Research & Development – Trajectory Magazine We are the official publication of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) – the nonprofit, educational organization supporting the geospatial intelligence tradecraft Tue, 20 Feb 2018 16:12:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Research & Development – Trajectory Magazine 32 32 127732085 Weekly GEOINT Community News Tue, 20 Feb 2018 16:10:08 +0000 IARPA Initiates 3D Imagery Modeling Program; DoD Seeks PNT Support; Maxar to Relocate Corporate HQ to Colorado; OGC Announces Earth Observation Hackathon; More

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IARPA Initiates 3D Imagery Modeling Program

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) launched a new research effort to develop automated modeling algorithms that construct visual representations of satellite and aerial data. Called Creation of Operationally Realistic 3-D Environment (CORE3D), the multi-year effort will support the use of models for rapid response to military or humanitarian crises in remote areas. The activity has contracted with General Electric, Vision Systems, and Applied Research Associates to support the program.

DoD CIO Seeks Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Support

The Defense Department’s Chief Information Officer released a solicitation memo for a contractor to provide programs and systems engineering supporting the DoD’s positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) enterprise. The selected contractor will also assess cyber vulnerabilities and potential areas of risk throughout the PNT sector.

Maxar to Relocate Corporate HQ to Colorado

Maxar Technologies announced plans to transfer its corporate headquarters from San Francisco to Westminster, Colo. The move is expected to generate approximately 800 jobs in the region, and serves to unify the company’s executive team and future shared services organizations.

e-GEOS Awarded Australian Maritime Safety Authority Contract

e-GEOS was awarded a contract to provide the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) with data from Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed satellites—marketed as the world’s only dual-use radar Earth observation constellation. AMSA will use data from the four operational satellites to monitor oil spills and illegal waste dumping as well as to coordinate emergency operations at sea.

OGC Announces Earth Observation Hackathon

The Open Geospatial Consortium is calling for participation in its Earth Observation Exploitation Platform Hackathon. The event seeks to determine whether results from the recent OGC Testbed-13 research initiative are fit to use as a basis for future programs. Participants will establish research design decisions, identify missing elements, and choose the best solution for the upcoming Testbed-14 program. The hackathon will run from March to May, and a webinar is scheduled Feb. 19 for those interested in participating.

TerraGo Introduces New GXP InForm Application

TerraGo launched its new GXP InForm app, an add-on module for BAE Systems’ GXP Xplorer platform. InForm, built using the TerraGo Magic platform, allows users to customize forms, maps, and workflows to support diverse operations anywhere in the world. Mobile features including basemaps and forms are accessible via the app even without a network connection.

Peer Intel

Peraton announced David Myers was appointed president of its communications sector. Myers will lead the sector’s strategic development and growth in government satellite and Earth-based communications markets.

President Trump nominated Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone as the new head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command. Nakasone will succeed current NSA and Cybercom chief Adm. Michael Rogers, who plans to retire by spring.

NGA’s former associate director of capabilities Dr. Anthony Vinci was promoted to the agency’s newly created chief technology officer role. Vinci will focus on integrating cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence, computer vision, and augmentation with the agency’s people and processes.

Photo Credit: e-GEOS

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The Significance of Falcon Heavy Fri, 09 Feb 2018 16:54:47 +0000 SpaceX demonstrates deep space capabilities with world’s most powerful rocket

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Tuesday afternoon, careening into space with a cherry red convertible in tow. The historic field test now categorizes Falcon Heavy as the most powerful operational rocket in the world and demonstrates SpaceX’s new ability to send heavy payloads to deep space.

A concert of 27 Merlin engines provides the rocket’s first stage with five million pounds of thrust at liftoff (twice that of its closest competitor) and the ability to carry 140,000-pound payloads to lower Earth orbit. The rocket’s first payload, though, wasn’t a space-age machinery module or a cutting-edge satellite: it was Elon Musk’s personal Tesla roadster, an entertaining (and perhaps frivolous) way to demonstrate Falcon Heavy’s capabilities while extending humanity’s imprint on the universe.

After shedding its boosters, the rocket’s upper stage carried the Tesla on an impressive six-hour “coast” without firing the engines as an experimental capability demonstration for the U.S. Air Force. The maneuver was followed by a third and final burn, meant to send the car on its final orbit around Mars. While the burn was successful, it was more powerful than anticipated and instead pushed the upper stage closer to dwarf planet Ceres, near the asteroid belt. There, the Tesla will float through space until it’s destroyed by debris or radiation—or picked up by an extraterrestrial life form.

The reusability of Falcon Heavy’s parts also contribute to the launch’s significance. Three minutes after launch, the rocket’s two outer boosters, which were already recycled from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, detached mid-flight, falling back to Earth and simultaneously touching down on concrete landing zones.

The remaining center core booster was programmed to return to Earth for retrieval by an unmanned drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, only one of the core booster’s three engines fired for the landing burn. The rocket was unable to slow its descent and crashed in the water about 100 meters away, damaging the drone ship. Future missions will focus on retrieval of all three boosters. By recycling these components, SpaceX aims to accelerate rocket turnaround and vastly reduce launch costs. Falcon Heavy carries a price tag of $90 million, a bargain compared to the $422 million currently charged by United Launch Alliance.

Falcon Heavy’s first mission was one of the most anticipated rocket launches of the last decade, and one that suffered years of delays throughout its development. SpaceX first announced plans for the vehicle at a National Press Club conference in 2011, initially targeting a 2013 or 2014 launch. Engineering changes and failures with the partially reusable Falcon 9 boosters forced the company to postpone. Later, launch pad hardware changes caused further delays.

Now that Falcon Heavy’s maiden voyage has confirmed its mission readiness, commercial customers can feel confident leasing spots on the vehicle for flights as early as this year. The Verge reports the rocket has already been called on to launch communication satellites in 2018 for companies such as Inmarsat, Viasat, and Arabsat. This summer, SpaceX will outfit Falcon Heavy with a test payload for the U.S. Air Force to authorize the vehicle for national security missions.

Photo Credit: SpaceX

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GEOINT on the March: A French Perspective Thu, 01 Feb 2018 08:38:29 +0000 Recommendations to address French GEOINT's main challenges

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The French Defense Situation

As a former colonial power involved in many conflicts, France has developed an important military geography culture and tradition. The end of the Cold War followed by the Gulf War in 1990 underlined the strategic role of imagery intelligence and military geography. Both marked the development of Earth observation capabilities to provide self-assessment for French defense with satellite imagery, accurate maps, and standard data products to power army command and weapon systems. When the concept of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) appeared 10 to 15 years ago, the appropriation in France came from small, independent actors who tried to combine imagery intelligence with geographic data (secret services, special forces, or industry SMEs). And French manpower were actors (and sometimes a driving force) in the development of GEOINT at SatCen (the European Union Satellite Center), which played a pioneering role in Europe since 2009. But in recent years, the growing needs of French military forces to benefit relevant and actionable intelligence products pushed the Direction du Renseignement Militaire (DRM) to get new capabilities and empower GEOINT in France. Mainly (and also publicly) carried by DRM and Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), the rise of GEOINT as a discipline in France was directly influenced by the American approach and experiences. By creating a center dedicated to GEOINT in 2014, DRM showed its will to create a joint synergy inside the French Defense and initiated a transformation of French military intelligence and geography. Named Centre de Renseignement Géospatial Interarmées (CRGI), this center intends to rationalize the institutional means and develop tradecraft for multisource data fusion, the same way DGSE has operated since 2009.

Today, French GEOINT is shared between two main structures: military geography, which is coordinated by the Bureau Géographie, Hydrographie, Océanographie, Météorologie (BGHOM), and military intelligence, which is coordinated by DRM. Paradoxically and unlike the approach of many allies, the arrival of this new center didn’t lead the French Defense establishment to merge these traditional structures. If this choice is officially supposed to preserve the autonomy of each service and provide better coordination throughout CRGI, it underlines divergences between geography and intelligence about GEOINT. Like the National Imagery and Mapping Agency—the U.S. predecessor to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), DRM faces difficulties that can be explained by cultural differences between these two traditional domains and their different methods of supporting the armed forces.

Defense Industry

For the French defense industry, GEOINT transformation was not a straightforward process. For a few actors, the change was first only cosmetic, renaming former imagery intelligence (IMINT) or GEO departments under a newly branded GEOINT flag. But for industry leaders involved in the U.S. and international market (like Spot Image, today renamed Airbus DS), the transition appeared necessary to interact with NGA, but also with Google or other commercial giants. Since 2012, we see a move with the creation of new small or medium enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups trying to develop dedicated offers, or existing SMEs changing their business model. But, despite actions from the Defense Procurement Agency (through its labs), the level of coordination and cooperation among large defense contractors (Airbus, Thales, Safran, Dassault Aviation) and small newcomers remains to be improved. The size of the French market is too small and pushes French companies toward servicing the European market.

Education and Training

France was a pioneer in GEOINT education with the creation of the GEOINT course at Mines ParisTech, one of the top French engineering schools, as early as 1999. The GEOINT discipline has a strong military connotation in France, which did not help its academic development. Regarding education for future GEOINT analysts, France has a strong IMINT background (through CF3I since 1993) and until now relied on classical degrees in remote sensing, GIS, economic intelligence, data analytics, or geo-decision. Terrorist attacks in France in 2015 and 2016 had a large impact on public opinion and pushed universities to reconsider the importance of intelligence as a discipline. The first French master’s degree in GEOINT started in September 2017, as a cooperation between Paris 1 University and the Intelligence Campus of the Ministry of Defense (MoD).

Research and Development

Even if GEOINT as a research topic has been seldom recognized until now in France, our country relies on its large Space and especially Earth Observation expertise (through the Spot, Helios, Pléiades, CSO/MUSIS legacy), and a strong research and development field in geographic information.

As GEOINT requires the management of huge amounts of data in various formats, contents, and big data solutions, it benefits, as elsewhere, from the incredible appeal driven by new economy professional and mass-market developments. In early 2017, the French government identified 180 start-ups and 70 academic laboratories involved in artificial intelligence (AI), and launched a national plan to develop this domain, which impacts military applications. AI seems to be a promising solution to face the challenge of GEOINT and smartly manage huge amounts of data. France has numerous assets in AI that have already attracted many corporate laboratories to the country (Facebook, Huawei, Sony, etc.). Thematic actors play an important role as well. For instance, the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel leads an impressive program to identify original information from copies and altered data, and set up both academic researches and a big data platform that capitalizes and analyzes the whole information produced by French media during a year. Such platforms match with one of the main GEOINT challenges: Enhance the automatic research, collection, and analysis of huge raw information sources, separate original from copy, capitalize it, and make them easily accessible to analysts.

Looking at the diversity of research initiatives, one of the key challenges will be to organize connections between domains and to allow defense and GEOINT to benefit from those technological assets and more globally share the costs of the essential and expensive infrastructure, enhance the skills, and develop the required tools. The Intelligence Campus, the new intelligence innovation cluster started in 2016 by DRM, aims to provide a common ground for defense contractors, innovators, researchers, academics, and students willing to embrace intelligence careers. That kind of initiative should help create a synergy and raise awareness of start-ups with potential interest in the Intelligence Community.

International Cooperation

For France, international cooperation is advanced and fruitful in the main GEOINT elements of geography and intelligence.

For geography, it is first and foremost focused on co-production programs that allow the sharing of a heavy workload that no individual country, not even the U.S., could achieve alone. These co-productions have also been a driving force for standardization and normalization, with positive consequences for interoperability. But working on joint programs in the long run also has multiple positive impacts on geospatial operational exchanges.

Intelligence relies on two main mechanisms:

  • Bilateral exchange in which each partner benefits from its counterpart’s areas of expertise. Africa is a good example for French strengths. Here, exchanges are on a give-and-take basis.
  • Multinational intelligence exchanges under NATO, the EU umbrella, or through international coalitions gathered for military operations.

In both cases, national sovereignty supersedes international cooperation.

Allied cooperation in GEOINT is ongoing and will be bred from GEO and INT cooperation expertise and procedures. The French involvement, although new, allows the country to join a restricted club. SatCen played a decisive role in the process of sharing tools, methods, and training at the European level, and French cooperation with this center helps national progress.

But this positive view must be balanced, as we already see negative factors. First, for allies/partners, U.S. investment and seniority in the field creates fears they will not catch up on the technological side and will be forced to use U.S. turnkey solutions without being able to develop a national (or even European) industry. This feeling seems to be shared by European countries that developed a strong defense industrial policy to protect their national companies. Concerns cover new technologies such as big data, AI, data mining, robotics, and massive intelligence. Currently, required human and financial resources could seem out of reach for European budgets, if only to be able to exchange information. The same fears appear between major European partners (like France or the UK) and smaller European partners. GEOINT as a discipline, using all these new techniques, could lead to a new divide between countries, while one of its goals is to reinforce information sharing.

Civilian and Business Appropriation

Considering the GEOINT field in its largest definition (production of relevant information and geospatial analysis for decision-makers), most French companies are “dealing” with GEOINT. Insurance, (geo)marketing, logistics, finance, social networks, advertising, security, defense, etc., know the benefit they can gain from the discipline. Consequently, many companies in France are seriously pursuing GEOINT, but most of the time without naming it such. And those businesses seldom interact with defense contractors, handling most of their needs with ICT companies or GIS software providers.

Civilian and business community investment in the GEOINT field is proportional to potential returns on investment. When a financial trader invests in geospatial insight superiority tools, it should be able to quantify precisely the benefits gained from this competitive edge.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2018 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety and to read this article with citations. 

French GEOINT, Main Challenges

Words, Their Translation, and (Lack of) Definition

Since the 16th century, intelligence has developed a double meaning in English: capacities of the mind; and information, information processing, and espionage. In French, there are two different words: “intelligence” for the capacities of the mind; and “renseignement” for information. Hence, the use of “geospatial intelligence” or “GEOINT” in French leads to multiple misunderstandings. Additionally, most early adopters in France were defense contractors eager to describe their former GEO and IMINT business under a fancier name. The translation issue, paired with the lack of formal education and definitions, led to use of the term GEOINT, without a clear and shared meaning. This has evolved since 2013, with the organization of seminars gathering military, academic, and business experts on GEOINT issues and the first French “Convention GEOINT” in June 2016 at Creil Air Base. But we still lack a French “GEOINT for Dummies” book allowing everybody to share the same definition.

Cultural Differences

GEOINT is about understanding the human landscape and activities. This understanding is influenced by French culture, education, history, and relationships with former French colonies.

The history of social sciences shows large differences between the French track and English or U.S. tracks. For decades in France, physical geography was the main preoccupation of surveyors and Army geographers while human geography was the preserve of universities with limited connection between universities and intelligence topics, contrary to England or the U.S.

Cultural differences are also linked with political and military history. Each colonial power had its own methods and interactions with local populations, which led to specific ways to understand, model, and describe the physical and human environment. This leads today to different views on those territories as well as different views of their GEOINT puzzles. These cultural differences should be viewed as an opportunity, with each partner bringing its specific knowledge and assets, as long as the common model does not erase those cultural gems.

Human Resources

The biggest challenge for French GEOINT may be to educate and maintain its workforce as much as recruiting new analysts and system experts. The national Intelligence Community needs to hire experts able to support the growth of agencies and to fulfill future requirements. The small size of DRM and DGSE in the field of GEOINT compared to an agency like NGA forces French Defense to explore different strategies and take direct benefit from operational experiences, improve information sharing between agencies, focus on areas of interest, and develop automation to improve data processing. The priority for intelligence agencies is also to recruit educated experts in new jobs such as big data engineers, database experts, or data scientists, which is challenging today because of great demand in these areas.

Despite its goal to increase its workforce in coming years, DRM faces a lack of academic training in GEOINT and other emerging areas. This situation may have heavy consequences on recruitment and may push the agency to find other solutions such as outsourcing. In today’s context of growing big data, this may be a solution to face critical issues of the future.

Budget Constraints

In recent years, the budgetary pressure on the French Armed Forces has relaxed due to the evolving international situation. This led in 2008 to the “knowledge and anticipation function” among the five strategic functions of the White Paper on Defence and National Security. According to the 2013 White Paper, “this function has particular importance since a capacity for autonomous assessment of situations is key to free, sovereign decision-making.” The recently published French Strategic Review confirms those priorities.

GEOINT capacity is at the core of this knowledge and anticipation function and therefore has been in some ways preserved. Development of intelligence-gathering capabilities, notably for space programs, is a priority for the next programming and budgeting period up to 2025, and is illustrated by the scheduled launch in 2018 of the first French CSO satellite, an optical component of the European MUSIS space imaging system.

However, traditional armament programs do not easily suit GEOINT, which requires more innovative and agile solutions, geared by military operational constraints and experience feedback through short evaluation cycles and evolution of French and allied joint operations doctrine.

This pragmatic approach is illustrated by the new Laboratoire d’Innovation Spatiale des Armées (LISA), co-chaired by the Joint Space Command and Procurement Agency. While not dedicated only to GEOINT, it will address most of the relevant GEOINT issues. 

Making a Difference in Operational Support Improvement

Intelligence is essential for planning, command, and control of military operations, but is also the cornerstone of crisis prevention. GEOINT should bring a better understanding of an operational environment and the ability to evaluate efficiently a situation’s potential at all decision levels.

The ambition of DRM/CRGI is to maintain a connection between tactical, operational, and strategic levels by deploying GEOINT expert teams on battlefields. It has two main advantages; it allows tactical units to easily access GEOINT products and helps GEOINT experts develop a better understanding of operational needs and conditions. But it is still difficult for units at operational and tactical levels to have access to good levels of intelligence, notably because neither their analysts nor their systems are adapted to the GEOINT approach.

Agencies need to improve their operational support means and develop new capabilities to provide deployed forces with an on-demand and near real-time access to relevant intelligence through an integrated geospatial environment.

Moreover, French GEOINT should shift priorities to include a more “bottom-up collaborative” approach to allow decision-makers with precise situational awareness and warfighters to share relevant information.

French GEOINT, Our Recommendations

In France, if the community now shares the basic goals of GEOINT, the U.S. model cannot be transposed directly. To bring a useful contribution, France has to develop its own GEOINT, based on its culture and adapted to its resources and assets (scientific, technical, human, budgetary, organizational) to create innovative interactions with its defense partners and with a globalized industry.


If French GEOINT size and ambitions are not comparable to those of NGA, it faces similar issues on the need to develop new solutions and processes, to increase human resources, and to keep pace with the huge amount of data to be processed.

As for geographic data production and services, partnerships and outsourcing can be applied to intelligence to monitor permanent infrastructures or large areas. This approach can bring flexibility to help armed forces to focus on hard problems and operational support.

Organizational Challenges

The relationship between institutions, industry, and academics does not allow France to directly transpose U.S. initiatives and practices. At best, industry researchers are driven with academic laboratory support. There are few industrial interactions and it limits the short-term emergence of this market. Another challenge is to merge different cultures, especially when they are not scientific or technological. However, GEOINT needs this crossing between various domains. Cultural change within companies is needed.

Normalization Challenges

If normalization has been one of the big successes of the past 30 years for the exchange of geospatial information, the cultural differences have a big impact for the normalization of information describing populations, religions, or activities. It will be an important challenge for all allies.


French GEOINT is in a transition phase and faces huge and exciting challenges. A necessary cooperation must be stimulated inside industry, between industry and academics, and in various fields mixing social and technical sciences. The main success criteria will be related to processing of huge data flows and dissemination to decision-makers and users with decisive support and relevant situational awareness, anytime, anywhere.

France must create a GEOINT Community to accelerate the development of the discipline inside and outside of defense. A multidisciplinary national organization dedicated to GEOINT is necessary to set goals and continuously develop the discipline, animate the community, and facilitate exchanges between agencies, private companies, and academics. French academics have also a role to develop GEOINT culture and educate the future workforce. New courses must be adapted to train future GEOINT experts.

Initiatives such as the Intelligence Campus or LISA are a necessary first step, but need to include—as soon as possible—ancillary activities such as accurate education of human resources on new intelligence matters: GEOINT, of course, but also automation of processes, open-source data mining, and more. And those initiatives must motivate schools and universities to join and invest in the domain. With strong coordination of these entities rather than creating a unique one, integration of GEOINT as a foundation of all intelligence disciplines would lead to higher efficiency and a new edge in French Intelligence.

Headline Image: A French soldier works with African military leaders as part of Operation Barkhane. Photo Credit: French Ministry of Defense

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Weekly GEOINT Community News Mon, 29 Jan 2018 16:29:51 +0000 National Space Defense Center Transitions to 24/7 Operations; Northrop Grumman to Form Innovation Systems Business Unit; Orbital ATK to Research Hypersonic Engines with DARPA; More

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National Space Defense Center Transitions to 24/7 Operations

Less than a year after changing the name of the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center to the National Space Defense Center (NSDC), the NSDC transitioned to 24/7 operations Jan. 8, marking a significant step for the expanding interagency team focused on protecting and defending the nation’s critical space assets. The NSDC directly supports unified space defense efforts and expands information sharing in space defense operations among the DoD, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other interagency partners.

Northrop Grumman to Form Innovation Systems Business Unit

Northrop Grumman announced it will stand up a new innovation systems business unit following its $9.1 billion purchase of Orbital ATK, which is expected to close in the first half of 2018. Blake Larson, Orbital’s COO, has been chosen to lead the innovation systems business.

Orbital ATK to Research Hypersonic Engines with DARPA

DARPA’s Advanced Full Range Engine (AFRE) program has called on Orbital ATK to help study the use of turbine and hypersonic engines in a new jet propulsion system. If successful, the engine will be able to operate in a range of speeds, from low-speed runway takeoff to hypersonic flight. Orbital ATK maintains multiple hypersonic test facilities on the East Coast and offers custom testing for the developing technology.

DARPA Exploring DNA as Molecular Computing Platform

DARPA is investigating DNA as a possible molecular computing platform capable of storing, retrieving, and processing massive data collections much faster than traditional electronics. One University of Washington computer science team wants to create a DNA-based image search engine by coding image features into DNA strings. Users would type in a coded query to extract sequences that match the query using magnetic nanoparticles. A sequencer and a few more algorithms would turn those sequences back into visible images. Other researchers are investigating atoms, ions, photons, electrons, and even organic compounds as potential data processors.

Google’s Lunar Xprize to End Without Winner

More than 10 years since its introduction, Google’s Lunar Xprize challenge for companies to land spacecraft on the moon will end with no viable winner. The four teams in competition either lack the capital to continue development or are not ready to launch this year. Google, which extended the challenge deadline from 2014 to 2015 to 2018, does not plan to allow another extension, and says it is pleased with the groundbreaking progress and companies that formed as a result of the competition.

USGIF and Hexagon Offer Software Grants to Universities

USGIF has partnered with Hexagon Geospatial to offer software licenses to 14 universities and colleges. Students and faculty at USGIF-accredited schools will receive three years of free access to Hexagon’s desktop and cloud-based Smart M.App software. Smart M.Apps are interactive mapping tools designed to help build geospatial cloud applications by combining content, analysis, and workflows.

Peer Intel

The White House reports President Trump will appoint Suzette Kent, a principal at professional services firm EY, as federal chief intelligence officer. She’ll be appointed as administrator of the Office of Management and Budget’s office of electronic government, where she’ll oversee cybersecurity and IT management regulations.

Kent Matlick, senior vice president and general manager of Vencore’s intelligence group, was named to the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s new advisory committee. 

Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, the Navy’s director of intelligence, recently submitted her retirement paperwork. Nominated for her position is Vice Adm. Matthew Kohler, former commander of the Naval Information Forces Command.

Photo Credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

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Operationalizing Project Maven Fri, 12 Jan 2018 15:24:20 +0000 AI algorithms make their combat debut

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The U.S. military has deployed an advanced artificial intelligence system to the battlefield for the first time.

In April 2017, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work established a new Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team for the Department of Defense. Dubbed “Project Maven” and led by Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, director for defense intelligence, warfighter support with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the initiative explores ways the military could use deep learning and neural networks to extract insights from intelligence data, support warfighters, and ultimately defeat ISIS. Within two months, the team received funding from Congress. In December, after six months of research and development, the group deployed to the Middle East its first mission-ready product: an object recognition algorithm for identifying features in video footage from ScanEagle reconnaissance drones.

Imagery labeling and sorting is a lucrative task for data analysts, but also a tedious one that can lead to burnout and fatigue-driven errors. By automating the object detection process, military operators can analyze larger quantities of data faster and maintain accuracy while redirecting human energy to more abstract areas. 

A week after combat trials began, the algorithm was able to identify people, vehicles, and different building types with an accuracy rate of about 80 percent, Defense One reported. The Maven team has paired its algorithm with a Navy and Marine Corps tool called Minotaur, which geo-registers an object’s coordinates and displays its exact location on a map.

As testing continues in the next few months, the algorithm will be refined and deployed to more U.S. Special Operations Command teams for use with larger tactical UAVs and eventually ISR satellites. The system will also be introduced to other data types (such as radar) for use across more operational contexts.

While the applied use cases are still narrow and require careful oversight, Project Maven’s early success is a sign that AI may soon play a key role in military combat. Military competitors such as China and Russia have taken interest in the technology as well, reinforcing the idea that the future landscape of war will rely heavily on human-machine teaming.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

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Digitizing the Mind Fri, 08 Dec 2017 17:03:42 +0000 Merging biological and artificial intelligence

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The human brain is a frustrating paradox for scientists and researchers. Solving the mysteries of the brain could help quantify abstract concepts such as language, memory, and imagination. Its neural activity could be modified to make people learn faster and think quicker. Better understanding the brain could also help develop treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and unlock the secrets of consciousness. But the organ’s complexity is baffling. Humans have barely begun to discover the potential that exists within the brain, and it may take decades before significant, applicable breakthroughs are made.

A forward-thinking population of the tech community is working toward those breakthroughs using neuroprosthetic devices and brain-sensor interfaces, essentially digitizing the electric signals that bounce among neurons as the brain operates.

A recent Wired article tells the story of entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who is using neural wiring to capture the brain activity that triggers memories. Johnson owns an algorithm capable of recording and translating neural signals into code that can be enhanced or altered and sent back to the brain—like Photoshop for a person’s memory.

Though his focus on memory is unique, Johnson isn’t alone in his pursuit. Mark Zuckerberg and a team from Facebook are developing a non-invasive, speech-to-text interface using optical imaging to type words as the user thinks them. The federal government has taken an interest in this trend as well, and is on the front lines of research and development. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Biological Technologies Office has created a direct neural interface for movement and sensation that is capable of restoring function for people who’ve lost the ability to feel or move a limb, for example.

The artificial intelligence (AI) community is now leveraging this type of research with the goal of harnessing the human brain’s propensity for logical and critical thinking, emotion, and creativity. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has invested heavily in Neuralink, a brain implant company hoping to improve brain function by using “neural lace” to merge human consciousness with software and AI. Google’s DeepMind initiative has created an artificial neural network that uses rational reasoning to make decisions and solve puzzles.

While the common trope pits man against machine, the future landscape of intelligence seems better poised for cooperation than competition.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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Self-Starting Artificial Intelligence Fri, 01 Dec 2017 17:26:37 +0000 AI algorithms learn to build and refine new algorithms

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Artificial intelligence (AI) experts are both rare and valuable in today’s tech marketplace. Montreal-based Element AI reports fewer than 10,000 people in the world have the specialized skills required to build and teach complex, intelligent algorithms. According to the New York Times, Google, Facebook, and other massive firms offer unbeatable salaries, typically between $300,000 and $500,000, to those individuals, essentially cornering off the professional market from other emerging players in the AI space.

This talent shortage has led firms to look elsewhere to satiate the immediate demand for AI developers. Leading researchers have found automation may be the key to advancing AI capabilities despite the lack of human expertise: intelligent machines creating new intelligent machines.

In training machine learning programs, researchers flood an algorithm with relevant data to test, for example, how well it can recognize and identify certain objects or how accurately it can translate between languages. Based on the algorithm’s performance, researchers will alter the code until the desired level of accuracy is achieved. It now appears this task could soon be outsourced to machines.

Industry and academia’s most advanced AI efforts are creating algorithms capable of analyzing the development of other algorithms, learning how to recognize success and failure, and eventually making corrections to improve the software’s intuition. Google’s AutoML learning software has reportedly created object identification algorithms with higher rates of accuracy than those built by human experts. Researchers at MIT, UC Berkeley, nonprofit OpenAI, and Google’s DeepMind have also reported progress in the field.

If this “meta-learning” technology becomes more practical and accessible, AI could experience more rapid adoption in fields such as health care, transportation, and finance, where current capabilities are too expensive and unreliable.

Photo Credit: AILabs

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NGA Eyes Analytic Assistance Wed, 16 Aug 2017 20:14:25 +0000 NGA has placed automation and machine learning at the top of its list of strategic priorities

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For the commercial sector, analytics-as-a-service (AaaS) is a game changer. By delivering spaceborne intelligence to industries that have never had access to it, AaaS companies can offer customers a competitive edge sharper than a Japanese sushi knife. It’s not just the private sector that stands to benefit from AaaS, however; it’s also the defense and intelligence communities—including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which has placed automation and machine learning at the top of its list of strategic priorities, Director Robert Cardillo reported at this year’s GEOINT Symposium in San Antonio, Texas.

“If we attempted to manually exploit all of the imagery we’ll collect over the next 20 years, we’d need 8 million imagery analysts,” Cardillo said during his Symposium keynote, adding that NGA already collects with a single sensor—every day—the data equivalent of three NFL seasons recorded in high-definition video. “Imagine you’re a coach trying to understand the strategy of his opponent by watching a game—every game and every play for three seasons, all in a single day … That’s exactly what we ask our analysts to do when we don’t augment them with automation. All this data, combined with dramatic improvements in computing power, represents a phenomenal opportunity.”

NGA is counting on AaaS upstarts to help it seize that opportunity, according to Scot Currie, director of NGA’s Source Mission Integration Office.

“For the last 40 years, NGA has been applying a rather brute-force approach to dealing with all of our various data sources,” said Currie, who called AaaS “the most exciting part of what’s happening in industry right now.”

“We’re extracting value manually out of pixel streams … That’s not something that scales when you talk about moving to the kinds of rapid-revisit suppliers that are coming forth now across the commercial community. So, we’ve got to look at things like machine learning and algorithm development,” Currie continued.

Unlike commercial AaaS customers, many of which lack human resources to analyze satellite imagery, NGA has a deep bench of human analysts it will continue to leverage going forward. As the volume of commercial imagery swells, the agency sees AaaS as an analytic metal detector that will help analysts sift through sand in search of buried treasure.

“We want machines to do what machines do best,” said Currie, adding AaaS will be ideal for rote tasks like counting the tanks and aircraft in a target location, while human analysts will be retained to determine why the military vehicles are there in the first place. “We’re trying to get analysts freed up so they can do higher-order thinking to answer broader questions.”

NGA analysts will still need pixels. Using their machine learning algorithms for automated change detection, however, AaaS companies will be able to flag for NGA analysts which pixels they should look at and when.

Although he declined to name them, Currie said NGA is already testing some AaaS offerings via its Commercial GEOINT Activity (CGA), a joint program with the National Reconnaissance Office through which the agencies are evaluating new commercial capabilities.

“Between us and CGA, we’re building an assessment process that’s going to eventually tell us who the best-of-breed is among these new analytic services,” reported Currie, who said the most important attribute for AaaS providers to demonstrate is veracity. Until providers can all but eliminate false positives, he said, AaaS will be on NGA’s wish list instead of in its toolbox.

“For us to make the decision to move resources [away from humans and toward machines] we’re going to need a fairly significant confidence level … And quite honestly, what’s good enough for [commercial customers] may not be good enough for us.”

Its high standards mean NGA may lag commercial industry in AaaS adoption. But even if the agency moves slower, it will forge ahead, Currie promised.

“I’ve been a part of [NGA’s] commercial imagery team since 2010, when I was the first program manager for the EnhancedView contract that started this whole transformation,” he said. “We saw [AaaS] happening then, but it was only on the periphery. There was a lot of vision, but that vision is now starting to show up in execution and delivery of real capability … We’re excited to become a stronger part of these commercial offerings and to bring them to our customers.”

Return to feature story: The Insight Economy

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Innovating for the Homeland Wed, 16 Aug 2017 20:13:05 +0000 Q&A with Andre Hentz, acting deputy under secretary for Science & Technology (S&T) with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

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Andre Hentz is acting deputy under secretary for Science & Technology with the Department of Homeland Security.

Q: What led you to a career in S&T?

I had a profound interest in science and technology from a young age. I grew up in Asheville, N.C., in the mountains, and my brothers, cousins, and I watched a lot of science fiction—Star Trek, Battle Star Galactica, Buck Rogers. We liked things that challenged our imaginations. We would then take that to the playground and emulate what we had seen on TV. I think from my formative years that led me to always have a need to better understand science and technology.

I did a tenure at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where I worked in the advance technology office as a business financial manager. There, I met Dr. Reggie Brothers, who would later become the DHS under secretary for S&T. He hired me at DARPA to manage his portfolio and was a key enabler to quench my thirst in S&T. He took the time to teach me what his crazy projects were trying to achieve. We executed programs in LiDAR, radar, and ISR.

Currently, I serve as the alter ego to the current DHS under secretary for S&T William Bryan. I provide oversight for the S&T budget, which is managed through a staff of about 475 federal employees plus contractors. We support the directorate in protecting the homeland by providing state-of-the-art S&T solutions and resources to federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners.

Q: How do S&T’s R&D efforts contribute to the DHS mission space?

Our research is multifaceted. We ensure DHS and the homeland security community have the resources needed to prevent manmade natural disasters and also to provide response and recovery from threats manmade and natural. We develop tools to protect the nation and infrastructure from chemical, biological, radiological, and cyber attacks.

We seek to leverage other technological advancements throughout the government and make them appropriate for domestic use. A lot of times DoD may have made investments that with minor tweaking can be tailored to what we do here at DHS.

S&T serves as a trusted partner for DHS operators and we maintain complex roles and responsibilities. We directly provide the Secretary of Homeland Security with fact-based information to aid in decision-making.

S&T is the executive agent to 13 bilateral partner-sharing agreements for the purpose of sharing technological solutions and understanding around the thrust of homeland security. The agreements allow us to better collaborate, share research, and essentially buy down each nation’s risk in these areas. Most recently, we’ve been working cyber research in the Netherlands and also with our British counterparts trying to figure out technologies to assess and understand UAVs.

Q: What is the importance of precision location information and ISR assets across DHS mission sets?

Location is critical to a first responder being fully protected, connected, and aware. We consider precision location a key research area. For example, the POINTER technology we have provides context-aware tracking capabilities for first responders.

As automated vehicles come online our cyber division is working with the Department of Transportation to have a safety and security layer embedded in the engineering process. We are trying to ascertain how to add a layer of geospatial location information in this domain to ensure a vehicle is on its correct path and that it is where it believes it is.

All of the data in the world, if not taken advantage of, is just all the data in the world.

Another example of how we’re looking to take advantage of geospatial data is Polar Scout—an endeavor in which the Coast Guard is partnering with S&T to see if we can enhance maritime awareness in the Polar North. Recently, the first cruise ships started sailing in the Northwest Passage. That’s going to bring into consideration other business opportunities through that northern passage and that will ultimately yield an increased workload for the Coast Guard. We’re doing an analysis of alternatives to determine whether an inexpensive satellite constellation for the purposes of search and rescue would be appropriate. This would give the Coast Guard better intelligence in terms of who’s up there. It might also offer common opportunities and provide persistent geospatial information to understand when to deploy valuable assets such as cutters and other equipment in that potentially dangerous area.

Q: Is S&T doing any research in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning?

Absolutely. Within the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) we have a data analytics engine and right now they are conducting research into the latest developments in machine learning. We are partnering with many organizations interested in machine learning and AI. In recent work with TSA we examined the performance of risk assessment algorithms for aviation security. This will result in technical information used by TSA in considering future operations. HSARPA also hosts regular workshops where a variety of big data techniques are discussed.

In the area of cargo transportation we have an initiative in which we’re trying to characterize and give organizations like the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) better assurance that cargo coming into the United States truly aligns with the manifest that’s sent ahead. One of our novel approaches seeks to better characterize the pollen discharges on shipping containers to see whether the native origin of the pollen matches what’s stated. Machine learning and AI will assist in accelerating these use cases.

Q: How are advanced data analytics and visualization changing S&T’s approach to its research?

All of the data in the world, if not taken advantage of, is just all the data in the world. We’re always trying to figure out novel ways to give an enhanced view of what the data means to decision-makers. The user interface associated with how data is displayed to a decision-maker is one part of the puzzle. We try to eliminate the proverbial ‘crap on a map.’

In our Flood Apex program, S&T aims to help the Texas region better understand what is happening in the Rio Grande area with respect to flood potential. We want to help decision-makers understand when flooding is imminent and interface with existing systems to give visual understanding of the exact area that might flood. This helps decision-makers make the call on whether to evacuate or to be confident there is an acceptable level of risk and tell residents to shelter in place. These kinds of initiatives are scalable to the entire first responder and homeland security enterprise.

Q: How is S&T helping address the challenge of management and analysis of video content acquired by UAVs?

We always work with our friends at CBP who use larger UAV platforms to collect video for border security operations to see if there are better compression technologies or algorithms that could help them.

What we’re speaking to is a much larger big data problem most government agencies are faced with—trying to understand what the real data repository looks like. We don’t have the resources to store everything all the time at maximum resolution. DHS wants to answer how much of this data needs to be on station versus in the cloud. Do we need specific hypervisors that can pull data on demand as needed for specific use cases?

We’re looking to see if it’s possible to use TSA data sets in partnership with CBP and Homeland Security Investigations. Everyone has their own data sets that when aggregated don’t always avail to a structure that is easily usable and discernable by an operator. We’re working with partners to address this and develop tailored solutions that are crosscutting for the entire department.
S&T is also doing interagency work with regard to UAVs. The velocity of UAVs and their potential in the homeland is in the near future. This administration has articulated the need to integrate UAVs into the national airspace. We are working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration, DoD, and the Departments of Commerce and Justice to ensure as integration occurs the business case is fostered in such way to inspire and cultivate commerce while protecting the homeland.

Q: What advice do you have for young professionals interested in careers in homeland security and/or R&D?

If you’re seeking the geek or nerd cred, by all means, go forward and chase that passion. At DHS we are always looking for talented individuals, especially in areas of S&T as things come online like nontraditional financing, blockchain technology, synthetic biology, and the maker movement with 3D printing and other additive manufacturing. We need sharp, innovative, forward-thinkers who have a natural appetite for curiosity in these arenas. The dark web also presents asymmetrical challenges that we may not be thinking about. We make no assumption that we know everything.

We need to be futuristic in how we think about the workforce and we strive not to compete with industry, but to let them know DHS S&T is a viable option and we welcome them to the workforce with open arms.

Quick Facts

Career Inspiration: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Favorite Movies: Apocalypto and Troy
Currently Reading: The Never Paradox by T. Ellery Hodges

Featured image: A CPB Black Hawk helicopter conducts a familiarization flight near New York City prior to the Super Bowl.

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Record Breaking Data Storage Thu, 03 Aug 2017 22:36:23 +0000 IBM once again breaks record for uncompressed data storage

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While most modern data storage efforts (such as Google’s Nearline and Coldline) are focused on the cloud, IBM Research and Sony recently announced a major breakthrough in one of the field’s oldest technologies: sputtered magnetic tape.

Using a cartridge prototype that can fit in the palm of a hand, IBM can now store up to 330 terabytes—more than 330 million books worth—of uncompressed data. According to Techspot, that’s six times the size of the world’s largest hard drive.

At 201 gigabits of data per square inch, this is the highest areal recording density ever achieved and about 20 times the density of mainstream commercial tape drives. This new capacity surpasses IBM’s existing world record set in 2015 of 123 gigabits per square inch. To store 330TB, IBM’s newest cartridge holds more than 1 kilometer of tape.


According to a Sony press release, the high performance tape was developed “by bringing together Sony’s new magnetic tape technology employing lubricant with IBM Research – Zurich’s newly developed write/read heads, advanced servo control technologies, and innovative signal-processing algorithms.”

Magnetic tape is a strong means of storage thanks to its ability to hold high volumes of data over long periods of time, low consumption of computing power, and low cost per terabyte.

Techspot reports the milestone—IBM’s fifth storage density record since 2006—has cemented the tech firm’s plans to scale up tape storage research and development for the next decade as it seeks solutions to one the greatest big data challenges.

Photo Credit: IBM Research

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