August 28, 2009: The U.S. Department of Defense is spending over $7 million to try and design a system that will get the troops satellite imagery (photos and other types of sensor data, like heat sources) fast enough to be useful. DARPA, which is running the project (called URGENT, for Urban Reasoning and Geospatial Exploitation Technology) seeks to develop a design that will handle rapid analysis of data, as well as moving it quickly to the troops in a format they can instantly use. This is the latest of many efforts to solve an old problem.
For over two decades, the generals, and other officers with access to "satellite imagery," have been complaining about the difficulty in getting their hands on this stuff. Hundreds of billions of dollars has been spent on photo satellites since the 1960s, and the troops always seem to get leftovers, if anything. Yet the satellite people regularly con Congress for more money so they can build more satellites, and neat systems that will get the satellite imagery "to the troops." The goods never arrive, or never arrive in time.
Generals gave angry testimony before Congress about this non-performance after the 1991 war. The satellite people seemed contrite, and said they would make it right. If given the money to do it. They got the money and the troops got nothing. Now the troops got access to Google Earth, and have seen what they have missed. This, more than decades of complaints, appears to be what is behind the urgency of URGENT. But DARPA also points out that there is a real need to provide the troops with better data on where civilians are, so as to minimize civilian casualties. There is also a need for more mundane things like identifying places in an urban area where you can land a helicopter. URGENT seeks to use the powerful analysis software that Department of Defense agencies use to study classified imagery, and get something useful to the troops.
Meanwhile, it seems that the software Google Earth uses to get the job done, was first developed for the NGA (the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency). But the way the NGA operates, you have to worry about security considerations, and all manner of bureaucratic details. The troops are fighting a war, you say? Well, we still have to deal with security and keeping the paperwork straight. But now the troops are beating NGA over the head with Google Earth, and some in Congress are beginning to listen. But will they listen enough to get NGA to do right by the troops? That seems unlikely. NGA bureaucrats are close at hand, and the angry troops are far away. URGENT is silent on this angle.