Commercial Imagery Aids Afghanistan Operations

December 2001
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Orbital eye spies serve multiple roles.

The U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency is purchasing commercial remote sensing imagery, some under exclusive use agreements, to support operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Applications can range from mission planning and rehearsal to battle damage assessment and humanitarian airdrops.

The agency is exploiting imagery through two approaches. One approach draws on contracts with commercial remote sensing companies established before the onset of operation Enduring Freedom. The other approach is built around an exclusive agreement with a high-resolution imagery company for all regional Afghanistan data acquired since the beginning of military operations there.

This imagery may be tailored to mission-specific products as well as shared with other nations and nongovernmental organizations. Its nonclassified nature allows the agency greater flexibility in both use and dissemination of raw data and finished products.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), Bethesda, Maryland, has contracts with imagery companies such as DigitalGlobe, Orbimage, Space Imaging and Spot. These firms feature satellites that may offer different types of products and resolutions. Their remote sensing systems also feature areas of coverage that are broader than those of national technical assets, which makes the commercial systems more useful for a macroscopic view of an area of interest. And, some firms have the capability to deploy mobile groundstations so that tactical users in theater can directly download vital imagery in real time.

Thomas A. Hennig, NIMA commercial imagery program manager, explains that many of the agency’s image-based products can be supported by commercial imagery. The agency’s many different customers in the U.S. Defense Department have diverse needs.

“When we look at commercial imagery, we look to it because of the things that are unique to it—such as being unclassified and having the ability to generate unclassified products,” Hennig relates. In a situation such as operation Enduring Freedom, commercial imagery clearly gives NIMA the ability to generate unclassified products that can be shared with coalition partners, he points out. These partners can range from close allies participating in military actions to nongovernmental humanitarian relief organizations.

“[Among] other things that are unique about it is the ability to collect imagery in the multispectral domain,” he continues. This multispectral capability has been tapped in the past for tracking terrain changes such as mudslides, volcanoes and other terrain-altering events that would require humanitarian relief. These capabilities easily can be applied to events unfolding in Afghanistan.

Many military requirements in operation Enduring Freedom can rely on commercial imagery, Hennig asserts. For mission planning, experts are able to combine orbital imagery with other topographical data to generate realistic three-dimensional fly-through simulations for pilots. The commercial image is used as a display base on which information, such as political boundaries and other artificial features, from varied sources is overlaid. The resulting comprehensive image can serve a range of decision-making applications. Officials may employ this type of product for logistics decisions or route planning, for example.

This three-dimensional product becomes especially useful for low-altitude operations through Afghanistan’s rugged terrain. Air crews are able to train extensively and improve their proficiency dramatically before even leaving the ground. This capability applies both to delivering munitions on military targets and to delivering humanitarian aid to Afghan refugees.

Officials can employ commercial imagery for a macroscopic look at a theater of operations to help determine logistics needs and solutions. This broad overview, combined with multispectral capabilities, provides operational planners with a greater perspective of the unique challenges posed by Afghanistan’s terrain.

Even battle damage assessment can be performed by commercial remote sensing platforms. These assessments tend to be of targets and after-effects that are clear-cut and easily visible, Hennig allows. Commercial data is useful “if the damage is significant enough to show change within the spatial resolution of a particular commercial system,” he explains.

Targeting applications are limited, however. In many cases, commercial imagery just does not provide the accuracy needed for U.S. forces to employ precision-guided munitions “in some of the more stringent activities,” Hennig notes.

NIMA is not having any difficulties in obtaining commercial imagery for the Afghanistan operations, despite the fact that some of the commercial remote sensing imagery providers are foreign-based firms. “We’re doing business as usual” with the commercial imagery providers, Hennig declares. These include DigitalGlobe, Orbimage, Space Imaging and Spot.

Space Imaging, for example, is providing NIMA with imagery from multiple sources. Along with 82-centimeter color imagery from its own Ikonos satellite, the company has licensing agreements for the 5-meter Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) system, Kodak and Landsat 5.

The agency is not merely relying on its existing commercial contracts, however. It has signed an assured access agreement with Space Imaging to ensure a continued supply of that company’s Ikonos imagery. This satellite is capable of returning 1-meter panchromatic and 4-meter multispectral imagery, which geospatial image processing can combine to provide what is effectively a 1-meter multispectral image (SIGNAL, March, page 16).

NIMA’s agreement with Space Imaging gives it exclusive access to all Ikonos imagery of the Afghanistan region collected during operation Enduring Freedom. The more than $1.9 million contract establishes that Space Imaging “will not sell, distribute, release, share or provide” the imagery for any other entity. Actual purchase or delivery of data will cost the agency $20 per square kilometer in a license agreement that permits NIMA to distribute the imagery among the Defense Department, coalition forces, U.S. government groups, international partners and nongovernmental organizations. NIMA also has the option to purchase and obtain ownership of data at a cost of $0.01 per square kilometer.

This agreement ensures that the agency has access to all imagery of the area that is required to support operation Enduring Freedom. The pact can be renewed on a monthly basis by agreement of both parties, according to a NIMA official.


John Copple, chairman and chief executive officer of Space Imaging, explains that this assured access contract is different from the company’s existing license agreement with NIMA in that it applies only to Ikonos imagery. This agreement took effect October 7, and its exclusivity applies to all Ikonos data from that region collected since September 11.

Copple continues that the company initiated the discussions that led to this agreement with NIMA. The agency began purchasing imagery to update its geospatial information under its regular contract after the attacks, but by October 1 the company realized that its customer was acquiring huge volumes of data. Copple relates that both organizations had begun discussions in August on how to guarantee NIMA access to large volumes of imagery priority purchased piecemeal from Space Imaging. These discussions on providing a volume discount were coupled with the agency’s desire for top-priority access to Space Imaging’s remote sensing data. The result was the assured access agreement.

The company has made some adjustments to speed delivery to its warfighting customer. Copple relates that the firm has increased its capabilities for retrieving imagery from its remote sites in Sweden and Alaska. It has boosted the bandwidth in its C-band capabilities so that it can return a larger volume of data.

Many of Space Imaging’s regional affiliates are among operation Enduring Freedom coalition partners, and this gives them access to the Ikonos satellite. Some of the company’s groundstations are in areas that could prove beneficial to the operation. These include sites in Shadnagar, India; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Neustrelitz, Germany.

The next step in imagery delivery to NIMA may be to provide direct downlink capability to warfighters in the field. Space Imaging recently took possession of a tactical mobile groundstation built under contract by Raytheon. It consists of a 43-foot self-contained trailer complete with its own generators. The trailer and its satellite downlink antenna can be transported on two C-130 aircraft, and discussions are underway for deploying it to the theater of operations.

The U.S. Air Force’s Eagle Vision system, which draws from Spot’s imaging satellite, provides commercial imagery directly to the theater customer via a mobile downlink station (SIGNAL, March, page 25). NIMA’s Hennig allows that, to the best of his knowledge, this system is being utilized.

Echoing Hennig’s remarks about the utility of commercial multispectral imagery, Copple explains that the color imagery offered by Ikonos serves many agency needs. One is to broaden the capabilities of image interpretation. For example, in a peaceful suburban neighborhood setting, a color image clearly shows a swimming pool that might otherwise blend into the scenery in a panchromatic view. In a rugged setting, color imagery easily defines the difference between a dirt road and a paved one. In a military setting, camouflage can be more readily distinguished from natural vegetation.

The company has been producing some of NIMA’s geospatial information products from Ikonos data, under existing contracts, for the agency’s clients. This involved employing the company’s own geospatial data for the final product. These products are not part of the operation Enduring Freedom assured access agreement, however, which involves only Ikonos imagery.

Copple notes that the company is looking at incorporating some military-tailored capabilities into its next-generation Ikonos satellites. These orbiters, slated for launch around 2005, are being designed to provide 0.5-meter panchromatic and 2-meter multispectral imagery on the same bands used for the current orbiter.

The company has offered to integrate unique capabilities for the U.S. government into these new satellites. This is contingent on the government’s entering into a use arrangement prior to deployment. These unique capabilities could involve both remote sensing and data downlink, Copple allows.


Future Satellites Promise Greater Glimpse of Warfare

The use of commercial remote sensing imagery in warfare portends changes both in warfighting capabilities and in the security of operations. Combat forces now have a new asset to tap for providing high-quality unclassified data rapidly. On the other hand, the battlefield is becoming increasingly transparent as more countries—and organizations—have access to this data from a rapidly proliferating number of orbital sources.

Space Imaging’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Copple allows that, as more countries deploy commercial high-resolution remote sensing satellites, military planners must incorporate the presence of these capabilities into their planning.

“The impact on the military needs to be clearly understood, and we’re able to model that and create policies right now as a result of Ikonos,” he says. “In the not-too-distant future, there will be another country with a high-resolution system flying.”

Copple continues that military planners will have to assume that adversaries will have some form of access to high-resolution imagery, either archived or contemporary to a conflict, from satellites that are not under U.S. control. “That condition must be factored into our future strategies,” he maintains.

The Ikonos monopoly on commercial 1-meter satellite imagery ended during the early days of operation Enduring Freedom. DigitalGlobe, one of the companies with which NIMA has contracts for purchasing commercial imagery, launched its newest satellite on October 18. The firm’s QuickBird orbiter is designed to provide 0.70-meter panchromatic imagery when it completes its calibration and commissioning in mid-January. Other companies, including overseas concerns, are poised to enter the high-resolution market over the next two years.

NIMA has been purchasing commercial remote sensing imagery for some time. Now, the new high-resolution commercial systems allow the agency to complement its government imagery. Copple relates that this use of commercial satellite imagery signifies that the agency is beginning to implement the commercial imagery strategy that has been developed over the past few years.

“The government has determined that commercial sources are feasible to use for its geospatial information database requirements,” Copple continues. “What they have done as a part of operation Enduring Freedom is to go forward and use the imagery to support their geospatial requirements. Operation Enduring Freedom accelerated [the commercial imagery use strategy] and started the process much earlier.”

NIMA has been one of Space Imaging’s largest customers, for which Copple allows that the agency receives priority from the company. U.S. national technical assets, however, tend not to grant priority status to requests for imagery applied to geospatial applications. Ikonos imagery usually is delivered within 24 hours of collection.

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