GIS and Multimedia in the Military

By Chris Betz

Information is power. In the defense and intelligence world, information is military superiority. When you imagine the massive amounts of data gathered globally just on a daily basis, only then does one realize the awesome challenge of organizing, processing, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence products for planning and decision-making. While there are many different forms of intelligence, among the most useful is IMINT, imagery intelligence. The richness of images and imagery makes for a valuable and effective way to document, communicate, and make decisions. However, there is a distinction to be made between images and imagery, which will be addressed later. As part of military transformation efforts, there is a widely understood need to "fuse" various pieces of intelligence into a single environment or end product. To effectively deal with these challenges, the military turns to the world of technology and solution providers for help.

In recent years, GIS and related spatial products have been playing a predominant role in the defense and intelligence communities. Not surprising, this trend will continue given the war on terrorism and the threats we face both within and outside of our borders. Digital mapping environments, GPS, satellite imagery, background map data, and analytical tools give military planners and decision-makers a whole host of advanced capabilities. NIMA, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, supports national security by providing satellite imagery, intelligence derived from imagery, and geospatial information. Armed with these resources, the military commander can achieve a higher degree of situational awareness and understanding through the visualization of a world, as they need to see it. However, there are limitations. By default, aerial imagery and data layers are remote sensing in nature. Considering that the essence of GIS is visualizing objects, their location, and their relationships to each other within a defined geographic area, one missing piece is the ability to actually see a particular object.

Reconnaissance and surveillance play perhaps one of the most critical roles in the military. It is largely accepted that our intelligence may be the largest deciding factor in our ability to protect and defend our nation. Scouting teams, for example, rely heavily on image capture devices such as digital cameras and video recorders. Strong and sustained demand in the consumer market has made it possible to make major technological advances. As a result, there is widespread use throughout the entire military. For scouting teams, an image, as simple as it may be, provides a wealth of information such as attributes and site detail as well as ground-truthing characteristics. The true value of an image though lies in knowing the exact location from which it was captured. However, spatially referencing an image or video is a manual, time-consuming process. In certain situations, it may be impractical or too risky. Nevertheless, location-based images or video are invaluable.

GIS is not the endgame, but a foundation on which to integrate spatial solutions that expand and compliment existing mapping capabilities. This is a case of innovation and evolution with the expectation that incremental steps will continue. For the purposes of this discussion, it is the fusion of human perspective and low aerial imagery, namely digital stills and video, into a mapping environment.

Red Hen Systems is involved in solving two problems for the military. First is the ability to automatically merge GPS data with images and video. Second is the ability to link multimedia into a digital mapping environment. Their flagship defense and intelligence product, MediaMapper ELITE, is currently used in several DoD agencies and has proven to be an important decision support tool.

Another military application that uses this technology is route reconnaissance. The goal is to visually acquire and communicate information along a continuous path or corridor. As stated earlier, the true value of any video footage is the ability to quickly and easily geo-reference the entire route. This is obviously a great challenge to any scouting team. Here is a sample scenario.

A military commander is tasked with a troop movement assignment. It involves a convoy of 50 vehicles carrying equipment and personnel. The distance from Point A to Point B is twenty-five miles and requires travel through a small city. Unfortunately, this assignment takes places in a remote area overseas where maps do not exist or are dated. There is a high probability that hostile forces may be encountered during the movement. Before proceeding, route reconnaissance must be performed and the information gathered will be essential for planning and decision-making.

A scouting crew is deployed with all of the necessary equipment. During the entire mission, video and still images are used to capture the road, terrain and features, landmarks (if any), immediate surroundings, key infrastructure such as bridges, buildings, airports as well as other relevant objects or situations.In the absence of clearly identifiable landmarks where the convoy would need to turn, images showing the exact approach and intersection will minimize any guesswork. A wrong turn involving all 50 vehicles would cause considerable delay, if not a security threat.Along the way, several areas are observed and deemed points of vulnerability such as hidden roadside entrances or a stoplight surrounded by abandoned buildings.These potential ambush points are easily marked on the videotape for further review later. Multiple roads are traveled to determine the quickest, safest, and most efficient route. From this, alternative routes can be mapped for contingency planning. It may be discovered that using a mobile bridge over a small river would provide a valuable short cut and lessen security threats. Within the city limits, images are captured to identify buildings, vehicles, and personnel of both friend and foe. The final destination is reached and the scouting team visually documents the area to determine which vehicles and equipment need to go where.

The end product is an interactive map allowing military planners and decision-makers to see the "what is where" exactly as it exists. This true-to-life representation elevates the situational awareness to a much higher level than satellite imagery alone. This map can then be distributed for the benefit of all personnel. Logistically, it can be determined what equipment will be needed ( bridge), what personnel should be present throughout the convoy, areas to exercise the utmost caution, and an estimate of travel time given road conditions and obstacles. Route reconnaissance represents only one of multiple uses for location-based multimedia mapping. The US military will continue to be the most lethal force on the planet as it continues to adopt innovative spatial solutions that bolster our intelligence capabilities and operational efficiencies.

Published Wednesday, March 19th, 2003

Written by Chris Betz

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