Geospatial intel moves out from the shadows
NGA makes increasing use of imagery and sensor data
- By Wilson P. Dizard III
- Jan 21, 2007
"Rather than using our imagery sensors to produce particular pixel products, we're now using the data behind that process." Mike Geggus, AGI program director
The recent decision to elevate the use of advanced geospatial intelligence to an independent office within the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency signals the spy world's increasing reliance on the technology.
NGA has launched its Advanced Geospatial Intelligence (AGI) office under director Mike Geggus, an Air Force veteran and former science applications specialist with the Air Staff as a special home for the scientists and technologists who create the new intel products.
AGI melds technology and quickly evolving remote-sensing sciences to 'torture the pixels' that form conventional images, in order to glean actionable intelligence about enemy operations that can be used immediately by U.S. forces and by strategic planners for long-term analysis.
The process relies largely on commercial geospatial tools such as applications from ESRI Inc. of Redlands, Calif., Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala., and Leica Geosystems LLC of Norcross, Ga., Geggus said during an interview at NGA headquarters.
But AGI supplements the commercial tools to weave together the collective intelligence of many specialists over the years, and move the output of customized algorithms into systems that add dimensions to NGA's remote-sensing data.
AGI specialists mine the metadata found within the pixel information sent from both commercial and classified satellites and other sources. They extract usable information from what they call the 'phenomenology' of the earth science data they receive.
'When I talk about phenomenology I'm talking about the earth sciences,' Geggus said. 'Materials, how the earth moves and changes, the vegetation. You're talking about change, you're talking about characterizing the specifics of some item, material, building.'
The results can be combined with information from the other intelligence disciplines, such as human intelligence and signals intelligence, to generate a fuller picture of how an activity of interest, typically an enemy operation, is developing.
'AGI comes from the measurement and signatures intelligence capabilities derived from imagery sensors,' Geggus said. 'It's basically inserting advanced process and techniques into the way we develop pixel imagery.'
Measurement and signatures intelligence (MASINT) has been a highly scientific, shape-shifting array of technologies that the spy agencies have developed to detect and characterize enemy weapons and activities (see sidebar below).
For example, MASINT has been used to develop analysis of sounds from vehicle engines so precisely that analysts can identify the number of trucks in a convoy cloaked by a sandstorm, and the number of cylinders in an otherwise hidden truck or engine.
One use of AGI, according to the agency, is to characterize the different types of materials that an imagery satellite might take digital 'pictures' of.
The AGI analysis might be able to detect, for example, the difference between concrete and asphalt, or characterize the nature and source of wood used to build a shipping crate that might contain weapons.
Reaching for an unclassified example of how AGI works, Geggus said, 'I can use Katrina examples. Looking at the flooding and trying to discern whether there's toxins within the flood waters, looking for oil spills. That's part of our spectral sciences. The technology played a role in detecting the toxic substances present in floodwaters.'
Along the same lines, intelligence specialists suggest, AGI can be used with information from the other spy disciplines to interpret chemical signatures in or near a battlefield. For example, AGI might reveal whether smoke plumes near a battlefield represented enemy activity, or whether they might comprise an enemy bluff intended to give the impression of a larger formation.
The other leg that AGI stands on is work by scientists and engineers to hone the deeper analysis assisted by newly created algorithms.
'Lately, the market is very challenging for us to hire these scientists because of the boom, again, of all of these commercial and airborne sensors that just have expanded that career field,' Geggus said.
AGI forms part of a technology path that has taken the agency far from its days as the former Defense Mapping Agency.
'Rather than using our imagery sensors to produce particular pixel products [such as maps], we're now using the data behind that process to exploit [the earth sciences information the sensors gather],' Geggus said. 'The data age has allowed us to be able to do this from an institutionalized point of view. And the reason why it was transferred from the MASINT community into the geospatial-intelligence community is that we have an institutionalized enterprise that allows us to do that.'
Geggus cautioned that 'these advanced geospatial-intelligence capabilities by themselves, and for that matter any intelligence discipline by itself, cannot give you the full picture. It may give you a good idea, but you'll need other things'human intelligence, signals intelligence, all of these things play together.'