A Common Picture
Commercial satellite imagery augments government capabilities
By EDWARD LUNDQUIST, Special Correspondent
Worth a Thousand Words
“Unclassified imagery is so valuable because it can change hands
quickly and decisions can be made
faster,” said Chris Tully, senior vice
president of sales at GeoEye, a Herndon, Va.-based company that owns
two satellites and provides a variety
of products and services to government and other customers. “It’s easier
to rapidly disseminate an unclassified
image. It permits you to work with
partners who do not have the clearance for access to classified material.”
Access to, and rapid dissemination of, imagery also is critical for
humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR). Responding to the earthquake
and subsequent tsunami in Japan, making sense of damage from the tornadoes in southern U.S. states or evacuating people in the path of flooding on the Mississippi
River were made easier with high-resolution satellite
imagery that could be processed and shared quickly.
“During an HA/DR situation, everything should be
unclassified,” said Navy Capt. Ed Buclatin, public
affairs officer for U.S. European Command. “For infor-
mation or imagery collected through classified means,
we want a process in place to declassify it very quickly
— within hours.”
Following a disaster, geospatial imagery can show
what has been destroyed and what remains, what roads
are open and what pathways are available for respon-
ders to get to where they are needed most.
The analytical and predictive tools available today,
and those in development, can help solve real-world
problems, such as where something like a flood or
famine is likely to occur, what would be the best
escape routes from a given point as a disaster unfolds
or where responders should deploy resources.
Commercial satellite-based sensors and analytical
tools can, for example, analyze the radiation plume from
Satellite imagery and analysis has become indispensable for the
military and civilian first-responders.
■ Commercial satellite imagery is available to any buyer, but the
government is one of the biggest customers of commercial geospatial information.
■ Because it’s unclassified, it can be made available to those
who need it easier and faster.
■ Commercial satellites free up more sophisticated government
spacecraft to conduct higher priority and more sensitive missions.
Imagery that was once only available from highly classified military satellites for use by government intelligence agencies can now be obtained from
commercial sources on the open market and shared
with a wide variety of users.
Satellite imagery and analysis is indispensable for
military planners and commanders. That same kind of
imagery also is essential for governments, businesses
and disaster responders, although spy satellites are not
always “looking” where non-DoD users want pictures
and the imagery can be highly classified.
The government agencies that have their own means
of collection also are the biggest buyers of commercial
imagery. Even if the government is the customer that
placed the order, commercially obtained imagery is not
classified, so it can be released to be readily shared.
“Here in Afghanistan, commercial imagery levels the
playing field for all coalition partners and agencies,” said
Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Scheppers, chief of the intelligence
operations division for the International Security
Assistance Force. “Classified products are not always available, or releasable, but commercial products provide high-quality images for a common picture of the battle space for
military, civilian and host-nation partners.”