A recent U.S. Air Force contract with small satellite company BlackSky Global LLC to monitor how COVID-19 is affecting military supply chains shows the promise of artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML)-enabled geospatial intelligence but also the challenges ahead for DoD in heading off supply chain disruptions.

Announced by BlackSky last month, the contract through AFWERX and the Air Force Research Laboratory is to run over 27 months and not to exceed $1 million. BlackSky is to employ its Spectra AI/ML system to help maintain secure military supply chains through image analysis. Spectra “provides a near-real time look at the evolving pandemic and provides critical insights to inform national security,” according to Brian O’Toole, the CEO of BlackSky.

Spectra “will leverage state-of-the-art image exploitation techniques to automatically analyze anomalies and monitor the application of social distancing,” the company said. “These measurements will then be correlated against the reported infection numbers coming from local governments and integrated into the latest epidemiology models to predict the risk to deployed U.S. Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.”

“In some regard, I’m really excited because I think that [contract] shows another great use case for the commercial sector to help on this hard problem, but on the flip side it really shows our short-sighted approach on handling the supply chain,” Kara Cunzeman, lead futurist of The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy & Strategy and a co-author of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) office’s recent Global Futures Report, said during an Aug. 5 Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies’ Aerospace Nation virtual discussion on the report.

“Now we’re in reaction mode just trying to scramble to collect data to understand what’s actually happening,” Cunzeman said. “This really should be a broader wake-up call for ‘what happens when the next disruption occurs?’ Are we going to be better prepared or piece-meal it and only focus on the COVID-related supply chain? It’s really important for us to use this time as a wake-up call.”

In 2018, Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio formed a $150 million joint venture with Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries initially aimed at manufacturing 20 small satellites for the BlackSky constellation. Last year, BlackSky received a $50 million infusion from Intelsat. In June, Japan’s Mitsui & Co., in partnership with Yamasa Co. Ltd., acquired Spaceflight Inc. from Spaceflight Industries. BlackSky, another subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries, was not part of the deal and is to continue as a private company with offices in Seattle and Herndon, Va. Spaceflight Industries has said that it would use the proceeds of the acquisition to invest in BlackSky (Via Satellite, Feb. 19).

While the United States is to use advanced technologies, such as BlackSky’s Spectra, in anti-COVID efforts, China appears to be using such technologies more widely.

“In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, China is using drones and layered autonomous systems to continue combating the outbreak as well as augment its domestic supply chain,” according to the AFWIC Global Futures Report. “Drones are sharing information on loudspeakers, carrying signs with QR codes (for no-contact registration purposes),
spraying disinfectant, delivering packages, and taking people’s temperatures.”

In addition, “China is making use of programmed robots for contactless delivery to aid supply chains while preventing a resurgence of the outbreak,” the report said. “Chinese society seems comfortable with this level surveillance and monitoring in the name of public health, and is demonstrating high trust levels in autonomous machines. While our competitors seem to welcome the aid drones and autonomous systems can provide, the United States domestic population is unlikely to follow suit.”

The AFWIC report said that COVID-19 has battered manufacturing for launch and satellite product lines and associated supply chains.

“Small businesses have also been disproportionately affected,” the report said.”Bigelow Aerospace, for example, recently laid off its entire workforce, claiming COVID-19 as the primary driver. OneWeb, a major leader in the competition for spacebased internet services, filed for bankruptcy. Boeing [BA], a ‘too big to fail’ anchor of the aerospace industry has asked for a multi-billion-dollar bailout.”

DoD has been considering how to aid space start-ups, such as OneWeb, hit by COVID-19 (Defense Daily, May 12).

While tariffs factored into companies’ Chinese presence decisions before COVID-19, great power competition is leading companies to set up silo’ed production lines for the Chinese and U.S. markets post COVID-19.

“As we look at the supply chain, it’s not just about securing supply chains for materiel,” Jason Schenker, chairman of The Futurist Institute and a report co-author, said Aug. 5. “Part of this is fundamentally, the U.S. and China in this great power competition are coming head to head. China has built up a significant technology ecosystem. Part of the disruption is forcing technology companies either to get out of China or create a separate supply chain that serves the United States and China in order to make sure that you have essentially silo’ed production. We’ve already got signals that that’s a priority.”

Schenker said that “technology companies have already started moving production facilities out of mainland China,” some moving to Taiwan and others to China-adjacent countries, such as Vietnam.

However, “on a five-, 15-, 20-year horizon, the number of countries you can move to right now before you need to move again is actually a pretty short list, especially when you consider proxy war, for instance,” Schenker said. “There are things that are being done to disrupt that ecosystem as well as secure the supply chains of critical Air Force materiel, as well as other parts of the U.S. economy that are going to be more critical, PPE, medical devices, biologics. All of that is going to be shored up probably in a very bipartisan way. We’re going to see this spread to other parts of the economy to make the U.S. a bit less reliant on China because that relationship’s untenable if we’re actually going to be in a continued great power competition struggle that could heat up at times.”

While COVID-19 has slowed China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)–an international, transcontinental, strategic infrastructure construction project, the BRI has 130 participant countries–Italy being the latest–and an investment as high as $8 trillion across Europe, Africa, and Asia, the report said.