Aviation, GIS, and Continuous Learning

John Desmarais, director of operations, Civil Air Patrol


John Desmarais, director of operations, Civil Air Patrol

The first time John Desmarais got into the cockpit of an airplane, he was hooked. Desmarais joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) in 1987, and shortly thereafter began pursuing his undergraduate degree in aviation business and safety of flight at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During his senior year, Desmarais landed a position with CAP’s cadet programs office. He eventually moved to the operations side, and has been climbing the ladder ever since, including eight years spent as deputy director of operations, and six (so far) as director. In 1996, Desmarais founded the National Emergency Services Academy, which educates nearly 500 students each summer.

What is your advice for young GEOINT professionals?

Never stop learning. The technology we use day to day is constantly changing, and in many cases, amazingly, getting less expensive. CAP is a nonprofit, so we don’t have millions of dollars to throw at problems, but we can cost-effectively take on new missions by paying attention to industry and staying abreast of new technology. People see you continuing your education and staying in tune with current trends, and that allows you to progress.

How does CAP employ geospatial data to support its numerous missions?

We do a lot of airborne imagery collection for state and local emergency management agencies and FEMA. We’re not necessarily managing GIS programs, but we’re trying to provide commercial, off-the-shelf, easily importable imagery for folks to use for emergency response.

How important is open data sharing with regard to CAP’s emergency response efforts alongside federal agencies?

Part of the reason CAP is successful is because we make our data so easily accessible. We don’t want to be the keepers of imagery. We don’t have tons of money to put into data storage and management. When you collect large-scale imagery and video, you’re talking about huge volumes of data.

Years ago, we used to host imagery as part of our systems. We had a publicly viewable website, as well as secure sites for sensitive data. In the big picture, though, we weren’t the best option for the maintenance of that imagery. We had to purge it quickly and couldn’t maintain it long-term.

We worked with FEMA who now hosts all of our publicly available imagery as part of their GEOPlatform. We took close to half a million photos for hurricane season alone last year. All of it is hosted by FEMA. They even host our training imagery.

How important are civilian volunteers to your mission?

CAP is unique in that volunteers conduct the vast majority of our missions. We’ve only got about 150 paid staffers. There are lots of things volunteers could do in an increased capacity for agencies, and I think some agencies are starting to realize the significance of the volunteer population.

Everybody has an iPhone or smart device with which they can collect pretty good imagery of just about any event. For applications like emergency response, GIS workers are starting to look at whatever imagery is immediately available. Lots of organizations and government agencies are beginning to incorporate unconventional imagery when there is a starving need for it immediately after an incident. We’ve worked closely with FEMA on crowdsourcing capabilities employed during recent hurricane responses, which allows people to rate pictures and help us direct resources.

What excites you most about the future of GEOINT?

Accessibility. I’ve been in the industry a long time, and I’ve seen expensive sensor systems do great things. Now that costs have gone down and devices are smaller, they’re a lot more accessible and easier to employ in new ways.

We did an RFI a few years ago for aerial imagery sensors. Systems that cost millions of dollars per sensor then cost half a million dollars now, and prices keep dropping. There’s an overwhelming need for these tools.

How has USGIF Membership helped your career development?

CAP was introduced to USGIF through NGA and FEMA. What helped me most is visibility into what everybody else in the industry is doing so we can do our due diligence to keep up. I’m not a GIS professional; I’m an aviation professional who uses GIS tools. It’s helpful to see how all levels of government are acting because the landscape changes every day. USGIF has also allowed me to provide opportunities to some of my folks through training or long-term strategic planning. It’s been a guide for how we should support our role in the community.

Feature image: This oblique aerial photo monitoring the status of Antonio Juarbe Pol Airport in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, was taken in September 2017 during Hurricane Maria response efforts. (Photo by Maj. Dayle Robinson, Civil Air Patrol)

USGIF Member Spotlight: Janes

We caught up with Sam Gordy, president of Janes US, a defense intelligence firm based in Rosslyn, Virginia, to discuss the company’s role in GEOINT and what excites him most about the industry


USGIF Member Spotlight: Planet Federal

Jon Powers, vice president of sales at Planet Federal, spoke with trajectory about the company’s role in GEOINT and what makes them unique.


USGIF Member Spotlight: ICEYE

ICEYE co-founder Rafal Modrzewski discusses the origin and evolution of the Finnish SAR satellite company and its partnership to provide Ukraine with access to SAR capabilities.