Staged over three days at the QEII Conference Centre in central London at end of February, the event saw Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) professionals from more than 30 nations participating in one of the key trans-Atlantic forums of its type
With the threats and challenges posed by the conflict in Ukraine serving as a common theme, the main opening day of the conference saw speakers emphasising the need to keep pace with the technologies being leveraged by our adversaries.
This imperative was reiterated by Shelby Pierson, Deputy Director of the Source Operations & Management Directorate of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), who singled out automation, Machine Learning and computer vision as prime examples. “Our adversaries are also investing in GEOINT collection techniques at an alarming pace,” she added.
Addressing an 800-strong audience, Pierson stressed the importance of adapting in order to meet these threats head-on. “We find ourselves in an operational environment very different from the one to which we have been accustomed. As such, we must move away from an ‘all the data all the time’ mentality and towards an integration-ready mindset which ensures users of GEOINT can hit the ground running in any required direction. To put it bluntly, we are out of time and out of runway to give those users the capabilities they need at the speed, precision and accessibility necessary to maintain the advantage.”
Pierson believes even a slight shift in perspective can transform what may seem a dire situation into one of opportunity. This shift was evident in Ukraine and where the NGA, together with NATO partners, was leveraging widely available expert Foundation GEOINT data and products to speedily and efficiently deliver standard automated maps, grid and datum translations, elevation data, and precise imagery to support targeting operations. Lessons were being learned and applied in Ukraine that will shape the future of our mission space, said Pierson, who concluded by itemising the NGA’s top three priorities: act with urgency, achieve greater data and systems integration, and invest in a diverse and inclusive workforce.
Brigadier Paul Lynch took to the rostrum to outline the work undertaken and the progress achieved during his three-year tenure as Commander of the UK’s National Centre for Geospatial Intelligence (NCGI).
Outlining the broad scope of the Centre’s remit as a primary provider of GEOINT to the defence community, Lynch said its work at RAF Wyton had been considerably ramped-up following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. GEOINT, he said, was now accepted as the go-to tool for information advantage in the 24-hour news cycle, both in its ability to refute false claims and in calling-out hostile activities and intent. That much was evident in the way the Defence Intelligence Twitter account had been trending over the past year.
Lynch noted that the demand for location-based dashboards and portals had soared and that these were now viewed as a necessity by defence and security planners. “While requests for hard copy mapping will most likely continue for some time, the fundamental shift to digital is reflected in our creation of a Geospatial Services for Defence Hub … one that will have greater coherence and enforce standards in meeting user expectations.” He admitted it was early days, yet the endeavour will set the long-term conditions for how geospatial information is consumed across defence and by government.
Lynch went on to outline an ambitious five-year programme for the NCGI that involves the development of a commercial GEOINT data and services strategy, the implementation of T-Levels and apprenticeships, greater collaboration with academia and industry, new workflows for classified material, and the relocation of the Defence Geographic Centre from Feltham to RAF Wyton. These were just some elements in a plan that, said Lynch “Redefines NCGI’s business model from one that focusses on the creation and delivery of products to one that provides users with increased access to the full range of GEOINT services and data.”
Paul Lynch went on to chair a leadership panel session that explored the issue of collaboration between government and industry. In this he was joined by Commander Martin Walker, Director Geospatial Intelligence, New Zealand Defence Force, Colonel Yannick Michaud, Director Geospatial Intelligence and Human Intelligence Policy, Canadian Forces; Jeff Builta, Director, NGA Support Team UK, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; Maria Angelucci, Head of Defence and Intelligence Key Accounts Management - Europe, e-Geos; and Linda McCann, Assistant Secretary GEOINT Mission and Engagement of the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation.
Industry keynotes during the morning plenary were delivered by Euan Cameron, Chief Technology Officer, Developer Technology at Esri, who explored ways and means of unleashing the true potential of data, and Blacksky’s CEO, Brian O’Toole. who reviewed how smallsat-derived optical imagery (Both static and multi-frame), SAR and RF data was being combined with Artificial Intelligence to detect, classify and track objects of interest. This evolution had now reached the point where a real-time Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability had come of age and was being deployed at scale to achieve tactical advantage.
The theme of leveraging commercial and Open Source data for ISR was continued in a dialogue between Mark Chatelain, CIO for Geospatial Intelligence at the NGA, Chris Bailey, GM, Global National Security and Defence, Amazon Web Services, and Ingrid Vanden Berghe, Director General, Belgium National Mapping Agency.
In responding to audience questions, all agreed that the abundance of commercial and Open Source data had brought with it both opportunities and challenges. The danger of introducing bias, albeit unintentionally, into AI algorithms was also discussed. Chatelain noted that such algorithms were only as good as the training put into them. For this reason, he stressed the need to continuously test their output before applying them in the workplace. Bailey agreed, but suggested that eliminating bias was a broader process that has to encompass both technologies and people.
The potential uses and misuses of ChatGPT, the pros and cons of cloud technology, mitigating deep fake and disinformation threats, and how government procurement can be more closely aligned with commercial processes were other topics aired in this panel session.
In one of the many well-attended afternoon conference sessions and workshops, Colonel Hamish Macmillan of the UK MoD updated delegates on PICASSO, an evolving integrated information environment for the exploitation, production and dissemination of GEOINT.
Spread over ten years, the £1.28 billion programme will transition a collection of legacy systems to a common service management model that links people, objects and activities. In doing so, it will form a key element of the MoD’s digital backbone, with six sub-programmes dedicated to air operations, land operations, meteorology, geographics, imaging, and common shared GEOINT. The bulk of the programme will be delivered by commercial partners such as Leidos, CGI and QinetiQ, all of whom have been awarded contracts for various elements of a programme that will enable the continued collaboration and sharing of information with Five Eyes partners.
[Doubtless this intention will be strengthened by the UK government’s subsequent pledge to spend an additional £5 billion over the next two years on defence and security measures. Commenting on the move following an early March meeting of Aukus partners in San Diego, prime minister Rishi Sunak said, "We will fortify our national defences, from economic security to technology supply chains and intelligence expertise, to ensure we are never again vulnerable to the actions of a hostile power" – Ed].
Spread over the three days, Individual presentations, panel sessions and workshops were organised in tracks relating to Enhancing imagery quality; Commercial innovation; Exploiting R&D and S&T; Accelerating imagery analysis; The future of space; Climate and weather; and Disaster, humanitarian and crisis missions. Registered delegates who may have missed sessions can access many of them by logging on to https://dgi.wbresearch.com/pre....
The event also featured a three-day Women in intelligence programme, a Special Interest Day on the future of space and commercial satellite imagery, a Dragons’ Den inquisition for GEOINT start-ups, a new climate change and security track, plus multiple sessions devoted to education, skills, training and tradecraft.
The conference was supported by principal and premium industry sponsors Esri and Amazon Web Services respectively and included an exhibition area hosting some 30 organisations and businesses from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.
The next iteration of this event, organised by Worldwide Business Research (WBR), will again be staged at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London, 12 - 14 March, 2024. Further information can be found at https://dgi.wbresearch.com/
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