Homeland Security is an untapped market for satellite imagery and analysis

ST. LOUIS — Commercial imaging satellites and change detection analysis have emerged as powerful tools increasingly employed by national security agencies. But the technology’s potential has not yet been exploited for US internal defense, officials said on May 23.

Technological barriers to the adoption of new commercial geospatial technologies still exist, including a shortage of qualified analysts, said Tom Madigan, senior requirements officer at the Department of Homeland Security, at the GEOINT 2023 symposium.

Madigan oversees the collection of satellite imagery for DHS and previously worked at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

He said there is growing interest in the use of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in areas such as border security, natural disaster response and the protection of critical infrastructure such as power grids, transport networks and communication systems.

DHS also sees a demand for tools that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze data from multiple sources, including satellites, drones and ground sensors.

Madigan said DHS is looking at emerging global commercial monitoring services in domestic emergencies to quickly assess the extent of damage, identify areas most in need of assistance and facilitate the deployment of resources.

“A big challenge is testing and scaling up many of these commercial systems,” he said, particularly at the state and city levels.

“There are some real hiccups,” added Madigan, “once an area that requires collection is identified where it is tasked, and ultimately it is collected, processed, and redirected.” Processes create delays and that can be problematic during emergencies, he said.

Appetite for SAR

DHS wants to take advantage of the more widely available commercial SAR data, Madigan said. Radar satellites can peer through darkness, clouds, bad weather, smoke and other conditions that impair electro-optical imaging satellites.

The combination of SAR and change detection analysis can be very effective in responding to hurricanes, he said. “With flood detection type products, you know where the water levels are. That’s huge.”

DHS receives significant support from the NGA, Madigan said. The challenge with SAR is that “it requires a lot of experience in exploration,” he said. “That’s where things like change detection analysis and value-added type production really come in handy to inform state and local personnel, especially in search and rescue response operations.”

The US Coast Guard, an agency of the DHS, is starting to use vessel and aircraft type detection technologies “that were completely new for many applications, like tracking illegal and unregulated fishing,” he said. “We tested some algorithms and validated some of the commercial images.”

Madigan’s office is eyeing the commercial geospatial industry, he said.

“I’m personally excited to see all the competition in the commercial market, whether it’s resolution, sensor diversity,” he added.

“I think hyperspectral will be a really exciting technology when it becomes available to us, and we can especially apply it to things like critical infrastructure.” DHS partners with the energy industries to secure pipeline facilities and chemical infrastructure.

During major public events, the Madigan office works with state and local officials to manage the deployment of overhead sensors, “to ensure that we have periodically updated satellite imagery of these locations.”

Combining satellite imagery with GIS (geographical information system) datasets, he said, is “a really powerful tool for planning, from canine teams and explosives detection teams, site security and screening, and all kinds of something that is behind the scenes for events”.

border security applications

Also speaking at GEOINT, US Border Patrol Assistant Headquarters Dan Steadman said there is a need for commercial geospatial technology for border security.

Steadman said Border Patrol agents rely on mobile devices for data. Most devices run so-called Team Awareness Kits, known as TAKs, to gather geospatial, navigation, and situational awareness data.

One of the main challenges for TAK users is that they often rely on off-network communications. The units are equipped with goTenna mobile radios, he said, but connectivity is difficult in many areas near the southern border. Offline precision mapping is an area where Border Patrol agents face challenges. “Offline mapping capabilities, that’s big,” Steadman said. “We need up-to-date satellite imagery, and that’s something we don’t always have.”

TAKs run on many types of mobile operating systems and could benefit from more access to satellite imagery to help track agents on the ground, Steadman said.

“We’d like to see predictive analytics,” says Steadman, for example, who analyzes border patrol mission patterns to help assess effectiveness and assess where resources should be allocated.

Government agencies don’t necessarily know where to find these technologies, he said. “Our organization depends on the industry coming to us and saying, Hey, we have a solution to this problem.”

People in the law enforcement and security businesses sometimes believe that big brother technologies seen in movies and TV shows have real-life equivalents, he noted.

“They’re assuming you can zoom in with a satellite and read a license plate. That’s one of the biggest questions we always get when we’re just trying to explain resolution expectations and how often you can look at a collection and keep your eyes on the target at all times.”

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