The Big Deal About Small Satellites and Big Data

April 17, 2017
By Sandra Jontz
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The cannonade of small satellites hovering above the Earth is creating a dilemma for government and industry alike: how to process enormous amounts of data sent to the ground. 

Collecting information isn’t the hard part, nor is transmitting it, experts say. What vexes intelligence analysts the most is not being able to make heads or tails of petabyte upon petabyte of data. But the government seeks help from the commercial world to make that happen.

The saturation of Earth observation satellite constellations is the catalyst for a massive paradigm shift in the geospatial intelligence community that is fueling growing demand for imagery and automation technology to help analysts glean actionable intelligence, said Anthony Vinci, director of plans and programs for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). 

“Sometimes you need people to come in from an entirely new direction to develop technologies and ideas,” Vinci said during his keynote address on Thursday, April 13, at the conference Powering GEOINT Analytics: Big Data from Small Sats. “There is an entirely new class of data information that we can access to do our mission.” The conference was sponsored by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) and hosted by the NGA at its headquarters in Springfield, Virginia.

The NGA has been making a big push to embrace more commercial solutions, as it did when the agency awarded a $20 million contract in September to Planet, which designs, builds and operates small satellites. The partnership provides the NGA with global imagery, refreshed every 15 days, of most of the Earth’s landmass. Known as the Planet Feed, this service is being used across the National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) and by select members of the civil federal community. “Improving our profession means further committing to the use of innovative capabilities being developed and deployed by commercial data providers and analytic companies for mission accomplishment,” NGA Director Robert Cardillo said at the GEOINT May 2016 Symposium. “Our commercial space partners will provide meaningful, higher revisit capabilities ... and we look forward to turning their exciting potential into our mission reality.”

The proliferation of commercially supplied satellite imagery has given rise to a new discipline promulgated by U.S. Southern Command, which is devoting efforts to what team members have dubbed COGINT, or the merging of commercial and open geointelligence, said Maj. Mike Little, USA, deputy chief of the GEOINT division of the Joint Intelligence Operations Center. The command established incubation teams to rapidly operationalize emerging commercial GEOINT innovations to produce disruptive and high-value geoanalytics and geo-enabled automation.

COGINT panelists at the recent conference  highlighted cases in which the combination of automation tools used to scan open source commercial satellite images alerted analysts to anomalies or changes, such as military ship buildups at ports of interest or runway repairs to airfields used by drug smugglers. Analysts might not always know precisely where to focus attention to glean required intelligence, but analytics can help in their missions, offered Terry Dyess, COGINT team leader and operational planner.

To complement small satellites, the geospatial intelligence environment needs innovation in big data analytics and automation—akin to the permutation of apps that transformed how drivers get their traffic reports. Updates once provided by helicopters hovering over gridlock now are offered in real time via traffic applications in the hands of drivers with smartphones, Vinci said at the daylong conference that explored partnerships between government, industry and academia to tackle big data issues stemming from small satellites.

Throughout the event, experts emphasized that automation will help analysts, not replace them. Today, analysts can spend some 80 percent of their time sifting through data rather than analyzing it to give decision makers the details they urgently need.

Finally, finding and then understanding the hidden nuggets of intelligence within data is as much a driver of innovation as the need to safeguard information, experts at the conference said. The satellite environment is just as susceptible to cyber attacks as any other environment, especially as more data migrates to the cloud, they concluded.

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