The war in Ukraine highlighted the importance of having complete information control. Western media made extensive use of commercial satellite imagery to document the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine. And while these images played an important role in galvanizing global public opinion against Russia, the United States and its allies nonetheless stand at a pivotal moment for information control.
Earthwatch is an intense, multibillion-dollar international competition at stake in the government and commercial sectors. By most measures, the United States maintains a leadership role in space technologies. The United States operates approximately 2,800 satellites; China operates less than 500, while Russia has less than 200. American organizations have also lowered barriers to entry, lowering launch costs to less than $2,000 per kilogram in low Earth orbit. Despite high levels of investment and achievement, very few resources go into analytics and generating insights from Earth observation information, opening up opportunities for enemies to outsmart the United States and its allies.
The path to maintaining US and Allied information dominance begins with recognition of the competitive landscape. During the 2021 GEOINT Symposium, Dave Gauthier, Director of the Commercial and Commercial Operations Group at the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, shared the NGA’s Olympics-themed assessment of the world’s commercial Earth observation capabilities. The assessment highlighted the growing global competition among commercial operators in the field of Earth observation, with Washington and its allies facing off from emerging competitors. Of the nine categories, companies from the United States combined earned three gold medals, as did companies from China.
The number of Earth observation satellites has expanded fivefold since 2012, with additional increases expected in the foreseeable future. As more satellites reach orbit, the era of continuous monitoring is approaching. Soon any place on earth can be photographed at any time. If Earth Monitor data is pouring out of water, a one-time drip faucet has turned into a garden hose and will soon become a fire hose. Inadequate investments in information processing and exploitation mean that many government agencies around the world will be drowning in data.
The value of Earth observation data has also evolved, as more sources become available. As with most commodities, prices fall when supplies increase. Old business models have also changed, as satellite data can be accessed in new formats and platforms. Consumers can still have the task of acquiring and acquiring individual images, but innovative licensing agreements and APIs now allow access to extensive libraries for product development or cross-process support.
First data, then analytics
To ensure the West’s continued dominance of information, the United States and its allies must be able to process and analyze terabytes of Earth observation data before adversaries. The maturity of the Earth observation market means that accessing data presents fewer challenges than taking advantage of what any global competitor can obtain. In many countries currently embroiled in conflict, the dominance of information permeates military doctrine and leads to operations. With the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine, the United States and its allies demonstrated the value of dispelling Russian disinformation campaigns with Earth Watch data.
Meanwhile, government agencies continue to grapple with issues such as cybersecurity and unassignable missions, as well as an urgent need to expand analytical capabilities to understand the ever-increasing volume of Earth observation data.
Earth observation data measurement analysis requires balancing traditional craft and automation, with the difference between human and machine at the center. Well-established practices for extracting insights from satellite imagery and other remote sensing sources are benefiting from decades of success. Additionally, applying AI and machine learning solutions to redundant procedures frees analysts to focus on high priority issues, allowing for more rapid contextualization and interpretation of complex events. Once implemented, well-executed human-machine teamwork flows allow for extensive analysis of Earth observation data while maintaining confidence in results and assessments.
Last year, I contributed to a white paper published by the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation entitled: “The State of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) in the GEOINT Community and Beyond.” The white paper highlights a series of recommendations for adopting AI/machine learning and taking on adversaries. As a call to action, the moment has come for the United States and its allies to consolidate information dominance in the field of GEOINT. Simply put, creating the conditions for government, commercial, and academic cooperation in artificial intelligence/machine learning will secure the competitive advantage of the United States and its allies over adversaries.
Finish what started
The United States and its allies should expand space policies to include strong support for organizations that build AI/ML solutions for Earth observation data. A list of engineering achievements in the space sector would fill a book – revealing the disparities between systems and analytics. Investments in launch, spacecraft, sensors and communications dwarf what has been devoted to Earth observation data analysis. So far, resource inequality represents a missed opportunity for the United States and its allies. It also contrasts with opponents such as Russia and China who prioritize developing AI/machine learning capabilities. Maintaining the status quo not only risks missed opportunities, but also results in the United States and its allies being ranked second in the race for information dominance.
Mark Knapp He is the Vice President of Defense and Intelligence Programs at Preligens, a developer of artificial intelligence solutions for geospatial intelligence data analysis.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of SpaceNews.