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SPIE DCS 2021: NGA embraces historic inflection point

15 Apr 2021

Research director Cindy Daniell describes new research philosophies for the DoD combat support unit.

The US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is undergoing a renaissance, with its activities and technologies shifting to embrace new and game-changing ideas.

That was the message from Cindy Daniell, research director at NGA, in a presentation to the Imaging and Analytics stream of SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing.

"The NGA's mission is to collect, analyze and distribute geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in support of national security," commented Daniell. "Research is a key component in the transformation under way within NGA, the reimagining of the entire NGA operation."

GEOINT refers to the use of imagery, imagery intelligence, and geospatial intelligence to describe features, activities and locations on Earth, with the NGA's remit under the Department of Defense relating specifically to the support of US warfighters, first responders and policy makers.

The intelligence is gathered from several arenas, covering land, sea and air as well as space-based observations, although the NGA does not own airborne platforms or space satellites itself, instead cooperating with other relevant US bodies or commercial providers.

"Types of GEOINT data include infra-red imagery, lidar, radar, panchromatic data spanning a large part of the visible spectrum, and multispectral data, all overlaid to create GEOINT," said Daniell.

"Open source data collected from publicly available sources or social media is also involved, along with human geography information relating spatial patterns, cultural backgrounds and capital routes to reveal how humans interact with the Earth."

This capability is directly dependent on the sensors that provide this data and the infrastructure that supports them - technology sectors that are both currently undergoing significant change.

A firehose of sources

The satellite business, for example, has seen commercial vendors move rapidly towards deploying larger numbers of smaller satellites, providing enhanced temporal resolution from a plethora of "smallsats" as a means of increasing spatial resolution in the final data.

"This is referred to as the darkening skies, a proliferation of medium resolution high-revisit commercial smallsats," said Daniell. "This trend leads in turn to the need for automation in handling and analysis of the resulting data streams, to extract value from this firehose of sources."

NGA is now responding to real-world geopolitical changes with a strategic shift from counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency to the monitoring of great power competition, observing those powerful nations now exerting overt and covert influence in the world.

The emergence of new warfighting domains in space and cyberspace is also part of the NGA's future agenda.

Within its research portfolio, the NGA uses terrain analysis to characterize the Earth and its population; spectral sensing; gravitational and magnetic sensing; and radar, with associated image understanding and analysis of data. This also includes predictive analytics, and the development of models designed to anticipate a potential threat before it manifests and enable automatic identification of emerging issues.

The current challenge for the NGA is to take these capabilities and shorten the time taken for collection and analysis of data, aiming to deliver an answer to any question almost immediately. This will involve optimizing the human environment too, creating automated adaptive workflows in order to speed intelligence to the analyst, through the analysis process, and on to the warfighter.

"We are at an historic inflection point for our nation, for NGA, and for the geospatial intelligence community," commented Daniell. "Great power competition has remerged as the greatest single threat, while new technologies and commercial capabilities are redefining GEOINT. We are taking urgent action to reorient and realign the GEOINT community to navigate through this new environment."

• The SPIE DCS Digital Forum is taking place 12-16 April. Registered attendees are able to watch recorded presentations on demand (paid registration is required for some events and presentations).

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