WASHINGTON — The CIA is investing in technology that merges satellite and aerial images with maps and, in a matter of minutes, mines thousands of data sources for information about points of interest in the images.
Assembling such geospatial intelligence could help the spy agency track terrorists and identify targets for strikes by armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, is paying an undisclosed sum to California-based Geosemble Technologies to develop an intelligence version of the “geospatial data integration and layering technology” that the company developed for use by urban planners, real estate investors and market analysts.
The technology combines overhead imagery, maps and heavy-duty data mining to create a map-based intelligence capability reminiscent of the Pentagon’s former Total Information Awareness program.
When the project is done — and In-Q-Tel will not say how soon that might be — CIA agents will be able to merge images and electronic maps on a computer screen. Then they will be able to click on the building or other item of interest and all manner of information will pop up: who the tenants are, phone numbers, company records, links to company and organization Web sites, news reports related to the tenants or incidents at the address, property records, tax data and more.
Pulling all that data together will take a few seconds to a few minutes, Geosemble Chief Executive Andre Doumitt said.
A commercial version of the system is already being used by urban planners and real estate marketers to uncover detailed information about buildings and their tenants. The city of El Segundo, Calif., for instance, uses the technology to highlight its “business friendliness” in an effort to attract new businesses, Doumitt said.
Geosemble used overhead photos of the city’s business parks, merged them with street maps and then searched numerous databases to discover who the tenants were in each building, then burrowed deeper into databases to retrieve information about each tenant.
The idea was to let El Segundo showcase some of its large corporate tenants. But the technology also revealed some surprises. Doumitt said he was astonished to discover that a division of Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. was developing a missile warning sensor in a building he can see out of his office window.
There is no Raytheon sign on the building, he said, but Raytheon’s name popped up automatically when Doumitt clicked his computer cursor on the building. So did a list of news stories and other information about the work Raytheon does there.
Geosemble calls that technology GeoXRay.
In-Q-Tel, which is constantly searching for new technology that might benefit the CIA, was impressed enough to approach Geosemble about building a version for the intelligence community.
“It’s a tremendous capability,” said In-Q-Tel spokesman Donald Tighe. Geosemble’s ability to automatically integrate maps and overhead images and link that to information gleaned from numerous databases “is very impressive,” he said.
One problem the agency wrestles with is how to cope with the vast and growing amount of information that exists, Tighe said. Geosemble’s ability to find it, filter it and integrate it quickly into a map-based intelligence product caught In-Q-Tel’s eye.
Typically, Geosemble starts with an image from a satellite, an aircraft or a UAV.
Software then automatically aligns the imagery with maps of the same area.
“The system does a lot of geometry” to match features in the images to features on the maps, Doumitt said. With maps laid over images, streets become clear and have names, and details such as parks, neighborhoods, waterways and some buildings are identified.
At that point — which may take just a few seconds — “we quickly understand what we’re looking at,” Doumitt said. To do the same thing manually is extremely time-consuming for analysts, he said.
Next, GeoXRay uses a “geospatial knowledge base” to link buildings and locations on the image to data in multiple databases. “Individual points on the map become magnets that attract information,” Doumitt said.
So-called extraction technology can comb thousands of data sources to retrieve relevant information, he said. Or the data extraction process can be customized so that only a handful of relevant databases are searched.
For real estate purposes, for example, the search might be limited to property tax, rental, ownership, assessment, planning and zoning databases. Organizations such as the CIA no doubt have proprietary databases to be searched.
“There’s so much data,” Tighe said. “And the more data you have, the more you have to be able to integrate.”
The CIA is not Geosemble’s first intelligence-hungry customer. The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research hired Geosemble in 2007 to develop so-called map-fusion technology that would automatically align satellite images with digital maps for any place on Earth.
“We are in the final stage of that contract and working to commercialize the result,” Doumitt said. Ultimately, the technology is expected to be available to the Air Force and other customers as a commercial software package.
The Air Force hopes such technology will make it easier for commanders to deal with vast and increasing amounts of map data on the one hand and a dearth of intelligence analysts on the other.
As part of its work for the Air Force, Geosemble merged overhead imagery with electronic maps of Baghdad to produce a highly detailed geospatial view of Iraq‘s capital city.