Image courtesy of BAE Systems

WASHINGTON — BAE Systems won a $7 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop AI tools to automate the tracking of data collected by military satellites.

The company on May 25 announced it will work with AI specialists OmniTeq and AIMdyn on the DARPA project, known as Oversight.

DARPA also selected Apogee Research, and Systems & Technology Research for the initial phase of the program. 

“Traditional space intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection can be siloed and labor intensive,” DARPA said

Current reliance on individual ground station operators “significantly increases latency and minimizes tactical utility of satellite sensor data,” said Lael Rudd, program manager for Oversight at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. 

As the Space Force and the Space Development Agency prepare to deploy large constellations of sensor satellites, he said, they will need tools to autonomously track targets of interest.

DARPA’s Oversight program will pursue AI-enabled software that autonomously maintains constant “custody” of a large number of targets tracked by satellites.

The three companies selected for the 15-month Phase 1 of Oversight will define tracking requirements, resource needs and interfaces between technologies in development. 

Under Phase 2, the software will transition to in-orbit spacecraft.

Software to transition to SDA satellites

John Grimes, director of small satellites at BAE Systems’ FAST Labs, said the company’s track custody software will be applicable to multiple types of sensors, including electro-optical and radio-frequency. 

If BAE is selected for Phase 2 and beyond, the software could be deployed on Space Development Agency sensor satellites that track hypersonic missiles, said Grimes. 

Grimes described a hypothetical scenario for how autonomous target custody would work. A satellite, for example, detects a signal from a vessel that is unexpected as it’s in a controlled ocean region. The onboard system updates the other satellites in the network and prioritizes that vessel for custody.  

Immediately, an electro-optical satellite passing overhead takes an image and IDs the vessel as a fishing vessel. That location and ID are then sent to a nearby Coast Guard ship for investigation.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...