real-time decision making with a mission in progress and post mission analysis that can show the presence of vehicles and objects that went unnoticed on the sortie. Downloaded as a software licence, Kestrel adds its detection ability to existing sensors without expensive refits or replacement.

Understandably, demand followed. By September 2016 Sentient Vision had delivered more than 1000 Kestrel licences to customers involved in maritime patrol, search and rescue, law enforcement and military operations. By late 2017 that number had risen to more than 1300, buoyed partly by an announcement that the Australian Defence Force would include Kestrel on its new AeroVironment Wasp AE for Army’s Small UAS (SUAS) program under Project Land 129 Phase 4.

The system has also been deployed as part of the sensor suite on aircraft such as the P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, IAI Heron medium altitude UAV, Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout rotary wing UAV and Insitu ScanEagle, plus the UK’s National Police Air Service helicopter and fixed wing fleet.

Sentient has optimised versions of Kestrel for use with different variants of manned and unmanned systems, for law enforcement operations and for exploitation systems that process feeds frommultiple airborne platforms.

“The key to Kestrel is its flexibility,” Simon Olsen said. “It can be used on virtually any airframe from small UAS to manned maritime patrol aircraft. It can be a standalone system, or it can be integratedin to a mission system, as CarteNav did with its AIMS-ISR® on-board mission system for the UK National Police Air Service.”