How Commercial Imagery Capabilities are Revolutionizing Applications in Defense Intelligence

How Commercial Imagery Capabilities are Revolutionizing Applications in Defense Intelligence

The capabilities and capacities of commercial Earth observation satellites in the defense intelligence market have consistently evolved, now rivaling those of government-owned satellites. This evolution has transformed the entire space-based intelligence landscape, encompassing privately-owned space-based sensing, machine-aided processing, and shared data storage on common cloud platforms.

The commercial imagery industry, providing significantly improved coverage, revisit rates, and resolution, has expanded into novel capabilities such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), radio-frequency (RF) mapping, and hyperspectral imaging. These advancements leverage the capacities of commercial entities, fostering a pace of development and innovation that surpasses current government sensing capabilities.

Let’s explore how commercial imagery capabilities are revolutionizing applications in defense intelligence:

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)

The increasing commercialization of the space sector has democratically opened access to high-resolution satellite imageries. Advanced space-based ISR capabilities, once exclusive to superpowers, are now within reach for a growing number of states, reshaping power dynamics in international conflicts.

An illustrative example is seen in the Russo-Ukrainian war, where non-spacefaring nations like Ukraine have effectively employed commercial imagery to augment situational awareness. They have exposed Russian troop movements, identified fortifications, and guided Western-supplied long-range missiles to critical Russian targets. With the assistance of over 200 commercial imageries, Ukraine has mitigated Russia’s conventionally superior military capabilities and countered its significant space prowess, thereby leveling the playing field through access to real-time battlefield ISR.

The strategic and effective use of commercial imagery has emerged as a game-changer, particularly in defensive and counter-offensive strategies in modern warfare.

Maritime Domain Awareness

Traditionally, achieving comprehensive awareness across vast ocean expanses required collecting visual information from ships or aircraft, data from large military satellites, and Automatic Identification System (AIS) data transmitted by commercial vessels. The cost and complexity associated with these top-down surveillance systems have posed challenges for many countries.

The advent of low-cost commercial imagery has revolutionized ocean observation, bringing regular monitoring to a significant portion of the seas. These satellite systems employ various technologies, including optical observation, radio-frequency detection of vessels using radio or radars, and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), a scanning radar that detects reflected light.

Maritime safety authorities now have the capability to integrate AIS data with satellite imagery, enabling the identification of “dark vessels.” These vessels intentionally turn off or manipulate their AIS devices to lower the risk of detection while involved in illicit activities like illegal fishing or drug smuggling. Web-based platforms, including the US’s SeaVision, the EU’s IORIS, and the not-for-profit Skylight, are accessible to users at little or no cost for this specific purpose.

Military Training and Simulation

Military training demands precise and lifelike visual simulations across diverse virtual environments. Integrating high-resolution commercial imagery with various geospatial data, such as elevation data, extracted vectors and features, 3D models, and multispectral material classified maps will facilitate virtual visual simulation training.

The availability of commercial imagery has paved the way for a revolutionary advancement in military training beyond the operational test community. It enables the real-time connection of live and synthetic military assets, allowing the simulation of scenarios with complexities, ranges, and numbers that would be unattainable within the constraints of the real-world.

Disaster Relief and Recovery

Following natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods, accurate and swift tools for damage assessment are vital to ensure the efficient allocation of resources and facilitate recovery processes. Civil defense authorities can now utilize commercial imagery to overcome the limitations associated with ground-based assessments, which are often time-consuming, costly, and potentially hazardous.

Timely, high-resolution imagery of affected areas proves invaluable in comprehending the scale and impact of disasters on both infrastructure and human populations. In Turkey and Syria, both optical and SAR commercial imagery were employed to aid in disaster recovery and evaluate the earthquake’s magnitude using change detection maps. Within a few days, automated damage assessments for buildings throughout the earthquake-affected zone were made available. This swift response played a crucial role in assisting first responders in understanding the extent of damage, identifying navigable roads, and planning their actions effectively.

Despite the rapid development of the commercial satellite imagery industry, there is a concern that defense and intelligence agencies are not embracing commercial products and services at an equivalent pace and scale.

The challenge for the defense and intelligence community lies in deciphering how to utilize these emerging commercial capabilities for military advantage, all while safeguarding national security and ensuring the vitality and competitiveness of companies in the global Earth observation market.

Interested in joining such a discussion? The Geospatial World Forum will host a Defense & Intelligence Summit scheduled to take place in person in Rotterdam from May 15-16, 2024. The Summit will delve into the evolving global security landscape and underscore the significance of establishing a robust GeoIntelligence infrastructure at national and regional levels. Confirmed attendees include subject-matter experts such as:

  • Brigadier General Friedrich Teichmann, Director, Geospatial Institute, Austrian Armed Forces, Austria
  • Wayne Hudson, Geospatial Imagery Engineer, National Centre for Geospatial Intelligence (NCGI), UK
  • Group Captain Dr. Chamnan Kumsap, Director of Knowledge Management and Publication, Defence Technology Institute, Thailand
  • Robert Goldsmith, GIS and Mapping Manager, Devon & Cornwall Police, UK
  • Mariya Polner, Acting Security Programme Manager Enforcement and Compliance SubDirectorate, World Customs Organization, Belgium
  • Colonel Norazlin Binti Pamuji, Deputy Director, Defence Geospatial, Department of Survey and Mapping (JUPEM), Malaysia
  • Josef Schroefl, Deputy Director, COI Strategy and Defense, European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, Finland
  • Sergio Albani, Head of RTDI Unit, European Union Satellite Centre, Spain
  • Todd Johanesen, Group Chief, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, USA
  • Ronda Schrenk, CEO, USGIF, USA
  • John Teufert, JISR SL GeoMetOc/GEOINT Branch Head, Communications and Information Agency, NATO
  • Ingrid Vanden Berghe, Administrator General, National Geographic Institute, Belgium
  • Matthias Wasinger, Editor in Chief, The Defence Horizon Journal, Austria
  • Sandra Auchter, Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, USA
  • Lieutenant General Anil Kumar Bhatt, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, Director General, Indian Space Association (ISpA), India
  • Martin Cauchi Inglott, Project Director, Critical Maritime Routes Indo-Pacific (CRIMARIO II), Malta
  • Patrick O’Keeffe, CDR jg (OF-3) DEU Navy & Staff Officer Space Operations, NATO Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters (COE CSW), Germany
  • Rajanikanth Muppalla, Delivery Head, Tech Mahindra, India
  • Motoyuki Arai, Founder & CEO, Synspective, Japan
  • Richard Goodman, EMEA Defence Lead, Hexagon, UK

Secure your seat today!

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