— Amid growing demand from soldiers in the field for commercial satellite imagery products, the U.S. Army is making improvements to the computers and networks it uses to handle the data, according to a service official.
Col. Tim Coffin, commander of the Army’s 1st Space Brigade, noted in a July 1 interview that the service received 98 requests for imagery in 2004, the year its Commercial Exploitation Teams began operations. So far in 2008, the teams have processed more than 1,600 requests thanks to equipment upgrades implemented at the beginning of the year, he said. A large portion of the requests, he added, have required the teams to enhance the satellite imagery with so-called value-added information such as terrain changes.
Moving such large amounts of data to users in the field poses a challenge because of bandwidth limitations, Coffin said. The Army has worked with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to address that issue via measures such as increasing data storage capacity and processing speeds, securing additional communications bandwidth, and implementing new data compression techniques, he said.
One data compression method that the Army has found particularly useful is known as GeoPDFs, which can compress an image that normally would take up about 50 megabits of capacity down to 1 or 2 megabits without sacrificing crucial details, Coffin said. This method is particularly appreciated by users who lack the broadband connections enjoyed by personnel in fixed sites; such users might have to make due with a laptop computer while deployed on patrol with coalition or Iraqi forces, he said.
Coffin said he met with U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, NGA director, in early May to discuss expanded cooperative efforts including work on processing equipment that would give deployed forces direct access to imagery from commercial sources such as the latest satellites built by and . DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye of Dulles, , have developed a new generation of highly capable commercial imaging satellites under the NGA’sNextView program.
The processing equipment could wind up on platforms like the Army’s Eagle Vision 2 mobile satellite imagery downlink stations and the NGA’s Mobile Integrated Geospatial Intelligence System vehicles, Coffin said.
The Eagle Vision 2 ground stations, which Coffin cited as an early example of Army-NGA collaboration, downlink imagery from commercial satellites.
The Army also is looking forward to the launch of at least one medium-resolution imaging satellite under the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office’s Broad Area Surveillance Intelligence Capability program, Coffin said. That effort is intended to field a government-owned capability similar to the spacecraft operated by DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, which can capture images detailed enough to detect ground objects as small as half a meter across.
Coffin stressed that the planned government satellite will not significantly reduce the Army’s demand for commercial imagery, which is not classified and thus can be readily shared with allies, non-governmental organizations and others who lack security clearances.
Meanwhile, the NGA is studying the issues associated with utilizing different types of satellite imagery that increasingly are becoming available from foreign sources, according to an agency official.
Corena Alexander, the NGA’s deputy program manager for commercial imagery, said the agency is not necessarily concerned about its ability to buy the data, but recognizes that the information may come with strings attached in the form of foreign regulatory constraints – just as data from commercial satellites is regulated by . The NGA may also need to address intellectual property issues associated with the non-U.S. imagery due to its desire to share the products with a variety of partners, she said in a June 27 interview.