An abundance of unmanned aerial vehicles in combat zones has given
U.S. intelligence agencies and commanders a crucial edge in war
and espionage, but managing the information flow has been fraught
Bringing order out of chaos is the job the National Geospatial-Intelligence
Agency (NGA). In response to the inundation of raw data, the NGA
is adopting new methods to help reduce the amount of time it takes
for UAV intelligence to reach the agency’s two customers:
national intelligence community personnel and military commanders.
“This is the un-sexy part of the problem, and no one has
put a lot of money into it,” said Stephen Long, special advisor
for emerging airborne capabilities for the NGA. “Everybody
loves the pretty airplanes.”
The problem, senior NGA officials said, involves employing emerging
technologies to gather new kinds of data, speeding up the transmission
of relevant information to their customers and managing the influx
in a way that allows archiving and interoperability, even if the
data varies in format.
New sensor technology and an expanding number of collection systems
have resulted in growing demands for processing digital video, still
images, sophisticated laser imagery and other formats. As an added
challenge, analysts need to provide this homogenized information
in real time.
The current security environment is driving these changes, said
Robert Zitz, NGA technical executive. “The timelines of our
customers are compressing,” he said at an industry conference
hosted by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.
“They are not measured in hours, but in minutes or seconds.”
As an example he cited the strike against buildings thought to
harbor Saddam Hussein and his family members at the outset of the
2003 campaign to oust him from power. If commanders had more current
intelligence before deciding to make that strike, the result may
have been different.
“Our adversaries know if you sit still, you can be seen,”
Zitz said. “The way to survive, and for your weapons to survive,
is to be highly mobile.”
An additional focus for NGA is to gain insights into the underground
facilities that shield many weapons programs from view or attack,
he continued, adding that the United States knows details of only
a slight fraction of these underground bunkers. Also vexing are
denial and deception methods, both sophisticated and simple, that
can trick U.S. forces into using expensive ordnance on worthless
“We must embrace airborne sensors, manned and unmanned, as
the way forward for our agencies,” Zitz said. “To drive
timelines down, you’re not going to get there with just satellites.”
New capabilities have arrived with UAVs, and future research promises
more forms of data NGA must be ready to handle. For example, one
tool that can be used to scan inside buildings and defeat some deception
techniques is laser radar, or LIDAR. “A permissive air environment
is needed (to deploy LIDAR) now,” Zitz said. “NGA is
paying to have this put on unmanned aircraft.”
NGA has established airborne fusion cells to quickly process images
from manned and unmanned aircraft.
Along with commercial and classified space and air imagery, operators
at NGA centers process signal intelligence, human intelligence streams
and weather patterns for wartime operations planning. Their size
and number are classified. The agency also is overhauling the way
it collects and disseminates data. One new concept called “gridlock,”
is co-sponsored by NGA and U.S. Central Command. The system is designed
to shorten the time between the collection of tactical imagery to
the engagement of a target. The program is still in the prototype
stage, NGA spokesman Steve Honda said.
Another example is the multi-resolution tool, or “Mr. T,”
established to support the Predator drone. The program, currently
used by analysts, correlates data from the unmanned aircraft to
give commanders and Pentagon players improved data on the locations
of targets of interest. The software can match fairly imprecise
or unclear images to known images in other databases to correctly
identify a target within 10 minutes.
Zitz lauded the program’s progress, but only briefly. “You
know, that ain’t good enough,” he said. “We got
to get it down to real-time.”
An organized method of processing and sharing information from
different sensors has become necessary, given the many new platforms
and need for quick analysis. Analysts struggle to get an idea of
what the incoming data is telling them and then pass it along the
information food chain to NSA or battlefield commanders.
The real issue is providing interoperability and a common picture
using many streams of information. “We have hundreds if not
thousands of data types, and UAVs have promulgated that same problem,”
NGA is spearheading the adoption of a common format to ensure that
the information flow will not be slowed by technical incompatibility.
Their solution, first developed by commercial television to send
digital imagery between special effects shops, is the advanced authoring
format, or AAF.
AAF provides a way to track the history of raw data from its source
through every step up the chain and as it passes through analysis
software. The format is open-source and can be used after signing
a no-fee contract.
It also provides a convenient way to “wrap” all elements
of a project together for archiving by placing a tag around pieces
of related data for consistent referencing. Format doesn’t
matter, as long as the wrappers are consistent. Sharing data is
often complicated by classified sources and AAF can be used to smooth
this process. If a target of interest has been scanned by several
platforms, the classification level can be tagged within the format
wrapper as the foundation for human or automatic safeguarding.
UAV programs have been criticized for their insular nature, with
each system generating its own form of data in a unique format that
is coherent for only that single system. This, Long said, is an
approach that hampers the movement of intelligence, and one AAF
should improve. “The second that information hits the ground,
you are now needed to be in the domain of talking in AAF.”
Transmissions to soldiers in the field will not be by AAF. A slimmer,
translatable program called material exchange format, or MXF, will
be employed. The two programs are “genetically-related,”
said Long, which eases the technicalities in carving out and compressing
a small piece of intelligence and beaming it to a soldier in the
Long noted that the wholesale adoption of AAF “is not a done
deal yet” and that he was still engaged in selling the concept
to other federal agencies.
“AAF is just a file format. However, it is an incredibly
important enabler for the capabilities we need,” he said.
“We will still have to build systems that ingest, store, process
and use the AAF-enabled data. But we have to do that anyway.”
The question of building common infrastructure to support the rising
amount of incoming data is a matter of numbers, he contended: either
the government builds hundreds of systems, one for each data type,
or just builds a few integrated systems using a common format. “If
anyone has a better plan than AAF, let us know,” Long added.
Another critical addition to the agency’s ability to manage
information is not a technical issue, but a human one.
“Very few analysts were aware or understood how to use data
coming off the aircraft,” Zitz said. “Training is key.”
The new crop of agency analysts will be familiar with UAV operations
from the start of their careers. During the post-Cold War period,
NGA experienced a reduction in analyst positions. Since the terrorist
attacks of September 2001, that trend has reversed sharply, with
the agency authorized to hire 900 analysts.
The number of new analysts brought onboard each year depends on
the number of seats available. To date, roughly 400 new analysts
have been brought onboard, said NGA officials. All new NGA analysts
attend a six-month course, where UAV processing techniques are now
covered during classroom training.