May 08, 2016

Security from Above: How Earth Observation Helps to Keep America Safe

By: Owen Hawkins. Less than two weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the first Director of the Office of Homeland Security was appointed and a new phrase entered the English lexicon. Taken from a 1990s Pentagon report, the phrase ‘homeland security’ was designed to reassure the people of the United States that a government department was dedicated to unceasingly overseeing their safety.

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It had to overcome some early resistance to this intended meaning – in 2002 many found the phrase to be ‘un-American’ – but it is safe to say that today many now view the Department of Homeland Security as a critical part of the nation’s continuing efforts to keep the United States safe. Indeed, many would find it curious that a department with this remit has not always existed.

While the roots of the Department are deeply embedded in the global fight against terrorism, over time its mission has diversified to include managing and securing the nation’s borders, enforcing immigration laws, safeguarding cyberspace and ensuring that the United States is as resilient as possible in the face of natural and man-made disasters.

These are some of the most high profile and contentious issues currently facing America and there are as many opinions as to how best deal with them, especially as there are countless miles that make up the continental US borders.

It is the sheer scale of these land borders and stretches of coastline that make the crucial responsibilities of the Department harder to meet. Additionally, the rise of homegrown terrorist threats make it critical that it is the entire region and not just the edges of the fifty states that receive continuous and thorough monitoring. W

with this in mind, it is no surprise to learn that the US government is the largest user of Earth Observation derived data in the world. Images from space represent a way of ‘looking’ at huge areas of the Earth’s surface quickly and crucially, in a remote fashion. A single, high resolution image can easily cover hundreds of square miles.

However, according to the recent National Plan for Civil Earth Observations, these datasets would be used more broadly and to greater effect if there was simpler access to them and improved coordination in their use. The need to improve data handling is only set to become more pressing in the near and long term.

In addition to the proliferation of new sensors that are now active, such as the recently commissioned British-based Earth-i constellation, there are several new companies promising to create and launch swarms of microsatellites or cubesats in the future. This means that a huge increase in the availability and timeliness of Earth Observation data is now just around corner.

How this new data is stored, managed and disseminated will partly determine whether the security of the nation is to be enhanced or not. New and increased data does not necessarily ensure better information extraction or better outcomes. How imagery is used and the applications it provides for are just as important as the fact that it exists. Decisions based upon Earth Observation data in the security realm can mean the difference between life and death. Therefore, that imagery needs to provide the right information to support the best decisions.

While the use of satellite derived imagery is likely to be the prime economically viable method of monitoring such vast expanses of land and sea, there are a number of criteria about the imagery, many of which may not seem obvious, that need to be considered. To monitor the borders of the United States with only people would be impossible. The imagery allows operators and analysts to deploy the limited manpower that the Department has with the greatest possible accuracy and efficiency.

It is logical to assume that those deployment decisions will be enhanced with imagery of a suitably high resolution coupled with information extraction tools, such as automated algorithms that can detect and extract relevant features.

An Earth Observation image is a snapshot in time. It shows what was happening at that precise instant at the precise location on the surface of the Earth. Naturally, analysts want to see as much as possible about what was taking place, but just as critical is knowing and understanding what has changed since the last time that area of interest was viewed.

Containing a situation may be the best course of action but if the situation changes, it is vital that this is known as quickly as possible. The number of times the satellite (or another one) passes overhead – the ‘revisit’ time – is vital in allowing operatives to be able to make useful assessments of the kind of activity that is taking place and the level of threat that that activity may represent.

All of these factors make multi-satellite constellations incredibly valuable to those working in security sensitive areas of government and the private sector. They are able to combine multiple pieces of data that have as high a resolution as possible with the shortest revisit time possible.

With the potential to capture such images daily, and sometimes multiple times per day, it is possible for better informed decisions to be made more quickly and more accurately than ever before, and thus ensure the continued safety of the United States.

Owen Hawkins is Operations Director at Earth-i. Prior to joining Earth-i, Owen was a Senior Business Development Manager at SSTL, guiding product development and helping SSTL’s customers to make optimal use of their satellites. He previously worked as a Business Development Manager for SSTL’s wholly-owned subsidiary, DMC International Imaging (DMCii), which managed the Disaster Monitoring Constellation and sold satellite images and value-added services. At DMCii he was responsible for the distribution and sale of satellite imagery, and the development of new data products. Owen has an MSc in Nanoscale Science and Technology, and a BSc in Physics and Electronics, both from the University of Leeds.

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