In 2005, Title 10 of the U.S. Code, Section 467 defined geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) as the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth. In the immediate years following that definition, when the community referenced GEOINT, use of the term tended to refer exclusively to government-related activity. 

However, GEOINT has developed beyond its exclusive government upbringing and surged into the commercial realm. In the last few years, ‘commercial GEOINT’ has gained popularity as the industry began to rapidly and efficiently deliver GEOINT capabilities for both government and commercial uses. The private sector continues to make impressive strides in the GEOINT field, propelled by myriad factors such as market competition, agile development processes, and unprecedented technological advances. 

Due to its unclassified nature, commercial GEOINT provides rapid, sharable, global situational awareness. 

Commercial GEOINT enables widespread access to various geospatial data from different sensor platforms such as radio frequency (RF), satellite imagery, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR). These capabilities help with map production, the safety of air and navigation products, intelligence for humanitarian missions, disaster relief, monitoring infectious diseases, and even aiding the U.S. and its allies against illicit activities.

Example 1: HawkEye 360 RF Capabilities in Action

With Chinese fisheries largely depleted, China’s fleet of fishing vessels has ventured abroad over the past several years, searching for marine life. While China provides assurances that its fleet abides by international laws and regulations, there are claims of indiscriminate fishing, resource depletion, and aggression toward other vessels and authorities. In late July 2020, officials spotted a Chinese fleet of approximately 260 ships outside the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) surrounding the Galápagos Islands. Their presence raised the prospect of severe damage to the delicate marine ecosystem.

HawkEye 360, which uses formation-flying satellite clusters to detect, characterize and geolocate radio frequency (RF) signals, quickly initiated monitoring to improve situational awareness of the fleet’s activity. Their efforts revealed Chinese vessels attempting to hide by deactivating Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking hundreds of times. They discovered evidence of illegal fishing, with multiple instances of dark vessels operating within the Galápagos EEZ. It is tough to find vessels participating in illegal fishing, especially when they turn off their AIS. HawkEye 360 delivered a unique method to gain maritime awareness through RF geospatial intelligence. The company routinely collected and analyzed various maritime RF signals, such as X-band marine navigation radar, to increase visibility beyond AIS alone. With new capabilities like the maritime domain awareness provided by HawkEye 360, nations can better assess compliance and enforce proper behavior.

“I classify our value proposition in three ways,” said John Serafini, CEO, HawkEye 360. “The first is the augmentation to national systems. Second, we are an intelligence provider. The third is turnkey data analytics, where we apply data science and other modalities to examine what that object is doing and extract intelligence about its behavior and intentions.”

Example 2: Planet Daily Satellite Imagery for Humanitarian Missions

About 37% of the Earth’s surface and 70% of the globe’s freshwater is used for agriculture. According to the World Bank, by 2050, agricultural production must expand approximately 70% to meet the world’s needs. Therefore, future agriculture production will require 25 to 40% more water. 

Manna Irrigation (Manna) was founded to combat this growing issue. They deliver actionable information to farmers and growers worldwide to make better-informed, more confident irrigation decisions to combat the global water and food crisis. To accomplish this task more effectively and efficiently, Manna will incorporate Planet’s satellite imagery capabilities, PlanetScope, to monitor and archive their solution, providing better prediction services for irrigation of agricultural fields. 

Manna chose Planet because of its ability to get updated imagery daily, provide archives, and monitor data. 

“Global change is accelerating, and the world is increasingly interconnected,” said Planet co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Robbie Schingler during a Planet Live DC session. “Moreover, satellite imagery has been critical for capturing that change. Nevertheless, the traditional satellite imaging model is not keeping pace with the demands of our shifting world. You need to capture change as it happens to make mission-critical decisions in an ever-changing context. Planet operates the most extensive commercial constellation of very high-resolution satellites, capturing imagery multiple times a day and providing unprecedented visibility and intelligence. With Planet, you can collect time-sensitive information at the point of need.” 

Example 3: Capella Space Works with Government Agencies

The demand for commercial GEOINT grows every day, even beyond the private sector. Amid a surge of commercial sources of GEOINT and data services, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is pivoting from its traditional reliance on government-owned data to take advantage of private-sector capabilities. 

In June 2020, Capella Space signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with NGA, which gives Capella access to NGA researchers for more in-depth insight into queries. In return, NGA gains access to Capella Space’s SAR data and analytics services and signifies NGA’s first research partnership with a U.S. commercial small satellite SAR data company to expand its research capabilities. Capella played a critical role in satisfying NGA’s mission to expand its production and publication of unclassified operations and intelligence. The NGA Commercial GEOINT Strategy provides a vision and plan for continually increasing collaboration with commercial GEOINT companies to meet rising customer demands for more timely and persistent imagery, analytics, and contextual information. 

“Capella Space is primarily focused on providing defense and intelligence with tasking and collection at specific locations to satisfy intelligence requirements. In addition to providing pixels, mission-critical needs are met by increasing the responsiveness of our tasking and delivery, complete confidentiality over a fully encrypted system, and providing unclassified imagery shareable with mission partners,” said Payam Banazadeh, founder and CEO, Capella Space. 

As the first U.S. commercial SAR company and as an industry leader, Capella Space was the ideal partner to facilitate the execution of NGA’s plan. The CRADA further strengthened Capella Space’s already trusted relationship with U.S. government agencies. In May 2020, Capella Space also signed a contract to provide high-resolution SAR data and analytics on-demand for the U.S. Navy. 

Challenges Arise 

With this growing demand for commercial capabilities, the abundance of data available has grown exponentially. With that growth, several challenges arise. 

First, as the volume of commercial imagery continues to grow, private and public sectors are seeking ways to work more efficiently as they partner in developing a strategic edge for U.S. GEOINT capabilities. Commercial sensors are complementary rather than competitive to government-owned technology. Additionally, government plays a central role in the current space business, and regulation in the U.S. has adjusted over the last year. However, industry partners highlight the challenges of balancing national security concerns with free markets to ensure the U.S. stays competitive in international space. 

“Rather than restricting companies to only follow in the footsteps of international space progress, the government should empower and enable U.S. companies to expand innovation and accelerate progress to capture more of the commercial market,” said Banazadeh.

Another challenge in this demanding, changing, and competitive field is maintaining decision advantage.

For Hawkeye 360, that means delivering new functionality with better performance characteristics on an incremental basis. 

“We are today financed and provisioned to have seven steady-state clusters, which provide a revisit rate well under an hour,” said Serafini. “Furthermore, we have built the ground infrastructure to support delivering data well under an hour to our customers. We see that as table stakes to be relevant for any government mission.” 

Cheaper launches, smaller satellites, and advances in cloud computing have led to a rich ecosystem of commercial imagery providers with increasing temporal and spatial resolution. It is not enough to simply have the data; to produce actionable intelligence, data must be understood—what is the story behind the numbers? 

The Future of Commercial GEOINT

Commercial GEOINT capabilities will continue to expand as the industry is propelled forward by competitive drivers, agile development processes, and unprecedented technological advances. Today’s global challenges, such as the pandemic and climate change, have pushed governments worldwide to expand the commercial market much faster because this kind of data can help save lives. 

While the tools have changed, the mission remains the same. “Our job is pretty simple to say but complicated to do,” said Robert Cardillo, USGIF Board Chair and president of the Cardillo Group, during a Planet Live DC session. “We need to scan the horizon, detect, identify, and assess threats before events dictate. “We are still scanning the horizon. We are still detecting. We are still identifying. We are still assessing. However, if we do not convey that threat or opportunity, whatever it is to a decision-maker in time, we have not done our job when they can use it. So, yes, a lot is changing inside of that world. The two bookends remain the same.”

Feature image: Cluster 1 Global RF GEOINT (credit: HawkEye 360)

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Posted by Lisbeth Perez