Pentagon eyes large-scale, persistent imagery surveillance

Even with a $50 billion intelligence budget and the ability to target digital communications all over the world, the U.S. intelligence community still faces one major gap in its surveillance capabilities: persistent satellite-based imagery.

Persistent surveillance, or the “ability to stare at a location” for long periods of time, remains one of the Pentagon’s pressing technological challenges, said Michael Vickers, the Defense Department’s undersecretary of defense for intelligence, speaking Nov. 19 at a military strategy summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re trying to create persistent surveillance from space,” he said, rather than having to wait for satellites to be retasked or to fly over a particular part of the globe. “It will be a leap in overhead reconnaissance” that will take more than a decade to accomplish, Vickers said.

But the technology necessary to achieve persistent surveillance already exists, and the infrastructure to begin capturing a picture of the entire Earth every day is within a year of being in place.

Leading the charge into this new frontier is a small San Francisco-based startup, Planet Labs Inc., founded by a team of former NASA scientists. In February, the company launched the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites, which it calls “Doves.” The 28 systems that make up the company’s first “flock” of satellites are a fraction of the size of traditional satellites, measuring a mere 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters and weighing only 4 kilograms (compared to traditional satellites that average 30 square meters in size and weigh several tons).


Perhaps more important than the efficiencies promised by Planet Labs’ Dove satellites, when the company completes its deployment of 100 Doves in the next year, they will enable scientists to capture a picture of the entire Earth — every day. And while the company’s focus has been strictly on non-military applications, including studying deforestation and agriculture, disaster response and other scientific applications important to understanding changes that could impact life on the planet, the technological advancements it has introduced prove the Vickers’ desire for the Pentagon to be able to “stare” at one place on the Earth for days or months at a time is not as crazy as it might sound.

Planet Labs’ co-founder and CEO Will Marshall detailed the capabilities of the Dove systems at TED2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia. “So what’s standing in our way?” asked Marshall, referring to the goal of being able to image the entire Earth on a daily basis. “Satellites are big, expensive, and they’re slow,” he said. And if scientists want to understand what’s happening on Earth more regularly, more satellites are necessary. But the current satellite model just isn’t scalable.

Marshall held a Dove satellite in his hand for the TED audience to see. “Even though this is really small, this can take pictures 10 times the resolution of the big satellite,” Marshall said.

Marshall and his engineering team built the first Dove satellite in a Silicon Valley garage — a first for a space company. And one of the keys to the company’s engineering success is something familiar to an increasing number of federal agencies — agile development. “We rapidly prototype our satellites,” Marshall said. “We use release early, release often on our software. And we’ve learned to manufacture our satellites at scale. We call it agile aerospace.”

With more than 100 Doves planned for launch, they satellites will provide “a completely radical new data set” about the health of the planet, said Marshall. The systems will be deployed in a single orbit fixed plane with respect to the sun, allowing the Earth to rotate beneath the string of satellites. The cameras will scan across the Earth as it rotates. “The Earth rotates every 24 hours, so we scan every point on the planet every 24 hours. It’s a line scanner for the planet,” Marshall said.


The key, however, to the images taken by the constellation of Doves is that they don’t take a picture of any point on the planet every day, but a picture of every point on the planet every day. “We’ll be able to track urban growth as it happens around the whole world, in all cities, every day,” Marshall said. “From water security to food security, we’ll see crops in all of the fields on every farmer’s field every day.”

For Marshall and Planet Labs, this new data set will be used to take care of the planet. But as he ended his TED talk, Marshall left the audience to ponder a profound question: “If you had access to imagery of the whole planet every single day, what would you do with that data? What problems would you solve? What exploration would you do?”

We know what the Pentagon’s Vickers would do.

Here’s a look at Marshall’s TED2014 talk.

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