Lockheed Martin's globally-scalable automated target recognition (GATR) system detects and classifies objects of interest in satellite imagery. Credit: Lockheed Martin

SAN ANTONIO — Lockheed Martin is marketing a new artificial intelligence product that helps analysts identify objects in satellite imagery. In a demonstration, it searched the entire state of Pennsylvania and in two hours located every fracking site in the state.

The company showed the system publicly for the first time at the GEOINT 2019 symposium that is heavily attended by intelligence analysts from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. The so-called global automated target recognition system could be used to find any type of objects in satellite imagery, saving analysts a lot of time and manual labor, said Mark Pritt, senior fellow at Lockheed Martin who helped develop the system.

Satellite imagery analysis is a growing and crowded industry where defense contractors compete with commercial players. Lockheed Martin decided to commercialize the system that originally was developed to compete in the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity “Functional Map of the World” challenge last year. The Lockheed Martin team was the only U.S. company that placed in the top five from a total of 69 participants.

IARPA had contestants develop automated techniques to accurately categorize points of interest from satellite imagery.
Pritt said there are many companies that offer satellite imagery recognition systems that quickly identify and classify objects in areas across the world, but few provide global coverage. “With our tool, the user can draw a box anywhere in the world and hit the button,” he said. “The system will go search for objects of interest such as fracking wells, airplanes or refugee camps.” The objects of interest show up as icons on the map and the user can click on the icon to get a closer look.

“Today there’s still a lot of manual labor involved in identifying what you’re seeing in those images, they are time consuming to classify and label,” Pritt said.

Lockheed’s target recognition system uses satellite imagery from major commercial vendors like Maxar and Planet. With sharper 30cm resolution images, the system can distinguish between a cargo plane and a military transport jet, for example. It uses deep learning techniques common in the commercial sector to identify ships, airplanes, buildings and seaports.

Pritt said the analysis of satellite imagery has been revolutionized by advances in artificial intelligence. “We’re trying to show the government what is possible and helping to shape their expectations,” he said.

In a presentation at GEOINT, Deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Lisa Porter said DoD is still figuring out how to take advantage of artificial intelligence in military applications. Porter is a well known AI expert who served as the first director of IARPA.

“AI right now is a little bit of the shiny object,” she said. It’s important to understand what problems can be solved with AI, Porter said. The analysis of electro-optical satellite imagery has been one successful application for AI algorithms, but she called on DoD to help push the technology further to analyze other types of data such as radar imagery.

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...