How Commercial Satellite Analytics May Help Nab Terrorists

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The company behind much of the satellite imagery found on Google Maps and Microsoft Bing is now offering analytical services that can help track human activity, from African elephant poachers to Islamic terrorists.

DigitalGlobe Inc. recently became the first commercial supplier of satellite imagery to offer images in 30-centimeter resolution — high enough to identify manhole covers, fire hydrants and other objects on the ground from a constellation of satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth.

The Longmont, Colo.-based company also offers a product that looks for patterns in human activity and can help predict where it might occur next.

“Humans, we’re creatures of habit, and a lot of these things can be detected using geo-spatial technology, especially remote-sensing data,” Kumar Navulur, senior director of strategic solutions development at DigitalGlobe, said Wednesday during a briefing with reporters at the Space Symposium.

Navulur and Taner Kodanaz, a company director, discussed the technology as part of an effort to publicize an initiative called “Seeing a Better World,” which seeks to work with global development organizations to tackle such issues as food and nutrition security, infrastructure development, sustainability and human rights.

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For example, Amnesty International recently used the company’s satellite technology to analyze the impact of the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. The organization, which is affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has killed thousands of civilians in Nigeria and, more recently, kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls.

A DigitalGlobe product called Signature Analyst was employed to hunt for patterns in the group’s activity, Navulur said.

“If you know that these terrorists had the girls at this particular location, once you have two, three different locations, the tool starts building a model and tries to predict where the next location would be,” he said. “So it was not just about imagery, but also what we call the patterns of life.”

The software uses remote-sensing satellite data, along with social media reports and other information, to predict where events might occur, Kodanaz said. It has also been employed to analyze oil theft in Nigeria, elephant poaching in South Sudan and how the civil war in Syria affected agricultural production there, he said.

“Most African parks, the limited resource that they have are the park rangers — there’s not enough of them and there’s too much area to cover,” he said. “So how do you reduce the area where you think the highest probability of poaching may occur?”

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The answer, Kodanaz said, is by using software to analyze reams of information, including geo-spatial data, current and archived satellite imagery, land-cover maps showing where elephants are feeding, waterways and other potential egress routes, even location data from animal collars.

“We’ll take all of that information, conflate it, and then have the analyst tool tells us, where do we think the next poaching event is going to occur,” he said.

As a result, the company was able to reduce the historic area where poaching had occurred by some 95 percent so park rangers could hone in on the remaining 5 percent of territory where future poaching events were predicted to happen.

The technology has potential applications in both the civilian and defense markets, the company officials said. The company has contracts with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and other government agencies.

“We want to give our customers the power to see the Earth clearly and in new ways,” Navulur said. “Our vision is to be an indispensable source of information for a changing planet. To get to our vision, what we’re creating is a living, digital inventory of the planet.”

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About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_

    Oh goody. Third party IMINT analysis. Would’ve been nice to have in the 2000’s to refute the “anthrax trucks” or to support or refute Hans Blix and his “Iraq doesn’t have an active WMD manufacturing program” speech. This gives organizations that don’t have their own spysats a chance to work with IMINT data that otherwise comes at the mercy of nation-states, or has to be cooked together using Google Maps, which gets their satellite imagery at variable resolutions. Or in the old days you ordered imagery from DigitalGlobe and then had to do the analysis yourself, which probably depended greatly on your R/SAS/Matlab skills…

  • rufus3698

    The only people who will be tracking anyone will be the government. If the public can use it then things like where Senators live will become public knowledge and the info from the satellites will become illegal before you can say “Orwell”.

  • Dennis

    How do you know we didnt have this technology in 2000? Their is a lot of technology the US military has that most people dont know about!