As a new decade dawns, the geospatial landscape is illuminated with optimism and excitement. The challenges ahead, though monumental, appear surmountable. The defining era of GEOINT has come to a close. Now is the time of its evolution.
“Change is the only constant in life,” the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said. The truth of this maxim is hard to dispute, let alone live by. To embrace change as the natural order of things requires adaptability and flexibility—not only to admit what worked yesterday may not be the best way today, but also to proactively seek better methods to refine or streamline one’s approach.
Speed is another variable exacerbating the challenge of change. The breakneck pace at which so many things are changing today, driven by technological advancement, makes it difficult to get ahead when it’s tougher than ever just to keep up.
To embrace change, be adaptable. To keep pace, be nimble. To evolve, be both. Easier said than done, but it is with these ambitions the GEOINT Community, rooted in a synergistic partnership between the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is poised to go above and beyond and show the way.
DRIVERS OF DIVERSIFICATION
Dr. Troy Meink, NRO director of Geospatial Intelligence Systems Acquisition (GEOINT), is responsible for the execution of all national geospatial intelligence satellite systems acquisitions within the NRO.
“Over the next decade, you’re going to see a lot of change to how we’ve done business in the past,” Meink said. He identified three challenges motivating this metamorphosis.
First, the NRO is being asked to do a lot more than ever before. Missions are evolving quickly and it is imperative to keep pace. Second, the potential adversaries the U.S. may face in the future are evolving rapidly as well. And third, space is a contested environment.
“These challenges are driving us to be more flexible and look at more diversified architectures,” Meink said.
An essential component of that diversification is provided through commercial partnerships. It goes beyond commercial remote sensing though, Meink said. “How do we work with a broader set of commercial partners to integrate the innovative technology we’re seeing across the community into our systems? That’s where we’re headed and that’s what we’re focused on.”
As the NRO is asked to do more, Pete Muend, NRO director of the Commercial Systems Program Office, said, “We’re going to be asking the U.S. domestic commercial remote sensing industry to do a lot more as well. We’re really excited about the future and how they can contribute to our mission, consistent with our policy of buying commercially wherever we can and then building where we have to in order to meet harder problems.”
THE GEOINT SINGULARITY
NGA’s perspective on the themes defining the decade ahead resonates closely with that of the NRO’s. David Gauthier, NGA director of Commercial Business Operations, referenced the “GEOINT Singularity,” a concept put forward by Josef Koller in The Future of Ubiquitous, Realtime Intelligence: A GEOINT Singularity. In the summary of his exposition, Koller writes:
A scenario, coined the Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Singularity, is a future where realtime Earth observations with analytics are available globally to the average citizen on the ground providing a tremendous wealth of information, insight, and intelligence… These developments will likely not be contained within the U.S. but will be a worldwide phenomenon.
Gauthier shared his views on the drivers toward this potential singularity. “One is ubiquitous observation, driven by the small sat and GPS revolutions. We’re seeing more and more commercial entries into the market. More and more governments are getting involved. And it’s all basically pointing toward this idea…that we will be observed every moment of every day from space or from other location services.”
Another theme more specific to NGA’s operations, Gauthier said, is an increase in ready-to-consume analytic services. “We can no longer be focused on purchasing pixels alone, we need the commercial market to provide analytic services that we can consume.”
Third, geospatial services are getting more personalized, Gauthier said. “It used to be that only a big government could create and provide a geospatial capability. But now, with so many smaller-scale services available and easy to access, we’ve seen commercial apps and other things that let an average consumer enjoy the power of GEOINT.”
All three of these themes have a common thread: commercial.
“The government is trying very hard right now to be innovative in many ways,” Gauthier said. “But there is certainly, in a competitive market, an inherent drive to innovate to survive.” With more operators in commercial remote sensing than ever before, there have been unexpected and unanticipated innovations, Gauthier said. “That’s fantastic. We benefit from their cycle speed at bringing those things into operation. We really do partner closely with the commercial market for those reasons.”
Frank Avila, NGA director of the Discovery and Assessment Office, agreed. “The explosion of innovation and the speed of the innovation that is happening, it’s really exciting,” he said. “We’re extracting so much intelligence from the data that we’re collecting today, information that we didn’t think was possible just a few years ago.”
NRO and NGA partnerships with commercial imagery and service providers will continue to grow and strengthen in the years ahead, for a number of reasons.
“What’s going on in the commercial remote sensing world and commercial in general is critically important to us,” Meink said.
Muend explained, “There are many advantages to leveraging the capital efficiencies the commercial market brings. For one, we don’t have to bear the total cost of development and operation of those systems.”
It is more cost-effective to purchase from commercial providers because the costs are spread across a wider customer base. “We get more for the same amount of dollars,” Meink said. “We can support more of our users for the same cost, which is obviously important from a taxpayer perspective.”
The other big advantage of partnering with industry is tapping into its innovations.
“They’re able to move very fast and roll in new technologies,” Meink said. “With the rapid rate of change to keep up with the missions we’re being asked to do, commercial companies have a tendency to be pretty good at that. And we want to take advantage of that innovation.”
“We want these companies to be successful and commercially viable,” Muend said. “Their success enables us to be more successful.” To that end, later this year NRO plans to award a number of operational commercial imagery acquisition contracts.
Leading up to this milestone, NRO has awarded several study contracts with companies to assess their current and future capabilities to meet rigorous national security and defense.
Regarding the current and future needs of NGA, Gauthier sees raw commercial imagery as a resource, and compared it with GPS. “There are so many different apps now that rely on the GPS signal to do something value-added to improve our lives every day. We’re consuming the apps, not the underlying GPS signal. And we see commercial imagery heading the same way.”
There is a fundamental need for imagery and raw data to be available on the market, he said. “We expect any company who wants to provide analytic services to go get access to the raw data and come up with an innovative recipe to deliver something that’s mission relevant to us.”
MACHINE-ASSISTED DATA TRIAGE
Addressing the whirlwind of innovation and the deluge of new data, Avila said, “One of our biggest challenges is how do we handle the volume of data, not only imagery but other information that’s now available to us?”
As a growing challenge, NGA identified the need to address this a few years ago, according to Gauthier. “We put together a strategy for automation, augmentation, and artificial intelligence— what we call triple A.”
NGA will rely increasingly upon automated capabilities in the years ahead in order to triage the scale of data coming in, Gauthier said. Machine learning automation has been successful in specific areas. “We are seeing the proliferation of many specific use cases of machine learning helping us across the board as machine assistants in GEOINT production.”
Avila offered a glimpse of the potential future, “That’s the environment we want to get to, where we have automated tools triaging the imagery at night before the analysts come in. When we know what we’re looking for, the analysts can focus their attention on specific things that they should be looking at.”
Training the machines, the algorithms, to know what to look for is the real task to fully enable automation. Meink succinctly stated, “There’s simply no way to do all of this stuff manually anymore. It requires automation. It’s going to have a massive impact.”
Bernard Brower, L3Harris Technologies director of Artificial Intelligence, Space and Airborne Systems, expressed a similar view. “We need to leverage AI to do some of the things that humans are doing today. Otherwise, the advantage of having all of these sensors will not be realized if we can’t extract all of the relevant information from the data they’re collecting.”
Thinking beyond data processing automation, Brower predicts a future of intelligent sensor autonomy where drones or small sats equipped with onboard processors will detect something of interest and then tip-and-cue other sensors to take a closer look—all on their own.
“Getting the AI algorithms closer to the sensor is going to be a game-changer,” Brower said. “The systems themselves are going to be able to change their tasking based on the information available.”
THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE
Another big change anticipated for the GEOINT Community over the next decade is the evolution of the workplace environment toward greater openness and faster collaboration between industry, government, and academia.
“We see a lot of demand for us to be operating at an unclassified level,” Gauthier said. “If that’s where many of the data sources are growing and many of our users are living, that’s where we should be as well.”
Avila pointed to commercial analytic services as an example. All of that data is distributed in an unclassified environment, he said. When this data has value toward operational use, a decision will have to be made. “Does it make sense to do the heavy lift and move all of that data up to a classified level? Or can we use it at the unclassified level to consume it at the speed we need to? Because every time we have to move something up, it takes time to do that, which can take away from the value of some of this data.”
In late 2019, NGA broke ground on a new facility in north St. Louis, with plans for it to be that evolved, collaborative environment of the future by the time the 97-acre campus opens in 2025.
“That we’ll be creating a campus for GEOINT at this scale speaks volumes to the staying power of geospatial intelligence and the demand for our goods and services.” Gauthier said.
“I’m hopeful we’ll see an explosion in the use of geospatial data through collaboration with industry and academia,” Avila said. “Innovation is going to increase by being able to operate more openly in that kind of an environment. We have pilot-tested the art of the possible—soon, we will be able to do it at a greater scale.”
Muend added that because of the global nature of geospatial intelligence, both NRO and NGA also anticipate greater collaboration with foreign government mission partners. “Intelligence is a team sport; now more so than ever,” he said.
THE FLEXIBILITY OBJECTIVE
“Change is hard,” Meink said. “The entire community has realized we’re going to have to evolve more quickly than we have in the past. The good news is that, from the executive branch to Congress, we’re getting a lot of support and flexibility in meeting these challenges.”
“There is an awakening to understanding place and time in context as a new standard for complex decision-making,” Gauthier said. “And people are finding geography more relevant in the way that they consume and use data.”
“We understand all of these commercial companies have different goals,” Meink said. “They’re in different places within their own evolution, have different cultures, different technologies, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to our interactions. We are really trying to be flexible so that we can do what’s best for them and for the government.”