ST. LOUIS—A future where sophisticated geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) is occurring in real-time for operational use could be less than a decade-and-a-half away if there is a sustained investment in technology, people and partnerships, the chief of research for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said on Tuesday.

Technology, people and partnerships are the building blocks of the future vision but there also needs to be a focus on three “attributes” that will play primary roles in fulfilling the promise of more advanced GEOINT, Cindy Daniell said during a keynote address here at the GEOINT 2021 Symposium hosted by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

The first attribute she outlined is that analysts, through their experiences and inputs from data scientists and operators, will remain key drivers in the GEOINT enterprise, making them “indispensable to transparent and informed decision-making.” Moreover, analysts will also help drive efforts in other areas such as “training algorithms, developing novel analytical methods, or identifying more efficient policies and pathways for rapid and secure data dissemination.”

Technology that is enhanced by artificial intelligence (AI), in particular machine learning (ML), that automatically detects anomalous activities, rapidly fuses traditional and non-traditional GEOINT sources for decision makers, and makes sense of large amounts of unstructured data will free up people to focus on challenging task and major decisions, she said.

“AI and ML are the tools for accelerators of GEOINT in the future, letting us make more effective and more efficient use of our workforce,” Daniel said.

Leveraging AI and ML will “enable our decision advantage” and result in “new human-machine teams,” she said.

In her GEOINT vision of the future process, NGA operators speak into computer screens and computer tablets, “creating and manipulating a multitude of real-time GEOINT products at the speed of their voice.”

The final attribute is the need for “adaptive” workflows and workforce amid changes in the threats and technology, she said.

“This means creating a GEOINT enterprise that is sensor agnostic in its ability to capture and assess government or commercial data, has sufficient capacity to process large volumes of dynamic information and is responsive to a variety of user missions, from warfighting to intelligence, from tactical to strategic, or from immediate to foundational,” she said.

The technology landscape in particular has changed dramatically from the explosion of space-based assets due new market entrants and the lower costs to launch satellites, and design and build them. Daniell pointed out that during the Cold War few countries had accesses to space-based sensors and the means to launch them.

So far in 2021, close to 1,400 satellites have been launched, eclipsing the total in 2020, which was the first year more than 1,000 were placed into orbit, Daniell said, citing data from the United Nations.

“As a result, high quality, timely and cross-phenomenology data is now available to a whole new set of consumers,” she said. “On the government side, this has led to an exponential growth in available data, both classified and unclassified, structured and unstructured. As a result, our analysts, whose numbers are not increasing as rapidly, will need help sifting, cataloguing, and prioritizing the data before they can even begin to understand it.”

This challenge is being addressed by evolving strategies, putting more focus on operators, emphasizing the integration of emerging technology, being agile in partnering with industry, particularly with non-traditional players that are as innovative as large contractors but may need help understanding NGA’s needs and working the government contracting process, and investing in people, Daniell said.