ST. LOUIS — Commercial imaging satellites and change detection analysis have emerged as powerful tools increasingly employed by national security agencies. But the potential of this technology has yet to be exploited for U.S. homeland defense, officials said May 23.

There are still technological barriers to the adoption of novel commercial geospatial technologies, including a shortage of skilled analysts, Tom Madigan, senior requirements officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said at the GEOINT 2023 symposium.

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

He said there is growing interest in using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in areas like border security, response to natural disasters and protection of critical infrastructure such as power grids, transportation networks and communication systems.

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

Madigan said DHS is eyeing emerging commercial global monitoring services in domestic emergencies, to rapidly assess the extent of damage, identifying areas most in need of assistance and facilitating the deployment of resources.

“A major challenge is the testing and dissemination of a lot of these commercial systems,” he said, especially at the state and local levels.

“There are some real hiccups,” Madigan added, “once an area has been identified that requires collection to where it gets tasked and then ultimately gets collected and processed and downlinked.” The processes create delays and that can be problematic during emergencies, he said.

Appetite for SAR

DHS wants to take advantage of 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 could be very effective in hurricane response, he said. “With flood detection type products, you know where the water levels are. That’s huge.”

DHS gets significant support from NGA, said Madigan. The challenge with SAR is that it “requires a lot of expertise in exploiting,” he said. “So that’s where things like change detection analytics and value added type production really comes in handy to inform state and local personnel, especially in search and rescue response operations.”

The U.S. Coast Guard, an agency under DHS, is starting to use vessel and aircraft type detection technologies “that were completely new for us for a lot of applications such as tracking illegal and unregulated fishing,” he said. “We have tested some algorithms and validated some of the commercial imagery.”

Madigan’s office is keeping an eye on the commercial geospatial industry, he said. 

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

Hyperspectral I think will be a really exciting technology when that becomes available to us and we can especially apply those to things such as critical infrastructure.” DHS has partnerships with the energy sectors to provide security of pipeline facilities and chemical infrastructure. 

During major public events, Madigan’s office works with state and local officials to manage the deployment of overhead sensors, “to ensure that we have periodic refreshed satellite imagery of those locations.”

The combination of satellite imagery with GIS (geographic information system) data sets, he said, is “really a powerful tool for planning, everything from canine teams and explosive detection teams venue security and screening and all sorts of stuff that are behind the scenes for events.”

Border security applications 

Also speaking at GEOINT, assistant chief at U.S. Border Patrol headquarters Dan Steadman said there are needs for commercial geospatial technology for border security.

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

A key challenge for TAK users is that they often have to rely on off-grid communications. 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 updated satellite imagery, and that’s something that 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 keep track of agents on the ground, said Steadman.

“We’d like to see predictive analysis,” said Steadman, for example, that looks at 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 is dependent on industry to come to us and say, Hey, we have a solution for this problem.”

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

“They’re assuming that 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 trying to just explain resolution expectations, and how often you can see a collection and keep eyes on target all the time.”

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...