Satellite Images Capture Picture Perfect Future

March 2001
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Smile, you may be on space-based camera.

A combination of faster computing capabilities, lower cost storage and improved software is opening new markets for commercial satellite imagery in the 1-meter and, in the future, 0.5-meter resolution range. Although these images were once reserved for U.S. government and military uses, today a wide range of organizations is purchasing them to support their missions. From monitoring activity in other countries and creating accurate simulation models to mapping underwater environments, pictures taken from space have become a valuable tool and have ushered the world into what some have termed the age of transparency.

It is difficult to determine which came first, the technical capability to gather the satellite images more economically or the economic potential they possess. What is not as hard to envision are the numerous applications for black and white images that can show significant changes in the area around construction sites or for color pictures of undersea worlds. However, as the market for this technology continues to grow, a number of issues emerge. Today, most experts agree the benefits outweigh the risks.

Currently, Ikonos is the only commercial satellite capable of gathering 1-meter resolution panchromatic images, according to company officials. The satellite, developed by Space Imaging LLC, Thornton, Colorado, also gathers multispectral images that allow customers to see objects as small as 4 meters. With its launch in September 1999, Ikonos complemented a constellation of remote sensing satellites that the company either has marketing rights to or owns, including the U.S. Landsat satellites, the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellites, Canada’s RADARSAT and the European Space Agency’s Radar satellite. The company also sells submeter resolution aerial imagery that is collected by its digital airborne imagery system known as DAIS-1.

Space Imaging was created through investments made by Lockheed Martin Corporation, Raytheon Incorporated, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation, Singapore’s Van Der Horst Limited, Korea’s Hyundai Space and Aircraft, Europe’s Remote Sensing Affiliates, the Swedish Space Corporation and Thailand’s Loxley Public Company Limited.

John Copple, chief executive officer, Space Imaging, explains that the company saw an existing market demand that was not being met. Even the most current maps available were created from data that is at least five years old, he says. The firm goes beyond selling raw images by using software to create its offerings, which are marketed under Space Imaging’s Carterra brand name.

As it does with some other products, the U.S. government prohibits the sale of imagery to designated countries and organizations. It has also reserved the right to what is termed “shutter control.” Although not yet exercised, this policy allows the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department to cut off access to these commercial images whenever they deem it necessary. This can be done in a number of ways, including shutting off the satellite or limiting or delaying distribution of the images, Copple explains. The government, however, has shown significant support of the industry, and it understands the impact of the policy, he says, so officials are likely to use their authority with great discretion. Over time, firms in the United States as well as other countries will develop more high-resolution commercial satellites, and the shutter control policy may no longer be practical, he adds.

In addition, the company cannot sell imagery of less than 2-meter resolution of Israel to any customer. Earlier this year, the Israeli Ministry of Defense bought the exclusive rights to all photographs of Israeli territory and any area within a 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) radius taken by ImageSat International’s Eros-1 civilian satellite. Eros-1 can obtain 1.8-meter resolution images.

Although these are currently the only restrictions, when Space Imaging launches its next-generation satellite with half-meter resolution capability, scheduled for 2004, present rules also call for a 24-hour delay on image release.

The cautious approach that is being taken in the distribution of these images is an indication of their value. Martin C. Faga, president and chief executive officer, The MITRE Corporation, Bedford, Massachusetts, observes that satellite imagery technology has evolved in a way that is similar to advances made in other technologies. The United States often enjoys a number of years as the leader in a specific capability—sharing it with only a limited number of other countries—but eventually the technology moves into the commercial sector, which makes it more widely available, he explains.

Faga, who is the former director of the National Reconnaissance Office, says that once the United States or any country loses the advantage in an area, energies must be redirected toward resolving how to best share with others. Most countries eventually determine that, while the satellite imagery is a valuable offensive tool, when adversaries have the same capability it is also a security threat, he says. One solution would be multilateral agreements between countries on the use of satellite imagery. Faga predicts that such agreements could be as much as 10 years away.

Although commercial satellite imagery of such quality is a danger to military forces during operations, it also offers substantial benefits. When dealing with emergencies, the government can rely on its own satellites and at the same time acquire information gathered by commercial satellites.

“It’s important to keep this in perspective,” Faga says. “Forces have always been observed, but never to this extent. So there have been enormous amounts of observation that had to be dealt with, but it isn’t some silver bullet aimed at the heart of the American military.”

Faga points out that imagery alone, while useful, is not intelligence. Once images are acquired, they must be processed and analyzed by experts who can put them into context. While many countries can purchase commercial satellite images, if they do not have the expertise to analyze them, the images have lost some of their value, he explains.

Organizations such as the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which specializes in analyzing information on nuclear proliferation, have found 1-meter resolution satellite images to be an extremely valuable tool in their research. Corey Hinderstein, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization, explains that ISIS analysts combine the images with other studies the group has conducted to monitor activity worldwide. ISIS then produces reports on its findings and distributes the information to U.S. government agencies.

The commercial availability of such images increases public awareness, Hinderstein says, and this in and of itself can contribute to limiting the build-up of nuclear weapons. “Does this stop certain nations from attempting to build weapons? These countries have been imaged by the United States and others for many years. So, it’s not new. But as the production and quality of technology increases, and the competition among commercial companies increases, there may be a big difference. Instead of just, ‘The U.S. is watching,’ now it’s ‘My neighbor is watching,’” she explains.

While this knowledge may not stop countries from pursuing nuclear armaments, it will force them to be more secretive about their activity. This precludes many groups and limits others from pursuing buildups because secrecy requires additional resources such as time, money and people, she adds.

The images also increase accountability. If commercially available images demonstrate that some nations are pursuing nuclear weapons development, and the U.S. government is not inquiring into the matter, citizens now can begin to inquire themselves as well as ask government officials why they are not investigating the matter, Hinderstein offers.

In addition to supporting national defense by gathering intelligence, Space Imaging’s satellite images are helping to prepare U.S. military forces for combat. Cambridge Research Associates (CRA), McLean, Virginia, has been developing three-dimensional modeling and simulation programs using actual geographic data for several years.

The company began by employing video gathered from unmanned aerial vehicles to design software programs that allowed pilots to fly through battlefields virtually prior to a mission, H. James Antonisse, senior principal associate, CRA, explains. The next step was acquiring government-owned satellite images to design the same types of products.

Today, the firm employs Space Imaging’s satellite images to continue expanding its PowerScene product line. The addition of 1-meter resolution images enables the software to provide the pilot and ground commanders with added detail, Antonisse states. PowerScene fuses digital elevation data with textures to generate a seamless visualization of the Earth in real time. When the imagery is complemented with additional data, users see both the contours of the land and annotations about the location of buildings, vehicles and geographic features such as bodies of water and land masses.

The armed services have used PowerScene for training; however, Antonisse points out that the real force multiplier is in mission planning. Prior to flight, pilots use the software to prepare by viewing the most recent data. During flight, the pilot can note changes between the information viewed during the planning stage and the current situation. CRA is involved in the design of the portable flight planning system, a prototype for the joint mission planning system.

Space Imaging’s satellite images are benefiting pilots in the commercial sector as well. Spirent Systems Safety and Training Group, Ottawa, Canada, has developed two visualization systems that support airline safety.

The graphical replay and analysis facility (GRAF) is used by more than 50 airlines worldwide for routine monitoring and detection of problems based on operational flight data, Steven Roberts, vice president, safety and training, Spirent Systems, explains. The company’s second offering, Vision, works in conjunction with GRAF. It enables the simultaneous reconstruction and playback of many aspects of interest, including three-dimensional animation of flight, complete reconstruction of cockpit displays and the presentation of aircraft position in plan and profile views as it relates to the pilot’s navigational references.

The company recently entered into an agreement with Space Imaging for detailed imagery of 80 airports in 1-meter panchromatic, sharpened imagery.

“One of the limitations of acceptance of visualization systems outside government agencies was the time-consuming tasks of modeling and producing detailed airport reference information. Objects such as runway layout, markings and position as well as airport taxiway and ramp and building information can now be visualized accurately and with less effort by the incorporation of satellite imagery. By layering this data over three-dimensional terrain features, a compelling and highly realistic representation of the airport and vicinity environment can be attained,” Roberts offers.

Although this application for satellite imagery is still in its early stages, Roberts believes that certain aspects of analysis will rely heavily on the positional accuracy the pictures produce, such as the precise location of various runway and airport electronic navigation systems to which the aircraft couple.

“There can, however, remain little doubt. The advent of affordable, accessible commercial satellite imagery such as Space Imaging’s and the interest and commitment that airlines have already expressed in safety systems such as Spirent’s GRAF-Vision will play a role in helping maintain the air transport industry as the safest and most reliable mode of transportation available,” Roberts states.

Space Imaging’s products are finding applications in organizations that are interested in more than just what can been seen on land and in the air. Dr. Steven O. Rohmann is a physical scientist for the National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Silver Spring, Maryland. One of his current projects involves using satellite images to map U.S. coral reefs.

Called the rain forests of the ocean, coral reefs are a travel and tourism economic resource in various parts of the country. Although much work has been done to map land, little has been conducted in mapping the area of the Earth that is covered by water, Rohmann explains.

“Maps are required to quantify how much coral reef ecosystem exists and to start to figure out how to manage and protect them over time. The satellite images that are collected today will be compared to those taken years from now to evaluate the changes that have occurred,” he states.

Coral reef color is created by zoantharia, organisms that produce the calcium carbonate that forms the reef. The service is examining coral reef bleaching, an effect that occurs when the organisms die or leave the area due to an increase in water temperature. This phenomenon changes the ecological balance of the area and consequently can affect the local economies, Rohmann points out.

Government-owned satellites gather only panchromatic images, which are ineffective in gathering information about undersea areas, Rohmann says. Commercial images that include higher resolution multispectral imagery provide the organization with the quality of images it needs to map the reefs accurately and conduct its research, he notes.

The service has completed mapping all of the coral reef around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and about 70 percent of the area around the Florida Keys. Work is currently underway to gather imagery of the coral reef around Hawaii.

Space Imaging is expanding the sale of its imagery through its international reseller network. Operations have been established in Athens, Greece; Seoul, Korea; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Tokyo. These affiliates are each operated and financed independently of Space Imaging and are assigned sales and marketing rights within regional territories.

Brian L. Soliday, Space Imaging’s vice president of sales and marketing, predicts that satellite imagery will continue to be combined with additional information to provide not only a picture of an area but also extensive information about it. Improvements to the company’s offerings will include the delivery of images online. Today, customers receive images on a compact disc.

Soliday also notes that the rapid expansion of uses for the technology inevitably means that other companies will enter the marketplace. “We are on the leading edge of what people are doing. Our goal will be to work with other service providers,” he offers.

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Geospatial Information Systems: Putting the World Into Perspective

Geospatial information systems are making the world a smaller place. According to John Burwell, director of government industries at Silicon Graphics Incorporated (SGI) Federal, Denver, Colorado, a growing new application is the fusion of various types of satellite imagery and video into a variety of information displays and applications.

One tool for putting this information together is the SGI Reality Center, which consists of a computer system and an interactive display used to create virtual environments. These centers can be scaled for a variety of purposes and have been used by the government to create simulators and training systems, and in design and development work, Burwell says.

The latest application for the systems is the fusion of geospatial information system (GIS) satellite data and interactive maps. Burwell notes that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is using the technology to create a highly detailed topographic map of the Earth based on radar imaging data collected last year by the space shuttle Endeavor. When complete, this global map will have a resolution of 30 to 60 meters.

For much higher resolution, there is TerraPoint LLC, a company based in Woodlands, Texas, that provides highly accurate topographic maps using light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology. The firm is working with Mitsubishi to produce a highly accurate map of Japan that is based on LIDAR readings taken from an aircraft. This map will have a resolution of six inches, Burwell claims. These LIDAR maps can then be combined, for example, with a map from the shuttle’s orbital journey, in a reality center to produce three-dimensional virtual terrain cartography.

Virtual maps offer both civilian and military applications. Burwell notes that during the 1999 Kosovo conflict, the U.S. Air Force and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency used an SGI Onyx system to create a topographic map of selected target areas. U.S. pilots based in Italy were then able to fly virtual missions and acquaint themselves with the terrain before participating in a sortie.

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