Superior imagery creates battlefield advantages

Military improves quality and accessibility of visual data

Satellite imagery has become a critical element in military planning and operations, and warfighters are clamoring for even more data. The military is responding rapidly to make more images available while improving their resolution so users can focus on areas of interest. At the same time, there’s a major effort to get those images into users’ hands quickly, letting them see the latest views instead of using data that’s been sitting in archives.

Those projects involve numerous technologies that range from costly satellites to common Web servers that help disseminate files to the field. The array of technologies is matched by a diversity of suppliers. As more commercial data providers put cameras in orbit, government agencies are tapping their services.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) continues to enact agreements with an ever-growing population of commercial providers that provide imagery to fulfill the needs of the Defense Department, warfighters and the intelligence community.

“These arrangements provide greater access to more products by more users, enable priority tasking and utilize the industry’s improved capability and capacity,” said Ann Carbonell, source technical executive at NGA. "All forms of imagery and geospatial products are involved, whether pan, radar, or spectral; from space-based or airborne platforms; or by U.S. or international providers."

The imagery that goes into the field often combines data from more than one source. Even though it takes time to precisely blend data from multiple sources, providers are more quickly making images available to more people. When many high-resolution images gathered from more sources are readily available to a broad range of users, the military can make decisions based on better intelligence.

Improved Resolution

As imagery becomes more critical to military efforts, there’s a continuing drive to improve resolution and combine photos with additional data that makes imagery more effective. A number of infrared technologies and light detection and ranging (lidar) systems are being deployed to give users a more realistic view.

One factor in this improvement is the major advances in electronics on each new generation of satellites. Sensors track the advances of semiconductors to provide substantially better performance every year. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) often demonstrate those advances as they swiftly upgrade to the latest technologies.

“Infrared, electro-optics and others are improving constantly,” said Sean Love, geospatial business development lead at Northrop Grumman Information Systems. “The boards are also getting smaller so we can put more into a module. I think we’re at the knee of the curve — we’re going to see huge changes in what can be done with sensors.”

Meanwhile, technologists are becoming more efficient at combining different types of data into a single composite image. Elevation, thermal data and other information augment visual imagery to give users the most useful images.

For example, the National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) community is beginning to use DOD's investments in lidar sensors. Lidar provides users with 3-D geospatial data and lets other sensor systems concentrate on higher-priority imaging, which increases the images' resolution.

As a result, other sensors can collect and process more information to expand coverage from 100 square kilometers per day to 2,000 square kilometers and improve resolution to a meter or less. “In target mode, the lidar provides up to 5-centimeter resolution 3-D data,” Carbonell said.

However, she added, lidar produces high volumes of data, and it can take days to process an hour of lidar imaging. NGA is developing techniques that will speed lidar processing so it’s more readily available for on-demand requests. Advanced algorithms and protocols, along with automated calibration routines, make it easier to match collection times with processing times. “We’re making 3-D products available in near real time so they can be synchronized to military operations and the needs of the warfighter,” Carbonell said.

Warfighters are already using those composite images in the field. “One major technological change is commercial imagery is now accurate geopositionally for use in precision engagement,” said Christopher Incardona, GeoEye’s government programs director for NGA. "When correct stereo products are being used, these data can support the warfighter in ways not previously demonstrated." GeoEye has a contract with NGA to support satellite and geospatial services.

Satellite imagery isn’t the only technology that combines images to yield better intelligence. UAVs are taking photos and gathering data that provide more close-up, real-time views that can augment the big picture that satellites provide.

“Drones serve a different function,” said Steve Wood, vice president of U.S. defense and intelligence programs at DigitalGlobe. “They’re often complementary to what satellites provide, which is a huge amount of area that is often the backdrop for the information gathered by UAVs. Together, they put everything into context.”

In addition, more satellites are gathering data. The addition of one orbiting observation post makes it much easier to focus on a specific area. “With a constellation of three satellites, we can hit any place within one day, sometimes seeing it twice a day,” Wood said. “When something happens, we can provide images within 24 hours.”

Although a steady flow of high-resolution images seems great, there’s a potential downside. Some military personnel feel like they’re drowning in UAV imagery, and the huge volume of satellite data is a problem for those who are responsible for managing and analyzing that information.

“We’re collecting around 0.5 petabytes a month,” Wood said. In comparison, all the data displayed on Facebook totals only 0.1 petabyte per month.

Besides data overload, there’s a high cost to expanding satellite constellations. If there’s a way to get more information by using existing systems, military planners prefer to take that route because they add more capabilities without the long time frame or high cost of launching satellites into orbit.

“We don’t want to build more exquisite systems; we want to wring more out of what’s out there,” said Tammi Turner, command lead for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the Air Force Space Command. “The more we can do that’s fast and inexpensive, the better.”

On the Clock

While engineers and strategists work to generate a greater number of high-resolution images, technical teams are racing to improve the systems used to send those images to the field. During the past couple of years, those efforts helped curtail criticism that satellite imagery simply goes into archives until it's out-of-date. Design teams are making major strides toward providing real-time deployment in the field.

“We worked hand in glove with NGA to find the most expeditious way to bundle data together and put it on a Web server so somebody can use it,” said Chuck Herring, marketing director at DigitalGlobe. “Nobody wants data that’s only useful to scientists.”

One aspect of that work is making data from commercial data providers more accessible. As military strategists have become more familiar and comfortable with outside providers, they have started letting them get closer to day-to-day users.

“Our ortho imagery will be delivered to a Web dissemination portal where warfighters, analysts and map producers can access data in near real time,” Incardona said. “That’s quite a bit different from the past, when the commercial data providers’ role was solely to deliver raw imagery into government archives or send our finished products on media.”

In addition to commercial suppliers that need to adapt to the shift to images that come from new sources, military personnel must also learn how to operate in this new environment. “It’s not that hard to do, but it’s a cultural shift,” Turner said.

She also noted that military teams will need to figure out how to make that shift without expanding budgets or staffs. Getting extra support for new projects is increasingly difficult. “It’s hard to get manpower,” Turner said. "If you want a couple dozen bodies, it’s difficult to get. We have to look at doing more with minor shifts in our approach."

Instant Gratification

As with many trends, the Internet is the primary technology enabling this democratization. The military is using network access and well-understood Web tools to make images more widely available.

DOD is upgrading its network systems to handle the volume of data needed for a constant flow of images. “Tactical networks in the field are being updated for geospatial applications,” Love said. “There are always network connectivity issues wherever you are.”

Military planners are working to reduce those problems. Their efforts range from the United States to war zones and space.

"We are leveraging mission partner networks and resources for terrestrial fiber, satellite communications and tactical edge networks,” Barber said. “Integration of new technologies, such as 3G and 4G cellular data networks, helps us stream imagery on demand.”

After warfighters get access to networks, they need to be able to easily find relevant data. NGA and DigitalGlobe are developing the Rapid Delivery of Online Geospatial-Intelligence (RDOG) system, which uses Web services to rapidly disseminate imagery to NSG within 24 hours of collection.

“We maintain an online image database,” Herring said. “Our customers set up the way that they supply it to their customers. RDOG gets them down to the warfighter level.”

Getting data into the field and making it useful aren't simple tasks because warfighters often struggle to establish network access in remote areas. In addition, the different groups charged with gathering and disseminating data must agree on the technologies, terminology and techniques for moving data. The more these groups use the same tools and techniques, the greater the likelihood that data will flow smoothly from point to point.

“We want to unstovepipe data — a lot of that is all about data standards,” Turner said. “We want to adopt as many commercial practices and technologies as possible, things like search engines. If we get the right standards and work in a net-centric environment, it will be better for all of us.”

That also affects how people ask for imagery or satellite time. “We’re trying to align our priorities,” Turner said. “One group’s priority No. 100 is someone else’s priority No. 50.”

As technology moves from analysts and specialists in remote sites to soldiers in the field, it’s critical to make it simple to use the images. 

“The human/machine interface is also a major aspect of technology in the field," Love said. "If users aren’t looking at the system, it doesn’t matter how good the information is.”

The military's focus on ease of use mirrors developments in commercial markets, in which consumers continually ask for intuitive user interfaces. Military programs are adapting many of the Web tools developed for Web 2.0 services and applications.

“We’re evolving our dissemination systems to be Web 2.0 centric,” Incardona said. “We, along with others who focus on Web 2.0, are designing systems to be more intuitive and accessible. That will reduce the need for specialized training, and it will make imagery more readily available for all people.”

Those user interfaces must jibe with military symbology and commands. As with other human/machine interfaces, design teams continuously refine input devices to make them easier to use. ESRI, a geospatial information systems provider, moved away from the symbol-centric approach used in Military Overlay Editor in its ArcGIS 10 geographic information system platform, instead using military features and a full ArcGIS feature-based symbology. That removed a layer of complexity, which helps those in the field.

Until easy-to-operate tools make their way into the mainstream of military applications, program managers must rely on personnel who can make information more readily accessible in the field. Data managers and data stewards are going to the battlefield to interact closely with users and warfighters.

“With these source experts in place, customers don’t have to know where everything is and how everything works,” Carbonell said. "Users can concentrate on articulating their mission need and then performing their missions." Data managers then return to their home bases with useful information for developers, she added.

Meanwhile, although image providers have made data more available, users are clamoring for more. After they get a steady flow of up-to-date images, many users want imagery that pertains specifically to their missions. By fulfilling that request, users wouldn't need to worry about getting bogged down by too much information. Many design teams are devising techniques for on-demand responses to queries for specific information.

“We plan to offer other Web capabilities, like automated change detection, that enable users to focus on areas of change versus having to find them,” Incardona said. “Change detection services will be set up so individuals are notified when change occurs, specifically in sites they’re interested in. If an important structure, building or object changes shape or location, these observations can be tracked over time.”

Program managers also are moving to further simplify on-demand access and change detection. Users could note which areas they want to monitor, and they wouldn’t need to constantly check to see whether there’s activity in their area of interest.

“Lots of people in the field are looking for information on what’s changed from breakfast to lunch,” Love said. “Most of them would really like to have an automatic system that sends them changes so they don’t have to look to see whether anything’s changed.”

Providing Protection

As more people in the field receive data, protecting it from unauthorized users becomes a more critical problem. When data gets onto the Web, there’s an even greater potential for hackers or foes in the field to pirate images or alter them and retransmit bogus files. Protecting data has become a central focus in the industry.

“Without hesitation, the No. 1 priority for our industry is information security,” Incardona said. “Everyone is pursuing initiatives that protect the nation’s data and services.”

Commercial companies are using encryption technologies and other techniques to safeguard files. Meanwhile, military technologists are expanding their security techniques, extending them to include commercial data providers.

“High Assurance Guard safeguards the information transfer between security domains from [the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System] and [the Secure IP Router Network]. Current expansion will include one-way transfers between the .mil and .com environments,” said Keith Barber, director of the NSG Integrated Program Office's Acquisition Directorate. “In a related area, the Protected Information eXchange environment provides encryption and digital signing to help prevent piracy and alteration of data.”

He added that data nodes will authenticate users and prevent alteration of metadata or data. If files are altered or intrusions are detected, administrators would be alerted and systems could be stopped to protect the data.

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