Merging company

Earth observation fusion remains messy and time-consuming

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Despite advances, different Earth observation systems cannot easily exchange information.

“The way we interoperate today is messy, time consuming and boring for the end user,” said David Gauthier, director of business and commercial operations group at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Source, on 14 October at the MilSat Symposium here.

A decade ago, US government agencies largely viewed commercial Earth observation as an increase in government capabilities.

“We are now seeing a heavy reliance on commercial observing systems,” Gauthier said. “Because of this dependency, we need something more like a hybrid space architecture with interoperability by design as the basis for this capability.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February and the ongoing war are prompting the government to embrace commercial Earth observation, including synthetic aperture radar, radio frequency monitoring, multispectral and hyperspectral data.

The past eight months have offered “operational proof” of the value of commercial Earth observation, said Nicole Robinson, president of Ursa Space Systems. “This capability has been tested in the most challenging environments and proven to be essential in revealing what is happening in an environment where things are changing quite quickly.”

There is growing recognition of “the virtual need for the private sector to partner with the public sector to address global challenges,” said Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire Global.

Yet making government and commercial Earth observation systems interoperable remains a challenge.

“We need to bring some simplicity to the design so that it works more like a plug-and-play architecture,” Gauthier said. “When you search for information, it’s instantly available and the end user has the experience of not having to fight for embedded information or insights. They are just available.

Another challenge is trust.

“Once you start opening up your information supply chain to a lot more vendors than we’ve ever had before, a lot of different parts of the ecosystem, a lot more countries, you kind of open up a concern when it comes to trusting all this information,” Gauthier said. “The complexity of the problem has increased.”

To build trust, government agencies can treat data as part of any critical supply chain, validating every input. Gauthier pointed out another way of looking at trust.

“More data from more places has an inherent creation of greater trust because you’re constantly corroborating information with other sources,” Gauthier said. “If I have 100 sources of information from 100 different places and one of them is corrupt, the other 99 tell me it is. I can trust the 99 and everything is fine.

Another issue is customs clearance. In most cases, employees of Earth observation companies lack the security clearances they would need to understand the problems that their images and data would help government intelligence agencies solve.

“Trying to build an infrastructure capable of providing intelligence to the intelligence community as a commercial operator sometimes feels like throwing darts blindly,” said Dan Katz, CEO and Founder of Orbital Sidekick.