Ball Aerospace: Staying Ahead of the Curve

Ball Aerospace offers capabilities for an integrated GEOINT enterprise


The Ball Aerospace culture is built on solving tough challenges. The company’s legacy of successful defense, civil, and commercial missions has created a mindset to support and advance the rapidly changing GEOINT landscape.

“We’re collegial, innovative, and collaborative, and that has been a winning combination for nearly 60 years,” said Debra Facktor Lepore, vice president and general manager of strategic operations.

Working with DigitalGlobe since the mid ’90s, Ball Aerospace has provided four remote sensing satellites for commercial earth observation and geospatial analysis. Most recently, Ball developed and built the WorldView-3 satellite for DigitalGlobe. On orbit since August, WorldView-3 features multi-spectral, high-resolution imaging capabilities for use across a wide range of applications, including defense and intelligence, civil government mapping, and disaster relief and land-use planning.

Quadriplegic race car driver Sam Schmidt tests Ball Aerospace’s semi-autonomous motorcar technology, which allows a driver to accelerate a vehicle by nodding his or her head and to steer by a tilt of the head. Photo Credit: Ball Aerospace

In addition to building the WorldView-3 bus, Ball also built the satellite’s Cloud, Aerosol, Water Vapor, Ice, Snow (CAVIS) atmospheric instrument. CAVIS will monitor the atmosphere and provide correction data to improve WorldView-3’s ability to image earth objects through haze, soot, dust, or clouds.

“CAVIS paves the way for a new age in automated information extraction and change detection,” Lepore said.

Ball is also a pioneer in providing persistent surveillance tools.

“We are at the forefront of deriving and delivering unique intelligence information used in military engagements,” said Vonna Weir Heaton, the company’s vice president and lead executive for information and intelligence solutions. “Fusion of existing data sources, along with our creative processing algorithms and research and development software tools, support a 24/7 operational environment and long-term analytic research.”

Lepore attributes Ball’s ability to stay connected to changing mission needs to the company’s culture of collaboration. An example of Ball’s collaborative philosophy involves a triad approach to development programs, using three viewpoints or functional teams: operational users, research and development, and software/systems engineering. The three combined views tackle customer problems synergistically.

In 2007, Ball began expanding its product offerings with Opticks, its first public open-source project that demonstrates an integrated approach to developing solutions using open systems architecture. Used by scientists and analysts within the DoD and Intelligence Community, Opticks analyzes remote sensing data to produce actionable intelligence and supports still imagery, motion imagery, and many AGI data formats. The Opticks platform code was originally developed for the restricted environment and was later transitioned to open source. According to Heaton, Opticks is a catalyst and springboard for others to use the capability.

“As technology evolves, users have the ability to take any component and replace or supplement capabilities, including removing data manipulation or video components and replacing or supplementing them with newer technology,” she said.

Ball is working on a solution it considers a potential enabler for the future immersive intelligence environment referenced by former NGA Director Letitia Long during her GEOINT 2013* keynote address. The project—a semi-autonomous motorcar (SAM)—would allow a driver to accelerate a vehicle by nodding his or her head and to steer it by tilting his or her neck left or right. Culminating a 12-month development effort, the company demonstrated this capability in May, when quadriplegic race car driver Sam Schmidt topped 100 mph on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Because warfighters are constantly being asked to do more, carry more, and execute more than ever before, providing machines to relieve their workload has always been a priority for the DoD,” said Heaton. “This project is an example of both industry and government rapidly transitioning each other’s ideas into useful capabilities.”

The SAM autonomy research applies to not only the racetrack, but potentially to the GEOINT Community.

“Imagine being able to access and layer data sources by moving your head or waving a hand and not being connected by wires or cables,” Heaton said.

Currently, Ball is also developing a data management service for NGA’s foundation GEOINT feature data, called the Consolidated Foundation Production Environment (CFPE) program. The project enables NGA’s Map of the World by building a core framework of common, shared, and enterprise services. CFPE replaces costly, stove-piped legacy data systems and consolidates them into a one-feature, one-time database with a modular design.

“Our employees are closely aligned with customers to help us better understand their missions, current tools, and limitations,” Lepore said. “With that understanding, we can leverage our knowledge and creativity to offer new products and services.”

Ball believes staying ahead of the curve is the main challenge facing the GEOINT Community, and strives every day to stay on the edge of technology.

“It is a combination of understanding the customer needs right now, while also looking down the road to remain ahead of our adversaries’ capabilities,” Heaton said. “To stay at the forefront, we use a best athlete approach—in our case brilliant scientists and engineers who collaborate to derive the best solutions.”

To meet current customer needs for additional collection capabilities, Ball is examining how to use on-orbit assets in new and creative ways. This means providing unique information fused and integrated from national, commercial, and social media sources, then presenting this information in an easily digestible and shareable manner.

“As we work to stay ahead of the curve, we are pleased to work with USGIF to further the dialogue in the GEOINT Community to overcome challenges,” Heaton said. “It is all about protecting our nation, our global communities, and the resources of our world.”

Featured image: This picture shows electro-magnetic interference and capability testing of WorldView-3. Photo credit: Ball Aerospace


USGIF Member Spotlight: Riverside Research

Steven Omick, PhD, president and CEO of Riverside Research, told trajectory how his organization is helping government agencies meet GEOINT challenges


USGIF Member Spotlight: CGI Federal

Errol McEachron, Senior VP of Consulting Services at CGI and leader of the space and intelligence sector of the company’s Defense, Intelligence, spoke with trajectory about the organization.


USGIF Member Releases GEOINT Textbook

We spoke with Renny Babiarz and Aaron Jabbour about their new textbook “Geospatial Data, Information, and Intelligence.”