A string of natural disasters including the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the recent hurricanes in the southern United States and the earthquake in Pakistan have placed new demands on a U.S. geospatial information system already heavily engaged in supporting U.S. military forces overseas as well as homeland security efforts.

The environment has emerged as a new adversary, said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which supports the military and, increasingly of late, disaster-relief organizations with maps and related products derived from satellite and aerial imagery.

“Apocalyptic events in the environment have consumed our attention and resources,” Clapper said Oct. 31 here at the Geoint 2005 Symposium sponsored by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

Clapper emphasized, however, that NGAs emerging role in disaster relief has not diminished the agency’s support to the military. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We will fall off on other missions before we compromise support to the military.”

The NGA has a new Office of Global Support with 125 employees who are trained to deploy with the military. When that happens, the agency’s home office “sucks it up,” he said, with many employees working extra hours.

The NGA’s goal in the response to hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma was to provide what Clapper called a “common operating picture” to federal, state and local authorities. Under U.S. law, this domestic support must be done in conjunction with another U.S. federal agency.

The value of commercial satellite imagery was one of the most important lessons to come out of the NGA’s experience in supporting disaster relief, Clapper said. One of the key attributes of commercial imagery, as opposed to classified imagery from U.S. national security satellites, is that it can be freely shared both with relief organizations and the general public, Clapper said.

Another lesson was the importance of the ground-based infrastructure for satellite tasking and data processing, evaluation and dissemination, which is known in the intelligence community by the acronym TPED. The current TPED architecture was developed to support military operations, so the NGA had to adapt it for the disaster-relief role, Clapper said.

The NGA is upgrading its infrastructure with an eye toward creating a system that will be able to ingest and disseminate data no matter what the source, be it commercial satellites, classified satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles, Clapper said. Another goal is to make that data readily accessible online, he said.

The centerpiece of that effort is GeoScout, which is divided into three phases, or blocks, Clapper said. The first of those is a ground-based infrastructure program which is largely complete, he said. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on that part of the program.

The second phase of GeoScout, which is just getting under way, involves developing the tools for tasking and handling classified and commercial data from multiple platforms, including airborne platforms, according to an NGA fact sheet.The third block focuses on automated data analysis and production, he said.

Another relatively recent emphasis at the NGAPRIVATE puncspace:p  is collaboration, especially with the National Security Agency (NSA), Clapper said. The agencies offer different expertise and generate complementary products, he said.

“When you bring together signals intelligence with imagery, magic occurs,” said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA said at the symposium.

For the past two years or so, NGA and NSA personnel have been rotating out of one another’s offices to create what Alexander referred to as “geocells.”

Alexander said the idea is not merely to create or wade through huge volumes of signals-intelligence and imagery products. Sharing knowledge across agencies so as to create a better data product is another key objective, he said.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...