While Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, BlackSky [BKSY] commercial imagery satellites had picked up unusual Russian activity, including military convoys, a month earlier as part of an economic activity analysis and alerted U.S. officials.
“Anticipatory analytics is what BlackSky is all about,” J.R. Riordan, the company’s chief revenue officer, told the Satellite 2022 conference on March 21 in Washington, D.C. “In January, we started to do some automated looks at what Ukraine was dealing with and what Russia was trying to do. We set up a system that automatically took images for us and do analytics for us on the Russian build up on the Ukrainian border.”
BlackSky set up a crisis action cell to focus on providing real-time imagery and analytics to officials through the use of the 12 BlackSky satellites and Spectra AI, BlackSky’s artificial intelligence and machine learning network. The dozen satellites are designed to have a rapid revisit rate, and the company has said that its satellites can pass over some global locations 15 times per hour.
“It is a new era of tactical ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] from space,” Riordan said. “Event-based tipping and cueing, persistent surveillance–the ‘unblinking eye’ we always talked about 25 years ago, it’s real today, as well as on-demand tasking. You can do it from your cell phone, your iPad, your computer, anomaly change and event detection–all delivered to the tactical edge.”
Riordan is a U.S. Air Force veteran who led the service’s space superiority and global integrated ISR division before retiring in 2011. Riordan also served as a top staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee strategic forces panel and helped write the legislation that established the U.S. Space Force in 2019.
Imagery from other commercial satellite companies, including Capella Space and Maxar Technologies, Inc. [MAXR], has also aided in U.S. and allied detection and monitoring of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Last November, Pete Muend, the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) commercial systems program director, said that the agency was procuring about 50,000 commercial images weekly and that he expected to see a significant increase in that number (Defense Daily, Nov. 3, 2021). NRO Director Christopher Scolese told the Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Symposium in St. Louis last October that commercial contracts “are providing about 100 million square kilometers of commercial imagery every single week.”
U.S. utilization of commercial companies to gain an in-depth look at the Russian assault of Ukraine is not limited to imagery.
John Serafini, the CEO of HawkEye 360, said that his company’s satellites have helped geo-locate signals over Ukraine, including the attempted jamming of GPS signals.
“When HawkEye 360 analysts examined Ukraine over the past four months, they discovered continued and increased GPS interference across the region,” Hawkeye360 said earlier this month. “The data showed extensive GPS interference in November 2021 along the boundary of the pro-Russian separatist-controlled regions in Luhansk and Donetsk. Open-source information confirmed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) operating in the area were disrupted due to lost GPS connections.”
In addition, “HawkEye 360 detected GPS interference along the border between Ukraine and Belarus, shortly before the Russian invasion started,” the company said. “This February activity occurred just north of Chernobyl, within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, demonstrating the integration of electronic warfare tactics into Russian military operation to further degrade Ukraine’s ability for self-defense.”