Also known as Airborne Wide Area Persistent Surveillance Systems (AWAPSS), this unique capability allows system users to focus on virtually any activity, incident, and person of interest in motion across the target city in real time. This contrasts with airborne video systems traditionally seen on drones or “spy planes,” which have a narrow field of view, because they can only zero in telescopically on individual targets one at a time. WAMI provides substantially better, more contextual situational awareness over larger areas more quickly for better decision-making when it counts.

How does Wide Area Motion Imagery work?

Currently, WAMI systems are typically mounted on military or intelligence aircraft – a plane, helicopter, moored balloon, and/or unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) – with links to ground personnel in order to download images and other data for processing and analysis. To do that, the cameras and computing hardware necessary to collect and convert the vast number of images city-wide into real time, full-motion video (FMV) need to be miniaturized and multiplied to address size and weight constraints. In addition, making use of so many images requires new, more advanced image integration software using graphics processing units (GPUs) that can quickly and efficiently weave together enormous numbers of pixels from multiple sources into clear composite images.

Who uses WAMI systems?

Compared to other surveillance systems, Wide Area Motion Imagery is a recent development that only became productively useful in the late 2000s.Advances in photographic, computing, and networking technologies at the time produced significantly better quality at lower cost, which accelerated more widespread use. Initial work in this category has been for military use in conflict areas, giving C4ISR teams and other decision-makers hyper-detailed wide area visualization capabilities to continuously gather contextualized insights into adversary activities and potential threats at very high resolution. This has already improved situational awareness enough to make threat response significantly more precise and, in so doing, capable of reducing both military and civilian casualties in urban and other complex conflict areas. To date, the growth in use of WAMI systems has been by U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) branches, particularly the U.S. Army. However, it is assumed that near-peer potential adversaries of the U.S., including China and Russia, are attempting to mirror or go beyond the DoD advances in its WAMI systems.

Aside from military and intelligence uses, a few beneficial uses for WAMI could include:

  • Law Enforcement by enhancing abilities to better see and respond to emergencies, public safety situations, criminal activities, terror attacks, weather- and event-related traffic conditions. Officer performance can also be tracked.
  • City & Utility Services such as tracking and analyzing usage and service patterns related to roadways, ports and ferries, public transit systems, tunnels, water and sewage infrastructures, cyber and electrical grids, and natural gas lines.
  • Disaster Management, giving search and rescue teams more comprehensive and real-time views of areas before, during, and after they are impacted by fires, floods, landslides, explosions, crashes, collapses, and tsunamis.
  • Environmental Sciences, monitoring activities in remote arctic, maritime, and wilderness areas, parks, mountain ranges, river deltas, nature preserves, industrial zones, and islands. Can also be used to track and report on natural and man-made problems in clear, actionable detail.
  • Interstate Transportation Systems, especially monitoring major air, sea, rail, and/or highway facilities that cross state borders or abut related facilities in neighboring states to secure against undesired travel, shipping, or warehousing activities.

What challenges does Wide Area Motion Imagery need to overcome?

A number of key considerations must be addressed for WAMI systems to be used – and accepted – in more widespread and consistent use around the globe, including:

  • Technological Improvements. A number of newer, more advanced systems have made sensing, camera, data processing, and communications systems much higher in quality, smaller in size, and lower in cost, but development needs to continue across more platforms in more environments.
  • Legal and Privacy Implications, including potential violations of individual civil liberties in non-conflict, civilian environments. Discussion of trade-offs between security and personal freedoms will continue, but smarter, wisely-implemented WAMI technologies can help address these issues.
  • Security Issues to prevent data communications attacks designed to hack, steal, and use opposing WAMI data to aid criminals or adversaries. Securing communications systems in every environment across all platforms requires technological expertise and resources that can provide over-the-horizon solutions quickly and dependably, requiring the right defense technology partners.

Wide Area Motion Imagery has already largely delivered on the vision of those in the defense industry who pursued its initial development, but its improvement has increased exponentially as the sensor, photography, and processing technologies at its heart have advanced. These systems are also now the base technology for a growing number of other platforms, including satellites and space vehicles, especially as camera sizes have continued to shrink. Given their strong appeal across the defense and intelligence communities, it appears that advantageous partnering with WAMI systems leaders will continue even as the complex questions about how much surveillance the world is ready to accept is debated.


This information page is provided as a service to our readers by BAE Systems, Inc., a U.S.-based world leader in aerospace, defense, power, and intelligence solutions. Learn more about us here.

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