Q&A: Geospatial Intelligence

5 January 2011 (Last Updated January 5th, 2011 18:30)

Bertram Beaulieu of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency tells us about promoting GEOINT within the industry.

Q&A: Geospatial Intelligence

Defence and Security Systems International: What are your first impressions of your new position?

Bertram Beaulieu: I've been in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and its predecessor organisations for over 30 years, but this is my first opportunity to lead an R&D organisation. I'm still in my first few months on the job, and every day I'm more impressed with what we do. My first impressions are twofold: on the one hand, we have incredible scientific brainpower at work here, and across the R&D community, doing some remarkable and cutting-edge GEOINT (geospatial intelligence) research and development, and secondly, NGA has a solid record of transitioning GEOINT tools and better ways to integrate information; our deliverables are being used every day by users around the world.

But on the other hand, we need to devote more of our attention to what we're all about and where we need to be going. It's important for us to be able to have a clear vision of our goals, our top priorities and needs, key technologies, and where we want to be in the future. One key way to get there is by enlisting the brainpower of others: our partners in the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, industry, academia and our allies.

"The NGA has a solid record of transitioning GEOINT tools and better ways to integrate information."

DSSI: How are international partners influencing GEOINT science and technology (S&T)?

BB: We've had an established partnership between NGA and our Commonwealth allies for decades. In recent years, our focus on coordinated R&D has grown. Our allies are doing very impressive research on areas in some of their core areas of expertise, like radar and spectral technologies. We need to leverage ideas and capabilities as much as we can, and pool our resources to better collaborate on some of our toughest operational issues. Our joint research helps support warfighters' counterterrorism and counternarcotics missions, but it also supports solutions for humanitarian and civil missions around the world.

Early in 2010, the NGA created a new forum to bring our R&D and operational communities closer together, in order to help science be more responsive to the needs of users in the field.

This forum is part of what we refer to as the larger Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence (ASG); it's the complement to our US GEOINT community, the National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG).

As more of our other international partners also launch or fly sensors and develop their own spatial capabilities, the need to establish standards and share techniques that maximise the value of those capabilities has also grown. There's great science going on out in the world that we want to take advantage of and collaborate with.

DSSI: How would you characterise the state of GEOINT S&T today?

BB: That's a good question. I'd say we're at a crossroads. Technologies like traditional and motion imagery, spectral data and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) will continue to play a central role in the GEOINT business. But our S&T focus is shifting to technologies and processes that deliver greater knowledge and context. Our community needs to keep pace with the world's appetite for ubiquitous sensing. Geospatial-related information is being collected and made available like never before, from open sources ranging from traffic lights and mobile phones to GPS and social networking sites. Some of the greatest resources for knowledge of places and events are coming from "participatory sensing" and smart infrastructure.

"Early in 2010, the NGA created a new forum to bring R&D and operational communities closer together."

For example, Yahoo's Flickr photo site for Italy's Coliseum in Rome links hundreds of photos of the same site, from various angles. It's a coincidental network of many people who voluntarily share information, even though they don't know each other. Many of those contributors will eventually form valuable relationships and collaborate on other subjects they share in common.

Advances in social networking, upstream processing, cloud computing, automation and remote sensing are fertile ground for the future – not just collecting more data, but making greater sense of it.

NGA needs to be a major player in moving the state of GEOINT to greater relevance by harnessing technologies and techniques like these.

DSSI: What are some examples of the value that GEOINT provides to warfighters today?

BB: The biggest benefit, I'd say, is that we're providing more situational awareness and contextual knowledge than ever before. That's partly due to the intelligence community's greater focus on persistent surveillance and what we at NGA like to call "activity-based GEOINT". That means we're moving beyond just noting discrete events at a point in time. Instead, we're working to better understand patterns of activity in the area of 'human geography'.

This is information that doesn't have the physical landscape of the Earth as its main focus. It's all about the human activity – political, cultural, social and economic – that influences these patterns of life. You can't understand human geography without understanding the physical aspect, but the focus is on the people and how they're relevant to the situations and events we normally focus on. This is a concept that was borne out in Major General Michael T Flynn's paper, Fixing Intel, and it's something NGA has been developing for some time.

Of course, we also provide value to warfighters today through exploitation tools and techniques developed using traditional imagery-based sciences, like electro-optical, spectral and LIDAR. These are very relevant to military missions, but they've demonstrated relevance to peacetime missions, and to the larger development of geospatial science and its various applications.

Take LIDAR, for example. It's a decades-old technology, but its high-resolution quality and ability to work in three dimensions makes it very useful to both military and non-military missions. We're refining LIDAR for greater precision in locating objects on the ground that meet the needs of our warfighters in conflict. At the same time, we're developing better ways to make LIDAR for other missions.

"Geospatial-related information is being collected and made available like never before."

For example, LIDAR helped NGA support the relief effort in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake this past January. Our LIDAR experts provided the US Southern Command and its international partners with high-resolution first-look imagery to detect, identify and monitor displaced persons, who were constantly shifting in the wake of the aftershocks that plagued the island for weeks.

LIDAR helped find the people, and it supported route and damage assessments to ensure first aid and supplies were delivered to where the people were.

Another technology we're very involved in is hyperspectral imagery, which goes beyond the visual spectrum to provide information that traditional imagery can't. Our initiatives are making spectral imagery relevant to warfighter missions today. They're also meaningful to first aid responders dealing with civil disasters like chemical spills. NGA's contribution to spectral R&D is our expertise; we're advising those that build the sensors and we're also helping change the way people use data. Our allied partners are very involved in our spectral research; it's very gratifying to be part of this international effort.

Motion imagery is a third area where GEOINT is providing real value to our users. In partnership with industry and other agencies, we've developed approaches that are allowing users to get more relevant information faster, which helps to deal with the avalanche of data flowing in from today's sensors.

DSSI: What are some of the challenges your organisation seeks to address?

BB: I just mentioned one of them: how to deal with the sheer volume of data in terms of storage, discovery and exploitation. We're inundated by sensors and data, with more coming in all the time. This is an area where industry can help, by finding ways to better tag, track and exploit information. We're working with industry and academia on these issues today, but much more work is needed.

A second challenge is helping users focus more on the value of the information, instead of just managing the data. Today, information comes in through independent systems and networks, and it's usually manually manipulated and fused. We need better data automation, upstream processing and standards, so our users can spend more time doing analysis and making decisions.

That leads to a third challenge the organisation faces: balancing our investment. We need to make sure we're creating solutions for today's users, but we also need to assess risk and invest in longer-term R&D efforts that may not mature for years. That takes commitment, leadership and partnership, to make sure we're focused on the right research areas. We need more research in basic science, like physics, information technology, chemistry and mathematics. These sciences are critical to GEOINT, so we need to influence them more.

"Groups like the Open Geospatial Consortium are bringing together hundreds of developers and users to improve interoperability."

DSSI: You indicated the need for industry to help address some of these challenges. How are you working with industry today?

BB: We engage with industry in several ways. NGA's industry interaction panel, through our acquisition directorate, is the industry access point to the agency. NGA publishes requests for proposals and administers major contracts to find solutions to some of the agency's geospatial needs. In R&D, our budget is modest, so some of our work is dependent on industry internal R&D investment. We can help industry understand our needs and, while I can't legally solicit solutions, we are interested in unsolicited ideas. We also engage with industry through Cooperative R&D Agreements, CRADAs, which allow industry and government the opportunity to share technology. And we have some small business investments.

But industry doesn't need to wait to engage, it can achieve progress by promoting and using more open standards. The proprietary nature of most software applications today is not helping the community. Groups like the Open Geospatial Consortium are bringing together hundreds of developers and users to improve interoperability in systems and applications. Their standards and specifications are available at no cost. I urge industry to do more to embrace common standards, both for current systems and for those they're developing in the future.

DSSI: Speaking of the future, how are you working to anticipate where GEOINT needs to go in the future?

BB: Last year, we commissioned two studies to better understand the impact to GEOINT that might result from political, military, cultural, economic, natural and technical changes in the future. We're analysing the results of the first study now. The second study was commissioned through the National Academy of Sciences, and will continue until 2012. It's designed to identify emerging areas of science, and it will help us anticipate the technical skills needed in the future.

We're already investing in the next generation of scientists through our work in academic outreach. We're investing millions in educational institutions that include minority schools and service academies.

Perhaps most importantly, we're paying close attention to the needs and focus of our customers, whether they're warfighters, analysts, policy makers, other federal users or international partners. We're involved with all aspects of GEOINT issues. Some of these are brokered by intergovernmental organisations, such as Nato. Others are organised across the commercial sector, like the GEOINT and Defence Geospatial Intelligence (DGI) conferences.

DSSI: Any last thoughts?

BB: I'd like to emphasise that geospatial and imagery technologies provide support to today's warfighters, and also to those battling civil disasters, dealing with humanitarian issues, and building infrastructure and bringing stability to all parts of the world. Our successes, like the nature of our work, are truly global.

This article was first published in our sister publication Defence and Security Systems International.