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Imagery Agency Lends a Hand on Reach-Back

January 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
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At-home databases amass information while processing and service have moved into the theater.

Flush with voluminous databases of varied geospatial imagery and data, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency is equipping its customers with both reach-back capabilities and on-location expertise. The agency is tapping diverse sources of digitized imagery and terrain data so that it can generate multidimensional products for customers at all levels of government and the military.

Both agency employees and contractors are being deployed to help customers in the field acquire the exact geospatial intelligence product to suit their requirements. When needed, telecommunications networks provide links to extensive databases stocked from sources ranging from national technical assets to commercial airborne photogrammetry. And, to increase the pool of data and offer new products, the agency has begun to expand its agreements with mission partners, foreign governments and commercial providers to create and share geospatial intelligence.

Thomas K. Coghlan, director of analysis and production at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), Bethesda, Maryland, explains that, “organizationally, we’ve gotten much flatter and emphasized the collocation of imagery and geospatial analysts. This has allowed us to leverage their skills and create fused products and services.

“We think geospatial intelligence becomes the foundation upon which other intelligence can be applied, since most everyone and everything has to be somewhere.”

NIMA’s product delivery and service have evolved from the concept of NIMA in a box (SIGNAL, October 1999, page 17). The agency now can provide the needed information in imagery and geospatial intelligence servers locally in theater before a mission. Users can download vital data locally and avoid bandwidth problems inherent in long-distance imagery transmissions.

However, the same data is available on NIMA’s networks, so many customers can download the agency’s latest products for their mission planning and execution. The agency has opened up access to commercial satellite and airborne imagery as well as to commercial geospatial information system data. Coghlan adds that NIMA is emphasizing the creation of a common digital infrastructure that will allow the agency to improve collaboration and move even closer to its customers.

A significant adjunct to that philosophy is the deployment of NIMA employees to the theater. Coghlan explains that these experts can provide invaluable assistance to customers as needs change during an operation. “If someone were to need specific data sets assembled to accomplish their missions, our people in theater can assist them in doing that,” he relates.

“We used to view the various mapping and imagery intelligence disciplines as unique and separate,” Coghlan relates. “Today, there is a far greater emphasis on fusing the products to achieve a visualization of the Earth and the environment we are dealing with.” This includes a determination to fuse NIMA information with that of other intelligence disciplines to provide unmatched situational awareness.

New imaging systems currently on the drawing board will include the opportunity to fuse multiple sources of data, either during collection or on the ground, Coghlan continues. Ground-based systems are undergoing adaptive work to bring together multi-INT fusion. Collocation activities, previously concentrated within the organization, now have expanded to include other U.S. intelligence agencies. The aim is to maximize the benefits of each discipline’s knowledge and expertise, he adds.

This collocation has allowed the agency to break down impediments to product fusion. Coghlan notes that NIMA currently has geospatial analysts and cartographers working with imagery analysts to solve problems collaboratively. The disciplines help enhance imagery to produce a product that provides more information on the environment of interest, he says.

Another element is NIMA’s use of commercial satellite and airborne imagery. “This gives us a much more robust environment from which to work,” Coghlan offers. “It is no longer an issue of scarcity—it is now an abundance of collection, and now we have the opportunity to move more effectively into a fused assessment of what exactly is going on.”

The agency constantly works to remove humans from the loop for efficiency. Nonetheless, the human presence in theater is not likely to disappear completely. “There is a risk element associated with having one of our employees or contractors in the field, and so we are interested in how technology can help us minimize that profile to a low-risk standpoint,” Coghlan imparts. “However, until we get to ubiquitous availability of knowledge-based systems, human beings still offer the best ability to evaluate and understand the problem and to determine, from the richness of the data that we have available, what is the best presentation for the customer.

“Until limitations can be overcome, a knowledgeable geospatial intelligence analyst in the field will be of value to our customers. It is too much to expect of our customers for them to become geospatial intelligence analysts themselves, as it is quite an advanced discipline,” he states.

The broad-based shift to network-centric warfare is affecting NIMA’s products, Coghlan offers. NIMA is adapting to the U.S. Defense Department’s network-centric model because it removes the need for the agency to limit its products for file compression or to thin out its data sets. The network-centric environment allows NIMA to transmit its products to their users rapidly, and it also permits the agency to provide the customers with the necessary software to exploit this information.

NIMA is leapfrogging much of the network-centric planning that remains to be installed, Coghlan continues. The agency has outfitted a number of its forward-deployed personnel with satellite communication links that can introduce data directly into the theater command center.

The service transformations now underway in the Defense Department have had a “positive accelerating effect” on the changes that NIMA wants to make, Coghlan notes. The drive toward digitization is the single most dramatic aspect. As each of the services changes its doctrine to train and operate in a digital environment, NIMA can move its production processes along with them. The transformations also emphasize using common commercial standards, interoperable platforms and intelligence sharing. This offers other advantages, he continues.

“We can benefit from the ability to create data one time but reuse it for many purposes,” Coghlan adds. For example, NIMA used to produce a product known as the combat chart, which involved the generation of a topographic line map as well as a coastal nautical chart. The same data collected for each of these two subproducts would be collected again for the combat chart. Not being able to reuse the nautical chart and the topographical map was a waste of time and effort, he relates. Now, however, the agency’s collection of geospatial information allows it to generate these types of products from existing data.

“While the creation requires a heavy up-front investment, the reuse aspect means we aren’t burdened with unnecessary costs of revisiting the same piece of real estate each time we create a specialized product,” he emphasizes. In addition, the defense transformation improves the timeliness of NIMA’s response as well as creates the ability to employ modern communications for real-time geospatial intelligence delivery.

The more detailed products that NIMA is generating tax the agency’s ability to deliver them. The increased demand for greater density in agency products can be found in many places, such as for urban warfare. Coghlan relates that NIMA is looking at ways of using software techniques to alleviate the problem.

One possible solution may emerge from the gaming industry. Coghlan allows that some software packages being built in that industry may permit draping available information, such as map data or imagery, over buildings to create a more realistic environment for customers. This would allow users to immerse themselves into the environment virtually for increased understanding.

“Many of our customers would like to have the environment presented to them as the gaming technology does—as if you were in that environment space and understood exactly what you were going to deal with or are dealing with,” he offers.

NIMA also is examining ways to sample rich data sets that would allow collecting the data automatically. “It is not an effective or efficient way to collect this [data] using a human being in the old standard ways,” Coghlan states. “We’re trying to find ways to use both a combination of software and available data sets to provide the needed information.” He continues that, within the United States, utilities and municipalities have collected “a richness of information” that U.S. government and local authorities could leverage to a greater advantage than is available in many overseas locations.

Contractors currently provide more than 50 percent of the agency’s productive capacity, and Coghlan explains that NIMA uses them to provide expertise the agency lacks as well as to augment in-house expertise during surge situations. Examples of valued contractor expertise include cartographers to create data; imagery and geospatial analysts to provide products and services; imagery scientists to improve procedures and methods; and administrative officers to facilitate operations. “Quite simply, without them we would be far less productive,” he declares. “For this reason, we like to consider our contractor employees to be full members of the NIMA work force. They are critical to our success.”

The agency also is looking for a number of different technologies to emerge from the private sector. Software is at the top of the list, and Coghlan notes that previously high-end software and hardware products are migrating to more common operating systems and platforms such as Microsoft Windows-based Intel machines. This reduces the entry barrier for many potential customers, which in turn allows them to exploit NIMA data more powerfully. For example, scene visualizations created by draping maps or images over elevation matrices once were the exclusive purview of the simulation community. Now, many inexpensive software packages provide a robust ability to visualize imagery in three dimensions or to drill down in displays. This capability, once limited to high-end workstations, now reaches down in some cases to laptop computers.

The overbuilding of the global commercial telecommunications infrastructure also is working to NIMA’s benefit. Inexpensive and reliable communications are becoming prevalent throughout the world, which reduces the agency’s time line to respond to customer requests while simultaneously providing access to previously unavailable rich data sets.

Coghlan cites as an example the global terrain radar data collected by the space shuttle on its STS-99 shuttle radar topography mission in February 2000. The shuttle mapped 80 percent of the Earth’s surface to a standard of 30-meter post spacing, which is defined as digital terrain elevation data level 2. Experts estimated that producing a concentrated program to generate this data using conventional means would take 20 years, but the space shuttle mission allowed NIMA and NASA to generate the data in five years at one-tenth of the conventional cost.

This ability to capture feature data and its associated attributes “is the big tall pole in the tent” for NIMA, Coghlan maintains. Continued human growth and expansion ensure constant changes in earth features, and the agency must capture these changes in considerable detail to maintain currency in its databases. Many customers want even more detailed information such as vegetation or soil conditions, and the agency wants to be able to collect this information automatically without a human analyst in the loop, he explains.

Research continues into new technologies to enhance the agency’s capabilities. One example that Coghlan cites is automatic target recognition that would be used to queue imagery to the analyst. Fusing this new sensor data to create improved models of the Earth is another goal. Other efforts aim at expanding the envelope on new sensor technologies as well as new methods of speeding geospatial intelligence processing and delivery. The agency also is looking at having far more robust coverage of the Earth, the lack of which Coghlan describes as one of the agency’s Achilles’ heels.

For the foreseeable future, NIMA will rely more heavily on geospatial contractors to provide it with data, Coghlan predicts. The agency will find itself compelled to operate in a virtual environment with analysts forward-deployed into the customer’s footprint anywhere in the world. A modest but still-effective core of personnel will reside in the agency’s production centers. NIMA probably will remain the same size, but with some growth in the analytical field. The agency also will be making heavy use of available sensors, especially those in private industry. This will permit provision of unclassified data to customers. And, NIMA will continue to use the full suite of national and tactical capabilities from airborne and satellite sensors.