A leap forward in intelligence gathering

New developments in commercial geospatial technology promise big payoff

Fifty years ago, the U.S. government launched Corona, the world's first imaging reconnaissance satellite, to take pictures over the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Cold War. After many unsuccessful attempts, the satellite was finally launched and experts hoped it would provide answers to the following questions: If you launch a camera into orbit, will it work? And can the camera take pictures through the Earth's atmosphere?

Those questions, and many others, were answered Aug. 18, 1960, when an elite team of analysts saw the first grainy black-and-white images taken from high above the Mys Shmidta airfield in the former Soviet Union. Those images whetted the appetite of the defense and intelligence communities and led to the birth of an industry that changed the way we view our planet.

Today, high-resolution commercial satellite imagery is available to anyone with Internet access. The U.S. government has access to those images and its own, captured by more advanced systems.

Although the commercial satellite industry has pioneered this new and exciting age of Earthly transparency, the increased use of geospatial technology is the by-product of several recent technological developments intersecting at a critical juncture — high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, high-speed Internet connectivity, high-bandwidth global communication links, cloud computing, accurate Global Positioning System location information and inexpensive software. Governments that integrate those powerful technologies into their daily operations are riding a new wave of intelligence-gathering capabilities.

The defense and intelligence communities have developed a huge appetite for unclassified, high-resolution, map-accurate satellite imagery. One leading reason is that our government can freely share unclassified images with allies, coalition partners and disaster relief workers, thus speeding collaboration and time-critical decision-making. Another reason is that commercial imagery is highly cost-effective because we can resell excess capacity and imagery to commercial customers.

As a result, the use of satellite imagery by analysts and mapmakers at military headquarters is the norm. Tomorrow, forward-deployed troops will expect easy access to imagery and other geospatial technologies via the Web, tailored to their needs or adaptable via cloud computing. In response, commercial satellite imagery providers are moving beyond simply supplying pixels to providing defense and intelligence agencies, for instance, with geospatial information services, including access to archival information virtually on demand. We’re streamlining the management and delivery of location intelligence so forward-deployed troops can use imagery as readily as headquarters personnel. Soon, rapid dissemination of online geospatial intelligence will be as common as other technologies warfighters use.

We expect 2010 to be a milestone year for the geospatial industry. Under a new program, EnhancedView, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is expected to award contracts this spring to one or more U.S. companies licensed to provide commercial remote sensing services. EnhancedView is part of a larger satellite imagery strategy -- commonly referred to as the Two-Plus-Two plan -- announced by National Intelligence Director Adm. Dennis Blair in April 2009.

The first part of the program provides for the U.S. government to buy and operate two exquisite-class intelligence satellites as part of the new electro-optical satellite-imaging plan approved by President Barack Obama. The second part directs the Defense Department and the intelligence community to increase the use of imagery available through U.S. commercial providers by buying capacity roughly equal to two new commercial imagery satellites. That additional capability will provide flexibility and continued access to quality mapping information at low risk and cost in the coming decade.

EnhancedView follows NGA’s 2002 ClearView program, which drew heavily on GeoEye’s Ikonos satellite, and the NextView program begun in 2004. The partnerships formed between the U.S. government and the commercial satellite industry through those programs serve as examples of how public/private partnerships should work and indicate that the commercial satellite industry is likely to continue to play a major role in national security.

About the Author

Matt O'Connell is chief executive officer and president of GeoEye Inc.

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