May 17 2007

In Focus

Air Force command plans storage system to improve speed of access to and analysis of battlefield images.

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Keith Reed has taken photos for the Defense Department for 27 years and knows a thing or two about photography. Reed’s nearly three-decade career taking pictures for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and now the Air Force has taught him a salient lesson: Professionals who make their living from their camera gear need equipment that’s up to the task, especially combat photographers and videographers who must operate in demanding wartime situations.

There’s a huge difference between professional-grade camera gear and equipment for amateurs, says Reed, who believes the biggest change he has seen over the years has been the transition from film to digital format. Digital cameras have put the power to take great photos and videos into the hands of combat photographers and videographers, who influence life-and-death battlefield decisions.

“With digital, we can get high-resolution end products to decision-makers and war planners in real time to better enable the warfighters to carry out their missions,” says Reed, chief of multimedia services for the Air Combat Command (ACC) at Langley Air Force Base, Va. In his role, Reed must make sure the latest and greatest technology is at the disposal of 400 of ACC’s multimedia professionals deployed around the world.

Meeting the Need

The command provides on-demand images and multimedia services to support U.S. warfighting commanders, who look to ACC as the primary source for air combat forces — including fighter, bomber, reconnaissance, battle management, and electronic combat aircraft, as well as command, control, communications and intelligence systems and global information operations.

To support its mission, ACC’s combat photographers and videographers work alongside airmen around the world capturing battles and deployments as they unfold and providing images and multimedia information that influence military operations. Their activities include tactical reconnaissance, forensic photography of war crimes and historical documentation, covering the full spectrum of air and space functions.

The photographers and videographers capture digital images of bomb damage, weapons fragments and other sights of interest to military analysts and war planners to help determine whether or not weapons have worked as designed on their intended targets. Commanders and Air Force officers use the images to assess the performance of weapons systems and aircrews with an aim toward improving weapon accuracy and tactics.

“We do all the purchasing of multimedia equipment for ACC and are trying to standardize what photo, video and graphics tools are used across the command,” Reed says. “We go out and research what the latest and greatest technology available is that will allow us to do our jobs the best that we can as photographers, videographers and graphics specialists — at 16 bases and 22 operating locations globally.”

In the field, ACC combat photographers and videographers use Hewlett-Packard nw9440 notebook PCs as multimedia hubs to download files from their cameras and edit images before sending them to commanders or back to headquarters for later analysis.

“We need to deploy anywhere and operate in the field. Because we’re doing imagery and video and because of the size of the files, we can’t document in the field and then run back to a rear operating location,” says Reed. “With the HP notebooks, with fast Intel Duo Core processors, our users can operate in the field, load their images and video footage, clean it up as they need to, and have it ready for production wherever they are.”

Managing the Data

The digital format that the command’s photographers and videographers use requires large storage capacity. Image files and video files, in particular, tend to gobble up hard disk space. That’s why ACC is creating a new digital infrastructure for its data storage needs using components and software from EMC.

The command is installing a networked storage system built around EMC’s CLARiiON CX3 UltraScale series of storage arrays. Reed says it will be a cost-effective way to meet ACC’s performance demands and data requirements. A single CX3 Model 20 array scales seamlessly from five to 120 disk drives for a maximum capacity of 59 terabytes of data; a CX3 Model 40 scales to 240 drives for 119TB. Both the CX3 20 and 40 provide four 4-gigabit-per-second host connections and support up to 128 dual-connected hosts. The CX3 architecture supports storage area networks using either Fibre Channel or Internet Small Computer System Interface connections.   

The CLARiiON systems will meet the storage and data transfer needs for a wide range of ACC’s data-intensive and high-bandwidth applications, Reed says. They also let his team manage the loading of images and streaming video to ACC’s multimedia Web site.

Recording the Action

To upgrade its cameras to best fit ACC’s multimedia mission, Reed has bought hundreds of Nikon D2X professional digital SLR cameras, the successor to Nikon’s D1X.

“The Air Force has a long history with Nikon. Their quality is second to none, they are well thought out and they are very durable,” he says. “We need that durability because we’re not taking pictures in a photography studio. We’re out shooting in the desert and other inhospitable environments.”

Over the past few years, much of the digital photography shot in Afghanistan and Iraq by Air Force combat photographers has been taken with Nikon’s D1H and D1X digital cameras. Both the Nikon D1H and D1X (released in 2001) are professional digital SLR cameras that are fast and well-built and offer high image quality. In recent years, Nikon has upgraded and improved the image quality and raw speed of its digital cameras, among other features.

Nikon’s 12-megapixel D2X replaced its 6-megapixel DX1. The D2X’s CMOS sensor packs 12.84 million pixels into a 23.7-by-15.7 millimeter area. In addition to higher resolution, other improvements include a new 11-area AF module (Multi-Cam 2000), 37-millisecond shutter lag and just 80-ms viewfinder blackout, an ambient external WB sensor, an orientation sensor, RAW + JPEG format, a huge 2.5-inch 230,000-pixel LCD monitor, a new lightweight Lithium-Ion battery (with detailed in-camera readout) and USB 2.0. The D2X also has Nikon’s WT wireless transmitters, either the WT-1 (802.11b) or the WT-2 (802.11b/g).

“We went with Nikon’s top of the line, the D2X. Sure, we could have bought more D1s, but there’s the resolution issue and the capability of installing the [Global Positioning System] settings and other things that have made it worthwhile for us to move to the D2X,” says  Reed. “One of the capabilities we also bought with the new D2X is that we have a transmitter on the camera, so as we shoot images they are transmitted immediately to a decision-maker or end user that can access the pictures in a timely manner.”

For the command’s videographers, Reed bought Panasonic P2 AG-HVX200 cameras. The P2 AG-HVX200 has the capabilities of Panasonic’s high-end Varicam HD camcorder but with the size of its AG-DVX100. The HVX200 features multiple HD and SD recording formats, variable frame-rate shooting capability — from 12fps to 60fps in 720p mode — and support for P2 flash media.

A media switch on the HVX200 selects whether the camera records to DV tape or a P2 card, and a door under the viewfinder has two slots for P2 cards. Weighing about 6 pounds, the solidly constructed HVX200 is about 2 pounds heavier than the DVX100, making it a more durable handheld-style (as opposed to shoulder-mounted) camera, Reed says.

“No other camcorder in its class offers the capabilities of the HVX200, and no camcorder in its class serves as a more valuable tool in the hands of our videographers,” he says.

Shooting video and digital images at night is a requirement for ACC’s photographers and videographers. To ensure that photographers can get images in dim or pitch-black conditions, ACC uses Electrophysics’ AstroScope night-vision photography system, which converts high-end SLR and video cameras into high-performance, night-vision systems that can provide bright, high-resolution imagery in low light. The AstroScope bracket assemblies are specifically designed for professional-grade, fixed-lens camcorders, such as the Panasonic P2 and Nikon SLR cameras, to produce high-quality video and images under demanding conditions.

“Night vision enables our warfighters to see what the enemy doesn’t want us to see,” says Reed. “The AstroScope has special adapters that go on the Nikon digital cameras and high-definition Panasonic video cameras that help us own the night for surveillance and other applications in austere environments during nighttime operations.”

ACC photographers took these images recently in Kandahar, Afghanistan.