Geospatial Data at the Tactical Edge

Q&A with Gary Blohm, director, U.S. Army Geospatial Center


What do you see as the major challenge in delivering geospatial information to warfighters currently and in the near future?

Geospatial data, more than ever, is critical to all Army operations. As we achieve advances and more data becomes available, we are increasing our tactical collections. This requires a lot of work in analytics, and we need to ensure this data is available at the tactical edge where networks are not available or not as robust as they could be. The Army is spending a lot of resources to expand that capacity in the field. The Army Geospatial Center (AGC) is working with the Army Futures Command (AFC) and its Cross-Functional Teams (CFTs) to ensure we can do so.

We are talking about a lot of data. We need the proper architecture to make our data discoverable while addressing cybersecurity needs. At the same time, we need to have interoperability among the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the other military services, and coalition partners.

Is interoperability a challenge?

Having a standard shareable geospatial foundation is a challenge that will never be solved. The technology is constantly evolving, with new products being introduced that have to be standardized. We work hard alongside NGA and have made great strides. We help drive standardization because in the tactical world where there is less throughput, we need to have standards that allow data to get through smaller networks and “pipes.” The Army looks at us as the lead to drive that standardization with many different users. A big part of my role is to communicate and coordinate with our partners.

How is geospatial information being integrated by Army Futures Command?

We work with AFC on modernization across all the CFTs. Lt. Gen. James Richardson, Deputy Commanding General of AFC, visited AGC and we spoke with him about how AGC provides and synchronizes the geospatial foundation across all CFTs. We held a Geospatial Summit with staff from every cross-functional team. It was a two-day event to understand their needs, and for them to understand our domain and how we work with NGA and others to provide data they need in the formats they need.

In this era of multi-domain operations, synchronizing across domains is critical. It’s our job to make sure commanders will be able to make decisions with the most accurate geospatial intelligence possible.

For example, providing forward position navigation for next-generation vehicles that operate autonomously in places where traditional position navigation is not available. Our Geospatial Lab is working with the Assured Positioning, Navigation, and Timing CFT to navigate based on visualization, mathematical rigor, and mapping. AGC will help augment long-range positional fires as well.

Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais, who commands the Synthetic Training Environment CFT is also asking for our help with Global/One World Terrain training environments.

Are soldiers using advanced training environments that incorporate VR?

That depends on the training level. We supply geospatial information for training the individual soldier, the squad level, and on up to the Joint Readiness Training Center. The gaming industry is involved, too, to help visualize environments. At the National Training Center, units can train realistically not just in a representative environment, but in a specific environment.

We work with NGA and commercial sources to get data on the exact place a warfighter is going. That detail is important. We can build a session for a soldier entering a building that’s known or create a drill for a formation that is planning to cross a bridge. “Mapping” sometimes oversimplifies what we do: we are also implementing data that we have on the bridge’s load structure. For example, will it hold both troops and tanks? Do we know if it is in good repair? AGC is a foundational piece of what the Army is trying to do with training modernization.

Can you share what is up-and-coming in your Geospatial Research Laboratory?

One thing that I think will really be a game-changer for the Army is an upgrade in map-based mission planning. Currently, the mission planning process is very manual, with a bunch of people in a room putting stickers on a wall and creating a briefing that may not be executable because it hasn’t incorporated enough logistics or supply chain information, for instance. By adding geospatial data I can decrease planning time and be in a better position to adjust on the fly. We are close to being able to transition those capabilities to mission command. 

NGA is the repository for most geospatial data, but the Army has mountains of its own data. How do you envision the long-term sharing of geospatial data for the DoD?

We leverage NGA as the authoritative data source for this information. When we are looking at the tactical environment, and you don’t have the capability to send as much data along, what do you do? There are different approaches. One is you don’t pull all the data down, but you make it visible. We are working with NGA on GRiD, the Geospatial Repository and Data Management System–Tactical, to drive responsive data exchange into the tactical environment.

NGA is taking a lead role on architecture to take cloud technology to the edge. And industry is increasingly interested in getting cloud services to places where throughput is a challenge. Ultimately, this will probably not be based on a DoD-unique solution, but by taking commercial solutions and applying them to DoD problems.

Organizationally, AGC falls under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. What are one or two recent missions undertaken by the Corps of Engineers—either domestically or overseas—that made use of critical geospatial information?

When we use all kinds of data to help drive decisions, we have to ask the right questions in the right way. By using AI and machine learning, we can drive smarter decisions. Back in the day, smart people would use their judgment on where to drill for water, and they typically had a success rate of about 45% to 50%. Now, by populating a water database, we can increase the success rate to 95% or 100%. That can save money over time, especially when units need to establish wells in undeveloped areas overseas.

Domestically, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) is responsible for navigable waterways. We do a lot of work in the Mississippi River and maintain the Inland Electronic Navigation Charts as well as the inventory of dams, flood risk management, etc.  

This geospatial information goes into decision-making. During natural disasters, when the Corps is working with FEMA, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, ACE commander, wants to understand the status of assets and looks to the AGC to provide the (Un)Common Operational Picture. 

In addition, the AGC also worked with the Corps to collect data and map all of Arlington Cemetery. We prepared authoritative data that is now included on a software package that is accessible online via a handheld device or at a kiosk that visitors, staffers, or the public can use. Cemetery officials are typically responsible for up to 30 funerals a day, and this allows them to better coordinate processions and maintenance activities.

We are also doing continued work with the American Battle Monuments Commission, collecting data in Panama and Normandy, France, to map the grave sites of fallen Americans. It’s a great mission and I’m glad to be part of it.

Featured image: Director of the U.S. Army Geospatial Center Gary Blohm briefs a group of visiting French dignitaries.

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