The Utility of Small Sats

USGIF’s Small Satellite Working Group hosts GEOINT 2016 panel discussions


Dave Gauthier, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Office of Strategic Operations, posed this question during a Tuesday morning panel at GEOINT 2016: “Which is harder to avoid, a swarm of bees or a bear?”

With some savvy and self-awareness, a bear can be avoided—but bees?

“It’s not actually that easy to avoid a swarm of bees,” Gauthier said, explaining the growing relevance of small satellites in the GEOINT world is comparable to the constant surveillance of bees.

“As we are looking at closing gaps and addressing adversaries’ capabilities to hide from us, it will be hard to avoid us,” Gauthier said.

Small satellites, also known as small sats, are at the heart of developing better methods for monitoring world events, concluded the panel, which was hosted by USGIF’s Small Satellite Working Group and addressed the expanding role of small sats for intelligence purposes.

“Can we provide better disaster relief efforts? Can we help contain the spread of Ebola? Can we actually improve the safety of the high seas?” Gauthier said. “We are already looking at global scale models of change. We can look at global issues and bring more data.”

Many small sat developments are taking place outside the U.S. government. Joe Thurgood, vice president of corporate development and marketing at Hera Systems, a Silicon Valley startup, said he believes NGA’s mission to connect with industry is authentic.

When NGA Director Robert Cardillo proclaimed in his Monday keynote, ‘We want to work with you,’ Thurgood said, “We feel that we were being addressed directly. But it’s going to take some time.”

Google’s Terra Bella, formerly Skybox Imaging, is also making inroads with its small sat constellation. Dr. Andy Hock, Terra Bella product manager, said the company is “at the beginning of analytics.” For example, they can track supply changes in the Port of Long Beach, the second busiest container port in the U.S. Terra Bella can also capture high-definition video from natural disasters, such as the 2014 eruption of Mount Ontake in Japan.

“The information can give first responders a visual of area from above, which they can use to help plan search and rescue operations,” Hock said.

He added the government and other satellite imagery end users are driving commercial technology.

Thurgood echoed that opinion. “This is a much better time to be a startup trying to do business with the U.S. government,” he said. “We’re looking forward to very active dialogue.”

Small Sats + Open Source

A second Tuesday panel hosted by the Small Satellite Working Group focused on small sats and open-source analytics.

While some of the small sat ventures that have cropped up in recent years might view U.S. government business as a nice add-on that is not essential to their success, Gary Dunow, director of analysis and analytic capabilities portfolio manager at NGA, feels otherwise.

“I don’t think we can allow this industry to survive strictly on commercial applications,” Dunow said. “It’s too important to the national security mission to take that risk.”

Dunow added the next generation commercial remote sensing industry presents a great opportunity for the Intelligence Community to advance its craft.

While small sats are less “exquisite” than national technical means (NTM), Dunow said it is “narrow-minded” to rely exclusively on classified NTM systems when in many cases lower-resolution imagery from smaller commercial satellites make the cut. Leveraging small sats, he said, could free up NTM systems to focus more on problems that require such high-end capabilities.

Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Planet Labs, took Dunow’s remarks as vindication of his company’s approach, which entails deploying medium-resolution satellites in large numbers and using advanced data analytics to turn the resulting imagery into useful information for business decisions.

“I think that really reflects the inflection point of where we’re at in the small sat industry,” Schingler said. Whereas small sats previously were derided as “not very operationally useful,” the industry is currently receiving a different message from NGA, he said.

The sheer number of small sats being deployed, which translate into high revisit rates that facilitate change detection and rapid decision-making, is working in the industry’s favor. So too is the ability to combine small sat imagery with open-source data such as social media. Open-source intelligence can help corroborate what analysts are able to discern from satellite imagery, regardless of its resolution.

“I think we all agree that imagery from space is just one fraction of a number of tools in a decision-maker’s toolbox,” said John Fenwick, head of Terra Bella operations at Google.

The power of crowdsourcing, combined with new analytic tools such as artificial intelligence “allows us to improve the overall quality of the analysis that we provide to customers,” Fenwick said. “Instead of just aggregating data, now we are able to come up with better answers for decision-makers.”

Co-written by Kristine Crane and Warren Ferster


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