Called Gorgon Stare, after the ancient Greek creature whose gaze turned enemies to stone, the new airborne surveillance system can send dozens of live images to a maximum of 10 soldiers on the ground who would use hand-held devices similar in size to an iPad or Kindle. It could also transmit to analysts tracking enemy movements.
By contrast, current US air force drones shoot video from a single camera over a narrow area the size of a building or two. The new images can also be stored for later examination, and can be marked or tagged to highlight noteworthy movements of individuals, groups or vehicles.
"Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we're looking at, and we can see everything," Maj Gen James Poss, an assistant deputy chief of staff, told the Washington Post.
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The US has already dramatically increased its use of unmanned surveillance aircraft, quadrupling the number of flights since January 2009.
Maj Gen Poss however conceded that sound human intelligence on the ground was vital "context" for the use of video imagery.