The DARPA of geospatial

When you think of NURI, think of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency...but only for geospatial projects.

NURI stands for NGA University Research Initiatives. NGA, of course, is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a combat support agency at the Defense Department.

The NURI project has been operating since 1997 and has already awarded 103 grants to researchers at more than 60 universities to investigate topics related to geospatial intelligence. Each grant is for three years and generally amounts to $150,000 per year.

This year’s awards (GCN.com, Quickfind 1201) range from one for a research project on “Spaceborne Magnetic Gradiometry after Swarm: Novel Approaches to Mapping the Earth’s Magnetic Field Employing Nonlinear Magneto-Optical Rotation Sensors” to a project titled “Purpose- Aware Dynamic Graph Models for Representing and Reasoning about Networks.”

Seem like a long way from digital mapping? Actually, no: Geospatial intelligence involves a lot more than mapping. NGA has distilled its research road map into these six broad topic areas:

  • Acquire: Including sensor networks, detection of moving objects.
  • Identify: Spatiotemporal data mining.
  • Integrate: Image data fusion, reuse and preservation of data.
  • Analyze: Visualization, process automation vs. human cognition.
  • Disseminate: Multilevel security.
  • Preserve: Grid computing for geospatial data, reuse and preservation of data.
NGA’s InnoVision Directorate, tasked with “the focal point in NGA to address the future,” oversees the NURI program. Ernie Reith, deputy director of the InnoVision Directorate, said a lot of basic scientific research needs to be done to improve geospatial intelligence. For example, the agency looks to the first project mentioned above — the one involving mapping Earth’s magnetic field — to eventually help researchers improve the accuracy of Global Positioning System devices and control orbits of satellites. The research could also help provide more accurate electronic targeting capabilities.

A more detailed road map — which Reith said is not public — deals with a broad spectrum of specific challenges. They include finding ways to track criminals or terrorists, detecting weapons of mass destruction and finding ways of discovering relevant data in a large database. Reith said the program’s priorities cover a lot of ground, “from actual intelligence problems to helping the analyst out to display devices.”

Each year, a panel of senior NGA scientists ranks proposed topics against the road map and then finalizes a list of specific topics. Universities then write proposals on those lists of topics are made with the input of other intelligence agencies.

The four topic areas for 2008 were:

  • The “geopotential” of gravity and the magnetic field.
  • Developing efficient target detection and tracking techniques using image data from multiple sources.
  • Research on improving techniques for automatically extracting features from remotely sensed imagery by using contextual cues.
  • Research to develop analytic tools and techniques that track, monitor and predict natural or anthropogenic activities and provide estimates of the causes of visual scenes.
Some trends can be discerned in the evolution of research topic areas. Previous years were more heavily weighted toward areas of data acquisition, for example, while this year’s topics lean toward basic research affecting the tracking of objects.

As for the future? “There are challenges out there that I suspect we’re going to see along the lines of data storage and data discovery,” Reith said. “Something we hear back from people in the field is that, with all of the data sources that are being provided, there’s an awful lot of difficulty finding the data that they need.”

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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