SPECIAL REPORT: Geospatial imagery is essential

Aerospace and defense firms advance the state of the art in acquiring, processing, and exploiting crucial still imagery and full-motion video.

The role of geospatial imagery-still photographs and full-motion video-is expanding for aerospace and defense, as well as homeland security, public safety, and disaster relief applications. Aerospace and defense professionals the world over rely increasingly on images and information derived from remote-sensing satellites. Technology companies, aiming to deliver increasingly high-resolution and detailed geospatial imagery, continue to advance myriad enabling technologies, including sensors, imaging systems, radiation-hardened and -tolerant components, data analysis, networking and data transmission, cloud computing, and more.

"Geospatial imagery is crucial," explains Kevin Berce, manager of business development at graphics processing specialist NVIDIA in Santa Clara, Calif. "Humans often process and understand information about the world around them visually. As such, it is imperative that first responders, homeland security experts, and analysts have immediate access to interactive visual information so that they can quickly act upon it in response to a major disaster or other large-scale event.

"Consider what is needed to plan and execute a search-and-recovery mission following a major earthquake, where a fallen bridge is blocking a main access route," Berce suggests. "If analysts were only to have access to non-visual data about the fallen bridge, they may be missing crucial data that could help or hinder the effort, such as relative location of the bridge to waterways or buildings, traffic patterns, or how the bridge is normally used. Satellite imagery or video which includes shots of the bridge structure and location, previous traffic patterns, and other robust visual, spatial information, can provide far more detail in this instance than can be contained in raw numbers or charts."

Compute power

Processing and delivering crucial visual information fast enough for it to be actionable in aerospace and defense situations requires a tremendous amount of computing power, much of which is beyond the abilities of common computers and central processing units (CPUs), Berce says. As a result, many firms are infusing systems with robust graphics processing units (GPUs).

"Many geospatial companies are turning to GPUs-the same technology used to process and deliver stunning, high-resolution images for video games-to increase the performance of their applications, allowing them to move from an on-off line process to a real-time analysis tool," Berce adds.

Ikena ISR from MotionDSP in Burlingame, Calif., is a processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) tool that employs the company's patented image processing technology and harnesses GPU power to deliver fast, high-quality image processing. "Ikena ISR relies on GPUs to enhance and analyze video in real time," Berce explains. "A typical CPU-based system would take between four and six hours to process one hour of video."

Ikena ISR operates at 30 frames per second with less than 300 milliseconds latency on standard- and high-definition video. Optimized image-processing algorithms and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) graphics processors from NVIDIA and AMD in Sunnyvale, Calif., enable the software to enhance and analyze live streaming video on the fly.

Ikena ISR supports operational deployments across the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and intelligence communities. Its patented image-reconstruction technology has been proven to increase the resolution and signal-to-noise ratio of existing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) electro-optic, infrared, and night-vision sensors on various nano- to tactical-sized platforms.

The first Pléiades satellite delivers impressive, detaile geospatial imagery, such as this shot acquired during the commissioning phase. (Image courtesy Astrium/CNES.)
The first Pléiades satellite delivers impressive, detaile geospatial imagery, such as this shot acquired during the commissioning phase. (Image courtesy Astrium/CNES.)

Computationally intensive

Graphics processing units (GPUs) are involved with remote sensing in two ways, Berce explains. "First, GPUs are typically used during the satellite design process. For example, they are used to accelerate computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA) applications which help designers run large numbers of highly complex simulations to optimize the design of the craft for durability, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, and other elements, ultimately resulting in a superior product."

After the satellite is launched into orbit and is operational, GPUs are used to process and analyze the vast amounts of complex video, image, and numerical data the satellites capture, Berce continues. "Specifically, GPUs dramatically reduce the time it takes for images and videos to be processed into a format that we can analyze. One example is the common process of orthorectification.

"While satellites can produce stunning, high-resolution images, the topographical variations in the surface of the Earth and the tilt of the satellite camera can cause significant image distortions," Berce says. "As a result, it is extremely difficult to make accurate calculations with regard to distances, angles, and orientation. Orthorectification adjusts the image for topographic relief, lens distortion, and camera tilt, providing an accurate representation of the Earth's surface.

"Orthorectification is an extremely computationally intensive process, but adding commercially available GPUs to a CPU-only computing system can accelerate the process significantly," Berce notes. PCI Geomatics-a provider of geo-imaging solutions, such as remote sensing and image processing tools, in Arlington, Va.-for example, has achieved a 60X performance improvement, he says.

"Since GPUs have such a size, weight, and power (SWaP) efficiency advantage when compared to other processors, defense and government customers are able to easily deploy them in the field or at the point where data is being acquired," Berce adds. "Finally, GPUs are allowing multiple missions to be processed on a single host computer, rather than requiring multiple hosts for each mission application."

U.S. Air Force personnel set up a Tactical Very Small Aperture Terminal dish to receive via satellite a weather model image to predict future weather conditions in the field.
U.S. Air Force personnel set up a Tactical Very Small Aperture Terminal dish to receive via satellite a weather model image to predict future weather conditions in the field.

Upgraded imaging

"Commercial satellite imagery plays a fundamental and essential role in our country's national security, disaster response, and humanitarian efforts," says Bill Schuster, chief operating officer at satellite imaging firm GeoEye Inc. in Herndon, Va. "Soldiers depend on it on the battlefield every day for the most up-to-date situational awareness and to meet many of their operational mission requirements. Commercial imagery is unclassified, and as such, is easily shared with coalition forces."

To that end, engineers at ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems in Rochester, N.Y., are hard at work advancing the state of the art in satellite-based imaging. ITT Exelis staff has delivered a next-generation commercial imaging system for the GeoEye-2 satellite from GeoEye, to Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

GeoEye-2's Exelis-built imaging payload combines a telescope, sensor subsystem, and outer barrel assembly. It has the potential to capture panchromatic ground sample distance imagery of the Earth's surface at 13.38-inch (0.34-meter) ground resolution, company officials say. GeoEye-2 is expected to deliver the highest resolution and most accurate color imagery when it is operational in 2013.

GeoEye-2 will surpass the resolution, capacity, and agility of the GeoEye-1 satellite, launched in 2008 and currently the highest-resolution imagery satellite in the world, company officials say. The GeoEye-2 satellite is designed to be more cost-effective and to provide increased coverage and access to high-resolution satellite imagery for warfighters, intelligence analysts, and other professionals. The GeoEye-2 payload will deliver enhanced tasking, longer focal length for better resolution, sensor subsystem advancements for improved image quality, and the ability to collect more imagery at a faster rate when compared to current satellite imaging systems.

Engineers at Lockheed Martin are assembling the GeoEye-2 satellite bus. Its propulsion system has been installed and many of the subsystems are being integrated into the spacecraft.

"Delivery of the imaging payload is a major milestone for the team and another critical step forward in our objective to deploy this cutting-edge satellite in a timely fashion," explains Allen Anderson, GeoEye-2 program director for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "We look forward to integrating the payload with the GeoEye-2 space vehicle."

Satellite sensors

Aerospace and defense companies continue to advance the technologies that enable the capture, processing, visualization, and sharing of detailed, accurate, high-resolution geospatial imagery. In turn, geospatial professionals worldwide are logging a wealth of achievements in only the past few months.

The Pleiades-1 satellite sensor has captured the first panchromatic satellite images, which are sensitive to light of all colors in the visible spectrum and higher resolution than multispectral imagery. Further, the Pleiades constellation is expected to deliver precise geospatial information in record time and with capabilities that mark a shift in the Earth imaging sector.

Pleiades-1 launched from the Kourou launch site in French Guiana on a Russian Soyuz ST rocket. The event on 16 Dec. 2011 marked the second time the Soyuz-ST Russian launch vehicle took off from the French site. This first very high-resolution (VHR) satellite from SPOT Image can provide orthorectified color data at 0.5-meter resolution, making it comparable to GeoEye-1. Pleiades-1 can acquire high-resolution stereo imagery in just one pass, and can cover roughly 386,102 square miles, or 1 million square kilometers, each day.

The Pléiades system was designed under the French-Italian Optical & Radar Federated Earth Observation (ORFEO) program for military and civil applications. France's space agency, Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) is the overall system prime contractor and EADS Astrium in Paris is the prime contractor for the space segment of the Pléiades program.

SPOT Image Corp., the commercial operator for the SPOT Earth observation satellites in Toulouse, France, will launch Pleiades-2, the second element of the Pleiades satellite constellation in 2012 or 2013.

The first mosaic of Iceland from TanDEM-X, a German Earth observation satellite using synthetic aperture radar (SAR), modern radar imaging technology.
The first mosaic of Iceland from TanDEM-X, a German Earth observation satellite using synthetic aperture radar (SAR), modern radar imaging technology.

Entire Earth

German Earth observation satellites TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X have, for the first time, mapping the entire land surface of Earth. In fact, the two radar satellites will have imaged the complete land surface area of Earth (roughly 150 million square kilometers) several times by mid-2013. This satellite mission is the first of its kind, unique, and highly complex, even for experienced engineers, says a spokesperson.

TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X have recorded Earth from different angles strip by strip, and transmitted high-resolution radar data from orbit to the three ground stations: Kiruna in Sweden, Inuvik in Canada, and O'Higgins in Antarctica. The data is being used to produce the world's first single-source, high-precision, 3D digital elevation model of Earth. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt, or DLR) controls radar satellites, is generating the elevation model, and is responsible for the use of TanDEM-X data.

"The generation of accurate elevation data calls for precise coordination of data from and between both satellites," Gerhard Krieger, systems engineer for the TanDEM-X mission, explains. Differences in the cable lengths on the two radar instruments, as well as the distance between the two satellites, need to be calibrated very precisely, he says. "This is a truly enormous challenge when you consider that a millimeter of variation can cause up to one meter of elevation error."

High-resolution observation

Engineers at Astrium, an EADS company and an exporter of Earth observation satellites in Toulouse, France, have completed the in-orbit delivery of the Sistema Satelital para la Observación de la Tierra (SSOT) satellite system to the Chilean air force (FACh).

SSOT, Chile's first high-resolution operational Earth observation system, launched from the European spaceport in French Guiana on 16 December 2011.

The SSOT program includes an operational ground segment in Santiago, Chile, and a satellite that is considered to be Latin America's most powerful system, offering a panchromatic resolution of 1.45 meters. Astrium is the prime contractor for FASat Charlie, the Earth observation satellite of the SSOT system.

Data on the edge

Customers are moving image and video processing capabilities closer to the data acquisition point. At the same time, demand for faster access to intelligence information is growing. The two trends are interrelated, NVIDIA's Berce says.

"The amount of sensors acquiring data continues to grow rapidly. The resolution, frequency, depth, and sheer quantity of sensors have created a huge need to place systems capable of processing the vast amount of sensor data closer to acquisition locations," Berce observes. "Doing so cuts down on the amount of data sent to off-site analysts as only the most valuable information can be selected at the source, and it reduces the time required to send the information. Because they are smaller, lighter, and consume less power than comparable CPU-based systems, GPUs enable the deployment of processing power at the sensor site, not hundreds or even thousands of miles away at a centralized computing center."

Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif., has introduced 1U and 3U ruggedized computer systems with NVIDIA Tesla GPUs that can be deployed in military and emergency response vehicles, Berce says. Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Ashburn, Va.; Mercury Computer Systems in Chelmsford, Mass.; and GE Intelligent Platforms in Huntsville, Ala., offer embedded GPU systems.

"GPUs are also being used in satellite ground stations to process images," Berce affirms. "The faster the images are processed, the faster they can be turned into actionable intelligence on the ground, and GPUs accelerate this process immensely. NVIDIA GPUs being used to accelerate many types of image processing and delivery applications, including electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), LIDAR, full-motion video, and infrared imagery."

Pléiades satellites are designed to deliver a new generation of optical Earth imagery to meet European civil and military challenges. (Image courtesy CNES.)
Pléiades satellites are designed to deliver a new generation of optical Earth imagery to meet European civil and military challenges. (Image courtesy CNES.)

Image and information sharing

"The world's current resources are insufficient to address all the major global development and humanitarian crises that we face," explains Ambassador Betty E. King, the United States' permanent representative to the United Nations Offices in Geneva. "Through the use of science and technology, including innovative uses of geographic information system (GIS) applications, we can become more effective and efficient in this endeavor and stretch the power of limited resources."

Organizations are collaborating online to produce and share mission-focused maps using utilities such as ArcGIS Online cloud solution from Esri in Redlands, Calif., and other browser-based tools.

Luciad software engineers in Reston, Va., working in collaboration with experts from Eurocontrol and the Federal Aviation Association (FAA), developed LuciadRIA (Rich Internet Application) to meet the need for geospatial situational awareness applications in browser-based environments.

Aerospace and defense software engineers use LuciadRIA to develop browser-based applications for the high-performance visualization of imagery, satellite pictures, vector-based data, and dynamic content and interactive human-machine interfaces (HMIs). Systems integrators at the national and international employ Luciad solutions to produce situational awareness applications in mission-critical command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and air traffic control/management (ATC/ATM) systems.

Monitoring matters

Defense and intelligence bodies employ geospatial imaging infrastructure for effective targeting and identification of relevant assets.

The Astrium Services GEO-Information team in Chantilly, Va., launched the Go Monitor service to provide high-quality change information for virtually any area of interest worldwide. Go Monitor is based on cutting-edge satellite imagery, standard and advanced image analysis, and processing and interpretation, says a spokesperson. Go Monitor supports users around the globe in their day-to-day operations, enabling monitoring activities, understanding the environment in which they operate, and making well-informed decisions.

Go Monitor takes advantage of Astrium GEO-Information Services' access to a multi-resolution, multi-sensor Earth observation satellite constellation encompassing optical and radar satellites, including SPOT, TerraSAR-X, and TanDEM-X. It is also enhanced by the new Pléiades VHR optical satellite; three additional satellites are scheduled to be launched within the next two years.

Go Monitor added the Bandar Abbas Naval base in Iran to its set of military sites of interest this year. Surveillance of this site using Pléiades imagery will provide precise identification of ships and embedded equipment and detect signs of activity.

A U.S. Air Force senior airman and combat weather technician looks at a weather satellite image on a computer screen at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
A U.S. Air Force senior airman and combat weather technician looks at a weather satellite image on a computer screen at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.

Inundated with data

"The appetite for enterprise-wide analytical tools continues to grow. More and more organizations have unwieldy amounts of data, and are in desperate need of software and services to process and analyze that data," notes Carl Houghton, vice president of strategic initiatives at Intelligent Software Solutions (ISS) in Colorado Springs, Colo.

ISS won three task orders valued at nearly $120 million from U.S. Air Force Research Labs officials to support U.S. government customers with data integration, analysis, and reporting software aimed at improving situational awareness. The company will deliver software tools and services that enable users to aggregate, process, analyze, and visualize large amounts of intelligence information from multiple and even disconnected sources.

"Through the use of our WebTAS software, we provide the Air Force with a low-cost, highly-effective data analysis solution that can be used across multiple organizations, providing a critical cost savings during a time of severe budget constraints," Houghton adds.

The WebTAS-TK contract spans more than 100 projects for 70 different user communities in support of advanced research and development of machine learning, complex event processing, development and deployment of command and control applications, and intelligence analysis tools.

ISS geospatial intelligence, data analysis and visualization, mobile and multi-touch interaction, machine learning, geo-temporal analysis, semantic data processing, and cloud computing technologies are used by the U.S. DOD, Department of Homeland Security, National Intelligence Organizations, and other U.S., NATO, and government customers.

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August 2015
Volume 26, Issue 8

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