Mobile power can speed geospatial intell to battlefront

Smart phones, tablets will be used to link to cloud computers

The emergence of powerful, portable consumer products is helping propel the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s plans to get imagery into the hands of warfighters. Smart phones and tablets will be a key element of the transition, though there are several facets that must be determined before they’re widely deployed.

Geospatial imagery is inching closer to real-time distribution, which is often an important factor for warfighters in the field. That’s because processing times and data transmission rates are both improving as faster electronics become available. The synergistic availability of smart phones and tablet computers provides an easy way for mobile warfighters to gain access to this information.

“We’re entering a new phase for [geospatial intelligence] — it’s going to be exciting,” said Keith Barber, implementation lead for online on-demand services at NGA. In 2010, the incoming NGA director outlined plans to make data more readily available in the field. The agency is racing to certify products and devise techniques that let warfighters use these portables without worrying about security.

“There’s tremendous potential with handheld devices, but we’ve got to work through the security issues and other aspects that ensure seamless integration,” Barber said. “We’re analyzing 5-inch and 7-inch displays, and all kinds of mobile devices.”

Along with secure connectivity, these studies will search for an optimal screen size for viewing geospatial imagery, which may include radar and thermal data. Some question whether smart-phone displays are large enough to provide a useful view of the terrain being examined.

“I’m a big believer in field of view, which is something you lose when you view images on an iPhone or Blackberry,” said Jack Hild, vice president of U.S. defense strategy at DigitalGlobe. “An iPad or other tablet might ultimately be the compromise that works best.”

Whatever screen they ultimately use, warfighters will get better images in less time. Imagery providers are leveraging faster computers to perform image processing such as orthorectification, which corrects for the inherent distortion that occurs with long-distance satellite photography.

“We’re building processors and processes that do corrections almost instantly for every picture so users are looking at the best possible image,” Hild said. “We can now do image processing that used to take literally weeks in just a few seconds.”

When smart phones and tablets enter the discussion, application software follows in lockstep. NGA foresees quick development of apps that are designed for various groups. Sometimes, tech savvy individuals may even write their own programs.

“Warfighters, industry partners and more traditional app suppliers can create applications,” Barber said.

These apps will draw in data that meets the requirements of the moment. Users will be able to set the parameters for their image searches, which should dramatically improve the likelihood that the images they get are the ones they need.

“Users can decide whether time is the most critical aspect, whether resolution is the most critical, whatever they want,” said Gerald Kinn, senior member of ESRI’s Imagery Team.

Some observers feel this may reduce questions about cognitive overload, when there’s so much data that it becomes confusing, not helpful. These apps can be more precisely targeted for the most relevant data, which often wasn’t the case when warfighters sent a request to regional commanders who then sent the query on to image providers.

“Opening up our content services lets folks better understand what they get because they gathered the data themselves,” Barber said.

Easy access

Although there’s a big focus on the hardware and apps that will go into the field, the other half of the challenge is to gather and store the images in easily accessible systems. Making this content available to users in close to real time is not a simple task. A lot of storage space and computing capability is needed to store the volumes of images on accessible disk drives.

Making it readily available in a user-friendly format is perhaps a larger challenge. Even the best application won’t yield much helpful information if the image content is not managed properly.

“For any of these apps to be viable, content management has to be effective, so when you create an app, you will have access to the right data. The idea is to make content available in a way that it’s agile and flexible so anyone can develop an app so they can access the data they need,” Barber said.

Content providers are employing different techniques to make this content easily available.

For example, ESRI uses mosaic datasets that make it possible to treat a number of images as a single database that users can access. This technology lets personnel search using parameters they care about. It also helps them get this data quickly.

“Using a mosaic data set allows us to save imagery in an open format. Once it’s on the disk, we can get orthrectified data to users in seconds,” Kinn said.

Making all these changes in this time of tightening budgets adds a twist to the technical challenge.

“We have to find a balance in terms of investment and we need to understand new technology like the cloud, which is the buzzword du jour,” Barber said. “One challenge is that we have to be smart about aligning resources.”

Data stored in the cloud has to reside on systems that can be accessed from anywhere on the globe. This openness is scary for those tasked with protecting files from intruders. “With any discussion of the cloud, you have to lump security in,” Barber said.

Though there are challenges in the move to mobile devices and cloud computing, the gains are much greater. As individual users access data in the cloud by themselves, the benefits ripple out to the information technology staffs that have served as intermediaries who gathered all data in the past. When they spend less time helping individuals get access to imagery, they are freed up to do more complex tasks.

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