Geospatial information systems (GIS) are providing the backbone for the design and execution of air campaigns such as the ongoing Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq and Syria. A survey of more than 100 geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) professionals in defense and government organizations found them calling for faster and more mobile applications of GIS to commanders on the ground. The survey was conducted by WBR Research, a British company that organizes the well-attended Defence Geospatial Intelligence (DGI) conference and exhibition, held in London every January.
“GIS needs to work on demand in austere environments, and if it fails, there needs to be a contingency [that] isn’t a paper map,” commented the DGI editorial director Tom Webber. “Commanders need to have access to 2D or 3D mapping capability in real time for faster decision making, and to more mobile applications,” he continued. Other commentators have noted that the success of air campaigns—particularly in avoiding or minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage—increasingly depends on aircrew and ground-based forward air controllers enjoying similar capabilities.
Although GIS are today dominated by collection from satellites in space, almost half of the survey respondents named high-altitude manned and unmanned platforms as likely to provide the next big breakthrough in imagery collection. Northrop Grumman continues to promote the Global Hawk UAV to many countries for this mission, and the U.S. Air Force recently decided to keep the manned U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in service well into the next decade. Both are likely to receive new, high-tech sensors.
Unsurprisingly, more than half the GEOINT professionals surveyed hoped for breakthroughs in data exchange between countries. In the past, this has been hampered by policies such as over-classification, as well as technical standardization problems. “Not only is it important that government agencies have the correct legislation in place, but also that the format of the data is easily transferable between allied forces,” commented Webber.
Naturally, the respondents wanted their jobs made easier by better GEOINT software tools. They rated the automatic highlighting of significant changes on the ground as most desirable, followed by the fusing of raw source data with traditional intelligence sources, open-source intelligence, and social media. But as Webber noted, “most respondents believe that it is necessary to maintain both automated and manual control over intelligence analysis.”
A wider perspective on the future of GEOINT was provided by Daryl Madden, senior vice president and general manager of Geospatial Solutions and Advanced Information Solutions, Textron Systems. “It’s easy to focus on defense and intelligence applications because these organizations were the early adopters historically,” he noted. But, he continued, “increasingly, natural disaster responders and emergency preparedness teams rely on geospatial data and applications.” Indeed, WBR’s survey found that the biggest investments in GIS are currently focused on resource scarcity, the illegal drug trade and natural disasters.
More information about the DGI conference and exhibition is available.