Advanced Geospatial Intelligence Enhances Commercial Imagery

By Kensey Liebsch

Ed. Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of the NGA's publication, Pathfinder.

The application of advanced geospatial intelligence (AGI) to commercial imagery has many practical uses. Imagery scientists, for example, may apply AGI algorithms to a commercial image of a chemical spill and then look for damage to vegetation to assess the destruction caused by that spill. AGI has also been used track the spread of avian flu outbreaks by mapping the location of poultry farms using feature extraction algorithms. These unclassified products can be distributed to local, federal and non-governmental emergency management agencies to assess and mitigate danger in situations where geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) adds an incredible amount of value.

AGI comprises the techniques used by GEOINT analysts and imagery scientists to process an image to paradoxically look beyond the visual information depicted in the image. Meanwhile, commercial imagery presents a promising path for GEOINT analysts, providing the basis for unclassified NGA products that may be widely shared and distributed with NGA's partners in many domestic and international endeavors. When AGI and commercial imagery are used together, the potential to enrich NGA's contributions to intelligence, humanitarian and defense missions is boundless.

Essentially, AGI attempts to make nonliteral information visual through the application of advanced computer processes and algorithms. AGI incorporates methods of collection beyond traditional panchromatic electro-optical imagery. Information gathered by AGI methods includes infrared, spectral, thermal infrared, synthetic aperture radar and multispectral data. The development of these tools amplifies the criticality and usefulness of GEOINT in emergency situations when imagery must show what cannot be seen.

Moreover, despite its intimidating name, many of the concepts in AGI seem more common sense than advanced. Indeed, some of the most widespread techniques currently used in imagery analysis were at one time considered the domain of AGI, which was once called "image processing." Like these past concepts, the end goal with all AGI methods is full integration into GEOINT production cells throughout NGA and the wider National System for Geospatial Intelligence. Furthermore, as the technology behind commercial nonliteral sensors advances, the skills of imagery scientists will become more incorporated and essential within the analytical GEOINT community.

©2004, DigitalGlobe licensed under Clearview. AGI techniques applied to multispectral commercial imagery of the Darfur region reveal healthy vegetation as red and burned areas as blue and gray (Click for larger image)

When AGI techniques are applied to commercial imagery, potential applications for NGA's products multiply. To ensure the continued partnership of AGI and commercial imagery, imagery scientists work with commercial satellite vendors to help guide the next generation of collection systems that contain more bands in the electro-optical spectrum, allowing the satellites to have greater spectral coverage. DigitalGlobe's WorldView-2 satellite, slated to be launched later this year, will have an expanded set of bands with which to capture sophisticated imagery. Imagery
scientists will study and exploit this imagery to gather data that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

As commercial sensors become more advanced, AGI will become more innovative. Tools, software and processes currently used by imagery scientists will mature into standard GEOINT tradecrafts and raise AGI expertise throughout the analytic community. Increasing the capability to gather, exploit, and disseminate data benefits the culture of collaboration promoted among NGA and all of its partners.

Published Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Written by Kensey Liebsch

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