Government Pavilion Stage Highlights

Presenters discuss GEOINT-related IARPA programs, NRO commercial partnerships, and NGA’s technical workforce


Government leaders shared insights and business opportunities Monday afternoon at the Government Government Pavilion Stage (Booth 466) in the GEOINT 2019 exhibit hall, sponsored by AT&T.

IARPA Goes After the Tough Problems

By Jim Hodges

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) doesn’t exist solely on geospatial business. It serves the entire Intelligence Community, but there is plenty of GEOINT work under way, according to Deputy Director Dr. Catherine M. Cotell.

Dr. Catherine M. Cotell, Deputy Director, Research, IARPA, provided the activity’s GEOINT perspective Monday afternoon.

Founded on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model, IARPA works on long-term, complex, multidisciplinary issues to grow programs to a point at which they can be transitioned to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Ideas for IARPA programs can come from anywhere. “Finder,” for example, grew from Intelligence Community frustration at seeing pictures of Osama bin Laden in news reports and not being able to locate him.

“Finder was initiated to tell analysts without metadata where a photograph was taken anywhere in the world,” Cotell said.

Leveraging machine learning and image processing with geospatial fusion, data fusion, and other technology, Finder takes advantage of every aspect of a photo to determine its place of origin.

IARPA has also undertaken programs to learn the geospatial origin of radio signals, to create 3D models from remote sensor data, and to determine identity and activity from security cameras, among other GEOINT-related activities.

IARPA is also working on programs such as TrojAI to test security among AI activities.

“There is a focus these days on using AI to solve our analytical problems,” Cotell said. “[TrojAI] challenges people to come up with different Trojan attacks on different kinds of AI systems.”

Another program, Secure, Assured, Intelligent Learning Systems (SAILS), is being designed to test the privacy of AI. In it, algorithms will be reverse engineered to determine the data used on a problem.

“When you’re dealing with classified information, that’s a big concern,” Cotell said.

NRO Opens Up to More Commercial Possibilities

By Rob Pegoraro

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is making more deals with private industry and talking about them—a considerable shift for a government agency whose existence was classified until 1992.

“It’s a little bit new for us,” said Troy Meink, who leads NRO’s GEOINT Directorate.

Dr. Troy Meink, who leads NRO’s GEOINT Directorate, spoke about the evolving NRO GEOINT mission Monday afternoon.

Also Monday, NRO announced the signings of “study contracts” with three providers of commercial satellite imagery—Planet, BlackSky and Maxar. Meink said NRO has begun to explore how the private sector can augment its in-house capabilities.

One reason, he explained, is the growing volume of work NRO conducts in civilian areas.

“We do a lot of support for disaster relief, whether that’s hurricanes or tracking plumes of volcanoes,” he said, adding that his agency also provides a substantial amount of imagery for environmental and law enforcement purposes.

These new contracts will allow NRO to assess how commercial space imagery and analytical services might help it meet the demands of those as well as its military and Intelligence Community customers.

Meink said NRO has also begun leaning more on private launch services—he name-checked small satellite firm Rocket Lab, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX delivered its first NRO payload in April 2017—with launch costs under $100 million, about a third of what it typically costs to launch an NRO satellite.

Meink told attendees to expect further NRO interest in cooperation with private industry, noting that in May, the agency posted via its social media accounts a Request for Information for improving its imagery capabilities. Then, he added, “I was not even aware that the NRO had a Facebook or Twitter account.”

NGA Learns What’s Possible from Technical Workforce

By Jim Hodges

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Chief Technology Officer Mark Munsell was succinct when he described one of NGA’s strategic assets.

“This is something that we value as an organization, something we’ve invested in, something that, if we don’t take care of it, will lead to a failure of the organization,” he said. “That’s how we see our technical workforce.”

Colleagues Dr. Andrew Brooks, Deepak Kundal, and Jeanne Stacey joined Munsell in the discussion.

“Success started with the people who are doing that work,” said Brooks, who joined NGA just over a year ago as chief data scientist.
Stacey, who leads the NGA Data Corps, has been instrumental in enabling the agency to hire 50 data scientists in the past year.

“Keeping them is a challenge,” she acknowledged. “They are looking for interesting problems.”

She added there is a need at NGA to advance data literacy across the workforce so all personnel can better understand what the scientists are divining and appreciate the value and potential of data.

Kundal, in his eighth week at NGA as chief data officer, considers part of his charge to help lead “a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we actually think about data from the agency perspective.”

Technology combines both products and people, according to Brooks, adding that NGA has about 50 software developers.

“They bring the prospect of what’s possible,” he said.


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