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Hyperspectral Imaging Helped Kill Osama bin Laden. But What the Hell Is It?

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Killing ol' OBL wasn't just the work of SEAL Team 6—the beyond-badasses had a cadre of support staff backing them up behind the scenes, including classified hyperspectral imaging device experts. So, uh, what does that mean?


It's a way of seeing what the naked eye can't...

Hyperspectral means above or beyond the spectrum—in this case, the visible spectrum of light that our eyeballs use to make sense of the world. But when you're about to put your life on the line for the highest-stakes special operations mission in history, what nature gave us isn't going to cut it. When light bounces off of an object, we're only able to see a small sliver of it. But there's a lot of information hiding out there in the invisible natural world, and with the help of the right gear, we can exploit it to see people who don't want to be seen.

Advertisement taking a high-resolution photo of invisible chemical traits...

At its most basic, imagers like the ones deployed on the Osama takedown mission are digital cameras that "allow you to view a scene based on the chemical composition of the objects in that scene," explains David Bannon, CEO of Headwall Photonics, a hyperspectral imaging firm. It gives you smart eyes, able to decipher the material makeup of nearly anything—be it human, house, or tank. Take Bannon's example: camouflage netting is designed to hide people in visible light. But the netting itself ain't made of flesh—and using a hyperspectral imager, you can render that hiding spot useless, separating one chemical stamp from another. It's like Predator-vision on steroids.

...which give you extremely precise and valuable information in the dark...

Everything has a unique chemical fingerprint, and with hyperspectral vision, you can see it in the dark—when you're flying in at night to kill the world's most wanted man, you want to know what's down there waiting for you. As the SEAL team flew in on Sunday, every pixel of target imagery revealed a precise chemical ID, giving them an amazingly precise sense of what was down there. As the National Journal reports, the hyperspectral imagers used on the Osama mission were mounted on MH-60 Black Hawks, but the gear can also be found in space, on drones, or recon planes. Bannon says that hyperspectral gear varies widely depending on context—you pick the right sensor depending on what you want to see, just like a photog selects his lens—but that the most interesting part of the invisible world is what's called the shortwave infrared spectrum, between 900 to 2,500 nanometers. This slice busts open the most revealing details about who and what lurks in the night.


...that you can use to kill people more easily.

SEAL Team 6 needed super eyes. Eyes that slice outside of the visible spectrum, turning up invaluable information that only the full electromagnetic spectrum can provide. And on the night they killed bin Laden, they had just that. The exact kind of sensor that SEAL Team 6 packed along with them, and exactly how it was used, has the shit classified out of it, of course, but Bannon said their gear can be used to give a bevy of tactical advantages to commandos: target detection (who to shoot) tagging good guys with chemical markers (who not to shoot), sniper detection (where not to go), and even the material makeup of a structure. Want to breach a wall? You'll want to know what it's made out of before you try. SEAL Team 6 might seem invincible—and compared to us, they may as well be—but the tech that has their back is part of their superhuman killing prowess.