Have You Seen the Revolution in Geospatial Intelligence?

Companies operating constant satellite surveillance systems seem to be struggling to find a market for their imagery.

BlackSky can take images of the same area several times a day… Iceye can take images regardless of weather and lighting conditions… with analytics for capabilities like change detection…

In the old days it cost millions to acquire reliable imagery. It was difficult and secretive, which obviously are ingredients that don’t make for commercial success.

The intelligence market tended to be driven by life-saving high-stakes operations that nobody could talk about. In one of my big data talks, for example, I describe how fax machines in an African jungle sending geographical details became essential to a daring hostage rescue.

It’s kind of like the healthcare market, where intelligence was driven by surgery to save lives. There’s a transition to sensors everywhere all the time, which has become a market exercise in privacy worry and even national security risks.

Now the companies with geospatial intellignece technology want to realize some kind of commercialization and profits, but it’s not clear (pun not intended) yet what kind of mass market would ever want spy tech. Climate activism? Disaster response? Surveillance, especially as a form of power transfer and political action, is usually something a very small group obsess about.

Another way of putting this is emergent militant extremists benefit most from the commercialization of technology, as they rapidly adopt it into asymmetric conflict.

The Islamic State fighters, through their purchase of commercial drones, however, at times had better reconnaissance capabilities than the Armed Forces of the Philippines, a key U.S. ally. In the words of one Filipino army ranger, β€œThe Islamic State militants are better armed, with high-powered weapons, night vision goggles, the latest sniper scopes and surveillance drones.” The tactical drones necessary to provide similar awareness to Philippines troops existed but were sometimes underutilized. Fully employing these American-provided drones, such as the RQ-20 Puma, would have delivered better tactical reconnaissance for the Filipino forces, but their cost and scarcity ensured that the control of these systems was often retained at higher command levels. Further, the fear of losing such expensive equipment induced risk aversion among decision-makers and prevented them from being released for some missions, resulting in operational units often being disadvantaged against their Islamic State opponents. A cheap, capable drone β€” designed to basic military specification and made widely available to tactical units β€” would have made the battle for Marawi much easier for Philippines security forces.

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