Canada Seeks To Tap Commercial Imagery in Near-real Time

by

VICTORIA, British Columbia — The Canadian military hopes to have in place by next year ground receiving systems that would allow its forces at home and overseas for the first time to obtain near-real-time surveillance data from commercial imaging satellites.

A contract for the systems, part of the 45 million Canadian dollar ($45 million) Joint Space Support Program (JSSP), should be awarded by the summer, with initial operating capability by October 2011.

Full operating capability will be in place by February 2012, military officials said. The space program already is two years behind schedule.

JSSP would include direct in-theater download capability of commercial satellite imagery via a ground terminal for use in mission planning, tactical reconnaissance, target acquisition and battle damage assessment. That portion of the project is being called Unclassified Remote-sensing Situational Awareness (URSA).

The system will consist of a deployable mobile antenna, likely on a towed trailer and capable of being transported in a C-130 Hercules or similar aircraft, officers and industry representatives said. The system would be self-contained and include imagery processing equipment. Two or three ground stations will be acquired.

In addition, the project will provide commanders with space situational awareness, which will involve detailing what satellites might be available for surveillance missions as well as the location of satellites that could be used by adversaries.

In an e-mail, Canadian Defence Department spokeswoman Jessie Chauhan noted that the JSSP is designed to meet the requirement for dependable and accurate surveillance information. The imagery from commercial satellites would be downloaded as they pass over areas of interest to commanders on international missions.

“For domestic operations, images may be used in a variety of ways, including in support of disaster relief, security or activities from other government organizations requiring access to timely information derived from space,” Chauhan said.

The global and wide-area surveillance aspect of the URSA capability will improve the use of other sensor resources, Chauhan said.

She declined to provide more specific information, noting that since the acquisition has started, the Defence Department does not want to jeopardize the process.

The project tested similar capabilities during military exercises at Wainwright, Alberta, in 2005, when the Radarsat-1, OrbView-3, Eros A and QuickBird commercial imaging were all used to provide information to ground commanders.

To follow up on areas of interest, commanders then cued other assets, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, to further investigate the situation on the ground.

JSSP’s space situational awareness capability will use information gathered by the existing Space Surveillance Network operated by the U.S. Air Force. Based on that information, military commanders will be able to determine the location of satellites and their orbits and predict when they will pass over specific locations.

That will allow them to determine what commercial satellites they could use for surveillance or what satellites might be conducting surveillance on their positions.

MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, British Columbia, has already said it will bid on JSSP.

“We’re certainly aggressively pursuing this,” said David Hargreaves, a vice president in MDA’s Information Systems group. He declined to get into specifics about the bid for competitive reasons, but said MDA is considered a world leader in the development of ground stations.

MDA operates Radarsat-2, the Canadian radar satellite largely financed by Canada’s government.

But the Defence Department, Hargreaves said, is looking for a system that can receive information from multiple satellites.

“It’s not just radar satellites,” he said. “It’s also for high-resolution optical satellites, medium-resolution optical satellites and radar satellites.” The JSSP is focused on tactical situations and is mainly for land surveillance, he added.

A request for proposals for JSSP was recently issued to industry. EADS, the European aerospace and defense giant, is also interested in bidding on the project, but company officials are not releasing details about that at this time.

During the 2005 exercise at Wainwright, Canadian military officers said they were impressed with the quality of imagery produced by the commercial satellites.

In that exercise, officers had to give 48 hours’ notice that they needed imagery from a particular area, and the data was transmitted to ground stations 20 to 25 minutes after the satellite passed over the location.