Okay, You Geo, Cyber and Energy Guys ... Go Innovate!

November 12, 2012

Sharing is Caring

In the past three years, we’ve seen both natural and man-made disasters inflict drastic, sometimes draconian effects upon the nation’s critical infrastructure. In 2010, we witnessed the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico, causing disruptions to the flow of oil and foisting ecological disaster on the Gulf Coast. In 2011, two EF5 tornadoes swept a path of devastation across over 100 miles of northern Alabama, taking down the power grid in cities from Tuscaloosa to Huntsville. And just recently, Hurricane Sandy impacted the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to Maine, but especially New York and New Jersey, which disrupted not only power but transportation and communications networks.

These events provided the backdrop for the three previous conferences that Directions Magazine held in Huntsville, Alabama. The GEO Huntsville Conference, held Novermber 8-9, (formerly the Rocket City Geospatial Conference) provided a forum to discuss how geospatial technology could support the need to dispatch utility crews to areas most impacted, as well as give public officials much needed information to inform the public about the extent of damage and how soon things might return to normal. At this year’s event, government agencies as well as private technology firms offering expertise in geospatial information, cybersecurity and energy management came together to discuss synergistic strategies to address how to better work together on future events.

What many have come to realize is that the disasters mentioned above present a model for what might happen in a cyber attack on the nation’s utility infrastructure. Observers have noted that we are in a time period similar to pre-9/11 where cyber warfare has been identified as the most dangerous threat to the national security of not just the United States but other western nations as well. At issue: How can we be better prepared this time when a major cyber attack occurs? Equally important, can companies with such diverse services, products and expertise as those found in Huntsville and elsewhere find opportunities to integrate their respective talents and create solutions to a potentially nightmarish crisis?

“Innovate … and do it fast”

At the conference, Dr. John Horack, vice president of Space Systems for Teledyne Brown Engineering, moderated a session to provoke critical thinking. He presented a challenged to three attendees by having them represent companies with distinct product specialties. One was a manufacturer of tractor treads, the kind you might find on tanks. The second was a manufacturer of small engines and the third was a maker of fiberglass surfboards. “Okay, go innovate” was Horack’s directive. While whistling the theme from the TV game show “Jeopardy” Horack waited patiently for the team to find a product that utilized their respective advantages. The team’s answer: motorized surfboard. Dr. Horack’s suggestion: snow mobile. Now, while it might be difficult to find commonality in such a short period of time, the exercise demonstrated two key things that are essential for success in business in general, and for us in Huntsville specifically.

The first is that it’s important to look for invention even when the necessity might not be obvious because it is indeed the bedrock of entrepreneurism. Second, time is of the essence. When faced with impending need such as a natural disaster, “speed” may take precedence over every other facet of a product’s competitive advantage such as “price” or “quality.”

This exercise may seem somewhat esoteric but for us in Huntsville it offered a basic model for fostering economic development. As the community faces declining dollars from federal contracts in space and defense, the city is looking to utilize its talent pool. Fifteen percent of the population of Huntsville is comprised of scientists and engineers. The national average for any community is 1%. Huntsville has the highest per capita of Ph.D.’s in the country. And now we must find a way for the Rocket City to use its talent … or lose it to other cities who are perhaps innovating faster.

Mayor Tommy Battle has created three technology initiatives that he believes offer the opportunity to attract new businesses and jobs. Cyber Huntsville, Energy Huntsville, and GEO Huntsville. The organizations have been working to find ways to bring their respective corporate partners together and the GEO Huntsville Conference was a first step. The expertise exists today as companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and SAIC have sizable organizations already engaged in each sector. However, the divisions of those particular companies with that expertise are not necessarily located in Huntsville. This presents a challenge for the city, where the options are to either entice those groups to move here or grow new businesses locally.

Not an “intel” city

Vice Admiral (ret.) Bob Murrett, the former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and now the associate director of the Institute for National Security and Counterintelligence at Syracuse University, was one of two conference keynoters. He identified the obvious foreign regions of concern for the United States, such as Russia, China and North Korea, as well as implications for the expected cuts in the U.S. defense budgets, which he believes are solvable in the short term. He had positive comments regarding the real possibility of achieving energy independence within the next few years. Some of his comments however were sobering. He quoted former Defense Department Secretary William Gates:

"Our record of predicting where we will use military force since Vietnam is perfect -- we have never once gotten it right.  There isn't a single instance: Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, the Balkans, Haiti, you can just keep going through the list, where we knew and planned for such a conflict six months in advance.”

He also compared the size of the U.S. defense budget to that of all other nations, both friend and foe. While the U.S. spends nearly $700 billion on defense or 4.8% of its gross domestic product (GDP), Russia (~$50+ billion/4.0%) and China (~$110 billion/2.1%) spend far less. He’s expecting that Congress will find a way past their differences to resolve the impending cuts. Murrett sees Congress implementing a continuing resolution for the Defense Appropriations bill. He also believes that there will be a growing dependence on geospatial information as the need for geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) increases and the mission of NGA is expanded. Murrett, during his tenure at NGA, was instrumental in the practice of embedding geospatial analysts with warfighting units.

One recipient of that mission was Maj. Gen. (ret.) Barbara Fast, another of the conference’s guest speakers. Fast was the director of intelligence for Coalition Joint Task Force in Iraq. An image analyst by training, Fast is currently the vice president for CGI’s Army & Defense Intelligence Programs. Fast advocates more fidelity of data and more knowledgeable users as GEOINT becomes a tradecraft in high demand. She sees the absolute need to integrate cyber with GEOINT. But her most pointed comment came in observing that Huntsville is not necessarily an “intel” city in that it does not possess the same cadre of experts from the intelligence community (IC) that other cities maintain. However, there is an opportunity to grow the workforce in GEOINT. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Missile and Space Intelligence Center (MSIC) resides on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. MSIC is responsible for identifying foreign missile installations and other short range (<1000 km) weapons systems worldwide and maintains a staff of NGA analysts to support its mission.  So where might the opportunity lie for Huntsville to build a workforce in GEOINT? Given that Huntsville has over 60 companies working on geospatial applications and software development, Fasts suggests that bringing GEOINT to the “non-GEOINT” analyst is one possibility. In other words, geospatial information technology must be easy enough to use for the all intelligence analysts, not just the geospatial specialist.

The Rocket City – what’s next?

While Huntsville is known for its major contributions to the U. S. space program such as the development of the Saturn V, modules for the International Space Station and various components of the Space Shuttle, the next 10 years offer a major challenge for contractors who have worked on these programs, which have now reached their conclusion. Currently, some work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) involves projects for the Space Launch System (SLS), the new heavy lift rocket, and many others. But what else? Could we use our expertise to build new commercial earth observation systems, another key component for geospatial information?

Dr. Mike Griffin, CEO of Schafer Corporation, and the former chief administrator of NASA (2005-2009), the second keynoter, offered a dose of reality. While it might seem logical to offer Huntsville’s expertise to the commercialization of earth observation systems, he believes that if entrepreneurial opportunities exist for this industry, then venture capital will migrate to places where companies with experience have already set up shop. However, Griffin sees tremendous potential for exploring innovations for integration of imagery, communications and navigation. Some ideas could be fostered around mobile computing but another area is image exploitation. With so much image data becoming available and so little capability to analyze all of it, a window is open for new businesses to flourish.

What can khaki and green do for you?

Do you love logistics? Then you’ll love the Army Materiel Command (AMC). Its mission is simple. If the Army drives it, shoots it, flies it or sleeps in it, AMC moves it. With the end of two wars, AMC is tasked with bringing home physical and human assets. A four-star command, AMC also resides on Redstone Arsenal but maintains a workforce of over 70,000 military and civilian employees. Its impact extends to all 50 states and 155 countries.

Dr. Myra Gray, the G3/5 for AMC’s Strategy and Concepts division, another guest speaker, was direct in her vision for the importance of geospatial information. She said, “Geospatial data is the foundation for the Ground-Warfighter Common Operational Picture and also Installation Management analyses that are required for efficient and effective operations. The establishment of a common geospatial vocabulary enables consistent management and sharing of geo-feature data generated by National Agencies, Army and other Services.” In other words, AMC finds GIS indispensable. Gray also revealed that AMC is the new home for the Army’s Installation Geospatial Information and Services (IGIS). As such “Army Mapper,” one of IGIS’s tools, will be maintained by AMC.

Huntsville and North Alabama – a new corridor of geospatial technology expertise

The GEO Huntsville Conference was just the first step in identifying some of the areas where Huntsville and the surrounding region could look to capitalize on an existing base of experience. Faced with declining reliance on the defense industry, new innovative ideas leading to business opportunities need to take root. In addition to the highly educated population of the region, Huntsville also sits within a “crescent corridor” that includes Oak Ridge National Labs and the Tennessee Valley Authority in Tennessee, toward Memphis, home of logistics giant FedEx. In short, this geographic region possesses some unique expertise, from cybersecurity to GIS to energy. Now, go innovate.


Sharing is Caring

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email editors@directionsmag.com

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at editors@directionsmag.com