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Technology : Providing the Winning Edge

Ed Schroeder

US Special Forces are quickly adopting and deploying the latest advancements in geospatial intelligence

Special forces are quickly adopting and deploying the latest advancements in geospatial intelligence ‘including those that provide quick access to digital maps, satellite imagery and more’ to gain better situational awareness as they carry out their missions in often remote corners of the world, according to several companies that are providing the tools.

“The Sp Ops community is a very important and unique customer for TerraGo,” said John Timar, Vice President of Sales for TerraGo Technologies, an Atlanta-based firm which provides a variety of geospatial intelligence and location-based tools.

“The special operations community, as a whole, is a rapidly growing component of our business. Right now, a little bit of everything we have to offer is deployed somewhere in the special operations community.”

These cutting-edge tools are intended to get as much data as possible into the hands of special operators, who may be working in very austere, and often bandwidth- constrained environments.

That’s the case with a new handheld version of Jagwire from Rochester, New York-based ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems. Jagwire allows users to manage critical geospatial information across shared and mobile networks in environments where bandwidth is limited, according to Jim Phillips, Director of the Exelis Geospatial Intelligence Solutions business area.

The idea behind Jagwire is to enable users like special operators “to get to the area that they’re in, and have a high-resolution look, in a period which could be less than a minute,” Phillips said, adding, “Special operators who would use the product would say, ‘Well, we want to knock on that door, but before we do, we want to look at how we are going in and how we are going to get out.’ We could drill down into that data and get a very good look at their target.”

Jagwire is used by the air force, army and special forces to make tactical situational awareness and intelligence available to “people in austere environments who have low bandwidth connections, maybe intermittent connections, or connections with a lot of latency in them,” he explained. “We are all about passing on as much information as we can, given the available environment, which is an austere environment. Our users are typically the very pointy end of the spear: special forces, marines, rangers, and in some cases, the navy.”

Jagwire transmits satellite imagery, video and other types of geospatial intelligence, and “allows our users to get access to all of this data, which is collected from all over the world,” Phillips added. “We’re not an archive, not a long-term storage. There are other systems that do that. Our product is not so much for analysts, we’re more for the people conducting the fight. The handheld version has been in demand for quite some time.”

That new handheld communicates over typical cellphone connections and allows users in the ground forces to receive data, take images and video (whether they’re connected at that moment or not), and then transmit that back when they are connected again, Phillips said.

It also provides users a variety of data, such as that from the National Geospatial- Intelligence Agency (NGA), Army, and other government agencies. “If you can get a SIPRNet account, which all special forces can, you have access to all of that data instead of just one particular piece of stove piped data”, he said.

Technology Creating Operational Efficiencies
New geoint technologies are driving individual analysts and special operators more efficient and effective at a time when military is reeling under budget cuts and other pressures, Timar said.

Doing more with less is important for reasons beyond a reduced budget: Looking at the optempo over the last decade will indicate turnovers and retirements in the coming years. “You’re going to face turnover challenges from operational fatigue, an environment with more austere budgets, and retirements,” Timar said. “The world’s not becoming a more stable, safer place; there are more requirements for the US to defend its interests and pursue national security in remote parts of the globe. Technologies that are cost-effective, that allow you to add efficiencies and make any one analyst or operator more productive, are the things that we need.”

TerraGo offers a product known as GeoPDF, which Timar describes as a geospatial version of the well-known PDF format used to share a variety of documents.

“It’s a very interesting intelligence container. It allows you to put all sorts of complex data inside a PDF and make it actionable and dynamic in either a connected or disconnected environment,” he said. “You can take a map, and you can overlay all sorts of intelligence information on that map. Then you can turn that map into this small, nimble file called a GeoPDF. You can then interact with it dynamically in the field or wherever you are — on a desktop or mobile device.”

The GeoPDF has become a frequently used tool, Timar said, noting that NGA “has created over a million GeoPDF products.”

GeoPDF is well-suited for special operators who need as much information as possible in remote areas without access to the biggest systems, he said. “All the people back at headquarters have the best satellite imagery in the world, but the people who need it can’t get it. That’s why GeoPDF is a fantastic technology, because it allows you to have an actionable product that’s easy to disseminate,” he added.

Meanwhile, Pixia Corp., a software and information-technology provider located near Washington, D.C., has deployed its HiPER Look system to streamline the access of geospatial intelligence at US Special Operations Command Africa, based in Stuttgart, Germany, according to Hector Cuevas, Pixia’s Director of ISR operations.

“To be able to take all of the commercial imagery of Africa and have it at the fingertips of an Army operator or SEAL operator, you would literally be driving around with a truck full of servers. At SOC-Africa- Stuttgart, we’ve taken all that data and put it on a central server in Stuttgart on the SOC Africa secret domain,” he said.

Pixia’s system is changing the assumption that special operators must “go to a website and download individual files,” Cuevas said. With HiPER Look, special operators can say, “I’m going to Mali; I only need data for Mali. So get it to me on a storage device, very efficiently and very quickly.” As these guys go out the door, that data brick will act as their own little server on their devices when they’re forward, he said. The staff of SOC Africa are now using one server “that has the latest version of whatever they needed,” whether that is a map data, commercial imagery, or any other data, Cuevas said. “It’s a little bit of a game-changer because you had 15 to 20 different silos of SOC Africa of the same dataset. Now they’ve brought it all into one and they quickly have access to the latest data that’s put on the server,” he added.

Reacting to Operational Needs in Real-Time
“Much more is available and expected from geospatial intelligence today than just a few years ago,” according to Rob Buntz, Director of geospatial solutions at L-3 National Security Solutions-Stratis, a provider of intelligence and other information-technology systems located near Washington, D.C. The data available today is “orders of magnitude better than it was a short time ago,” Buntz said, but the need for precision and accuracy has increased. “Of course, the stakes are a lot higher when you are delivering geospatial analysis results that are supporting a mission that might be happening right now”

Access and use of imagery and other geospatial-intelligence data is now in real- time, Buntz said. “I remember earlier in my career when we used to get excited over a 30-metre, multispectral satellite image that had been captured a year ago. Now we’re dealing with much higher spatial resolution, hyperspectral data and LiDAR data deployed tactically in more or less real-time fashion,” he said.

Analysts and others looking at the data, particularly for the special forces, also must react much more quickly than ever before.

“We literally are reacting to the operational needs at that time,” said James Moore, Programme Manager, managing the special operations imagery contract at L-3. “You know that if you don’t get that intelligence out to the SOF operator, then he may or may not know what’s out there in the field. The stakes really are higher.” At L-3, “there really is not a part of the process we do not touch — from sensor development, aircraft integration, maintenance of aircraft, sensor operators, and intelligence and geospatial analysts,” Moore said.

As such, the company knows that no one company or organisation can drive innovation in geospatial intelligence technology. That’s why collaboration and partnership partnership is so important, he added.

“None of us are going to be able to find the solution working in a stovepipe. So it really is taking an unbiased approach out in industry, and finding the best solutions that we can deliver and keep our SOF warriors safe,” Moore said.

L-3 maintains partnerships with a number of R&D organisations, including North Carolina State University, Virginia Tech and the Riverside Research Institute, a non-profit research organisation based in New York City. One of the largest challenges is simply the huge amount of ‘big data’ available in so many formats and from so many sources, Moore said.

“You must have data that has a shelf life longer than just one day. So how do you store it in a capacity that gives life to the data, so as you’re running your analysis and algorithms across this data, you’re able to actually go back and say, ‘Well, what was happening there yesterday? What was happening there last week, or two months ago, or last year?’”

L-3 is developing a solution based on an “open architecture, so that as technology changes, you don’t have to recreate the wheel” as opposed to a proprietary system that would cost customers “millions and millions to continually re-develop as technology changes,” he said.

Finding the Right Data
But what if the geospatial intelligence you need isn’t already in an easily usable or digestible form? What if the coordinates a special operator needs are buried within a mass of emails, or some other documents?

That’s where a company called ClearTerra and its Locate XT software come in, said Jeff Wilson, Vice President of Sales. “We bring locations in unstructured data into map applications in a structured form,” he said. Frequently, “there are a lot of geospatial coordinates floating around in emails, messages, documents, and briefings.”

It’s very common to have intelligence reports referencing military grid reference locations, including locations in which an insurgent was picked up along a road, or where an improvised explosive device might be, or where a mortar attack occurred, Wilson said.

“A lot of this stuff lies in the form of text. We want the Sp Ops person to find bad guys. What we don’t want them doing is reading through documents and realising there’s spatial references, and then have to fat-finger those into a system, or plot them on a map,” he said. “We like to have geeks like us build tools that can find that geospatial data and plot it on a map very quickly so they can react fast, and get back to doing the analysis or catching the bad guys instead of doing manual busywork.”

Whether it’s a PowerPoint presentation or a folder of 300 or 400 messages, ClearTerra’s software scans it and finds various coordinate patterns, looking for “every format we’ve ever heard of or seen,” Wilson said. Like other technologies, special operators can use Locate XT quickly and in the sorts of austere, remote locations they typically find themselves, he said.

“Our tools work on demand, and they work for what you often call the edge of the network. You can have a guy with a laptop sitting in the middle of nowhere, and have some PowerPoint or some word document, which wasn’t really important yesterday but which is now, all of a sudden, the most important information of the day. He can do something with our software right then and there, and not have to wait for this document to find its way into a document-management system or some other larger-scale system,” he said.

The writer is a defence expert. His articles are avaialble at https://militarywritersassociation. wordpress.com. The above article is posted at Ed Schroeder’s Military Intelligence Daily, and has been republished with the permission of the author.