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Geospatial Apps at Hand

April 2012
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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The Enhanced Quality Image Search (EQUIS) app, which was developed by the National Reconnaissance Office and is maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), can pull down commercial satellite imagery from NGA-hosted servers for use on mobile devices. Users in the field then can view and annotate these images on simple handheld units such as smartphones or tablets.

Government is looking to team with industry for serving mobile devices.

Handheld mobile devices will be the next delivery vehicles for geospatial intelligence if the agency responsible for processing and delivering the vital information has its way. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency already has developed apps for a variety of different mobile platforms, and it is working with the commercial sector to expand the menu it is about to offer to individual users in the field.

The existing apps encompass diverse functions such as team situational awareness, video networking, aviation facility information and incident reporting. They can serve local requirements for networked users or provide information on a global scale for individuals. These in-house apps are only the leading edge of a greater flood that the agency hopes to unleash to provide both data and advanced services to customers in the field, both for government and for public use.

Ben Tuttle is the Geospatial Intelligence Advancement Testbed apps team lead with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA’s) InnoVision Directorate. His is one of three teams within the agency that is developing mobile apps. In an exclusive SIGNAL Magazine interview, Tuttle explains that the NGA is delving into apps so that it can empower first responders, security forces and military personnel to be able to use NGA assets to carry out their missions in the field.

While the NGA always will feature traditional desktop systems that perform the “heavy lifting” of geospatial intelligence, Tuttle believes that much of that capability is shifting to the user. This would permit individual customers in the field to perform analysis that traditionally has been the purview of agency experts in offices.

“We’ll still have those folks behind the scenes supporting big efforts and doing the things that you can’t do [in the field], because obviously the phones aren’t going to be able to do everything,” he allows. “But, we are going to see a shift of not just more data, but actually more analytic capabilities in the hands of the field users.”

Tuttle continues that the NGA is beginning to explore the prospect of conducting analysis on handheld devices. The holdup is the slow speed of the mobile units. However, that speed is increasing steadily, and the next generation of devices may be twice as fast as current models. That speed may be fast enough to serve requirements such as quick geospatial routing tasks, he offers.

At the top of the list, the NGA wants mobile apps that can work in a disconnected or intermittently connected environment. That capability would be important to virtually all of the agency’s customers, Tuttle says. This type of app would have to be reliable and stable as well as synchronously capable of uploading data to the server and downloading updates from the server when it re-attains connectivity. And, this capability would need to be autonomous. A user cannot be required to shepherd the mobile unit through this process, he emphasizes.

Most of the apps the NGA is focusing on center around situational awareness, Tuttle says. The goal is for users to be more aware of what is happening around them so that they can make better decisions in the field. The first beneficiaries likely will be first responders, particularly those dealing with natural disasters. They are a big target for the apps that the NGA is building right now, he offers. Not only is this an easy group for deploying capabilities rapidly, they also do not require sophisticated security systems.

The next generation of apps will go to military personnel in the field. Serving these customers will require advanced apps with effective security, so that work will take longer. And, at the heart of that challenge is standardizing data formats.

Tuttle’s group currently is working on several apps for NGA customers. One, known as GLIMPSE, provides live secure streaming video for multiple parties across a small network. GLIMPSE works over both short and long distances, he points out, and it also has an operations center component. Deployed into a disaster area, it can allow video feeds from its phones to be fed to the operations center. Other field users can select which stream to view by selecting the site where a phone is located.

Another app that may be released to the public is the Antishipping Activity Messages app, or ASAM. This provides a map-based display of data published by the NGA’s maritime safety group. This mobile app works on Android and iPhone, and brings all of this data to a phone so that a user can see where the marauding activity is taking place. It displays piracy events by placing the image of a small skull and crossed swords on the map at the site of the event.

One advantage of this app is that it can work disconnected from the data stream, Tuttle says. This way, a boater in a hazardous area need not have full-time connectivity. Once the data is downloaded, it will provide vital information to the user accessing it on the smartphone regardless of network access. The information will be accurate as of the time of downloading.

For military pilots, an app from the aeronautical safety group consolidates reams of charts and aeronautical data sheets into digits. Currently, pilots must take with them several pounds of paper charts and other information such as airstrip specifications. The charts must be replaced every three months, which results in a large generation of paper products that repeatedly are replaced. This new app eliminates both the weighty documentation and the large volume of disposable paper products—and, it saves a considerable amount of money on printing and shipping, Tuttle notes.

Currently named Phaero, the aeronautical app is in beta production. It has 300 users now, and its engineers hope that number will jump exponentially with its adoption by the services.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has developed the Enhanced Quality Image Search (EQUIS) app, which is maintained by the NGA. It can pull down commercial satellite imagery from NGA-hosted servers for use on mobile devices. Users can perform annotations on this imagery in the field, and they can submit their annotated products back to other analysts in an office. Tests have shown that the time from collection to imagery on the device has been as short as 45 minutes, Tuttle reports.

The biggest app hurdle facing the NGA in its app development is the problem of conflicting standards. Many of the existing geospatial information systems (GIS) apps are built by individual agencies or services to suit their particular needs. These apps often are not compatible, in large part because of different data standards. The result is that users may need to download the same data from three different sources to make their apps work. So, the NGA wants an app architecture in which a user downloads data only once for the apps to work.

The agency wants customers to be synchronizing on standards that would ensure identical data formats. All of the agency’s apps should be able to read from one set of data regardless of an app’s originating agency. “If the Army writes an app; if the NGA writes an app; if the Navy writes an app; if the Coast Guard writes an app; and if FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] writes an app; then you wouldn’t have to download a data set from each of those agencies to make those apps work,” Tuttle posits. “Right now, we don’t have that. It’s a free-for-all in which everybody is using what made sense to them at the time, so we’re trying to pull people together across the government community and the vendor community as well. There is no point in our trying to come up with a standard if the vendors are not willing to support it.”

Some interoperability issues apply even to individual device types. Tuttle notes that some different Android devices have standardization issues, particularly in light of how different vendors may alter Android before they release their devices to the general public. This affects how an app will work, he notes, and that issue is the topic of discussion among NGA officials and vendors. Possible solutions range from forcing everyone to buy the same Android device to stripping down the operating system so that an app will work on all devices.

Tuttle says that commercial vendors are engaged substantially in working with the NGA on resolving app issues. The agency has held two app summits with industry over the past year. The first event featured 85 attendees viewing demonstrations of five apps. The second event, which was held in February, counted 215 people with 12 apps on display. These commensurate increases of about 150 percent took place over only eight months.

These summits have helped because the agency is consulting with, not informing, the vendor community, Tuttle offers. “We brought them in on the ground floor. We didn’t go out and build up this giant standard and then go to them and say, ‘What do you think; we want to use this as the standard.’ We’re inviting them in at the starting point to give us their input as well.”

The NGA brings together high-level policy officials from different agencies, as well as lawyers and developers, into these summits. Now, the agency is considering a developer forum that would allow more basic discussions of how to develop and implement apps securely and rapidly.

Tuttle continues that large firms such as Google have expressed interest and are working with the NGA. However, not all government players have joined the effort. That remains a challenge, he says. Often, other people in different agencies want to start developing apps, but they do not know how to begin.

For data transmission protocols, the NGA largely is sticking with Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards. Other functions involve more proprietary standards, but the agency is pushing for a more open approach along the lines of OGC standards to access the proprietary data sets. One option might be to place a front end on an existing protocol, which would not require an entire overhaul if the format changes. The goal would be to keep standards modular and flexible.

Security is another area in which the NGA is looking toward its commercial partners for solutions. The need is for both apps and devices to be secure, which is a requisite for successful app deployment. Just as the NGA is seeking commonality between government and the commercial sector on apps, it also is taking the same approach with security. “If we’re all re-implementing security our own way, there are going to be flaws and there are going to be holes,” Tuttle points out. “So, we need a standardized security solution that everybody is going to be able to use, that’s going to get the job done and that we know is going to do it right.”

These app efforts represent a paradigm shift, Tuttle allows. “We’re moving from a process in which things used to cost more and take longer, and people have gotten comfortable with that. We’re turning the boat upside down by doing things that are inexpensive and fast, and asking people to respond to that in terms of accrediting these apps and standing up the resources to provide for them.

“So it is a big shift for all of us, but we are rising to the challenge, and we’re trying to get these apps out the door,” he declares.