Satellites are sexy. When it comes to understanding the world in which we live, however, spaceborne platforms provide only part of the picture. Another, equally critical piece of the GEOINT puzzle belongs to airborne platforms, speakers illustrated during the first series of talks, titled “Perspectives from the Air: Aircraft, Dirigibles, and UAS.” The presenters focused on three facets of aerial technology that together form a compelling whole.
First on the stage was Dr. Andrew Shepherd, director of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, who explained how commercial users can leverage UAS for land surveying, critical infrastructure inspection, and building information modeling (BIM)—all without a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose Part 107 regulations published in June 2016 allow “a broad spectrum of commercial uses for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.”
Succeeding Shepherd was Mark Romano, senior product manager, Geospatial Solutions, at Harris Corp., who discussed manned platforms and the super-sensors they carry—such as Geiger-mode LiDAR. Like conventional LiDAR, Geiger-mode LiDAR can penetrate foliage and map 3D elevation, achieving ground-level insights unobtainable with other sensors. Though platforms equipped with conventional LiDAR must fly low and slow, those carrying Geiger-mode LiDAR can fly high and fast, collecting more data points per square meter. The result, according to Romano: more and better imagery.
The future of airborne imagery lies with machine learning, according to the session’s final speaker, Eric Truitt, chief, Space & Intelligence Programs, Georgia Tech Research Institute. Eventually, he said, machine learning algorithms will observe how imagery analysts work and learn what analysts need from airborne imagery before they ask for it. Then the algorithms will automatically cue drones to collect the imagery analysts need, in the resolution and format in which they need it.
“They’re going to go out and perform mission to a level we’ve never seen,” Truitt concluded. “They’re going to bring back data to the analyst, to the reporter, to the national and tactical decision-maker that’s of a higher quality … to help us win intelligence challenges and battles of the future.”