Using Satellites & Data Analytics to Protect the Homeland (Learn More)

The space industry is undergoing a revolution as spacecraft become smaller, cheaper, and more prolific.

In the next five to ten years, commercial imagery constellations will be far more robust to a point where satellites will have the ability to rapidly image border environments and provide Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operators with enhanced situational awareness.  

However, exploiting this increased volume of imagery using human analysts is a challenge.

Instead, there will be an increased need to automate and extract features from imagery so analytics can occur at the speed of data rather than at the speed of humans.

For example, the commercial industry has already started using automated analytics of satellite imagery to determine customer throughput at department stores and to predict earnings before those stores release their earnings reports.

The DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) expanded on the commercial industry’s technological progress when it launched a new effort earlier this year called the Adaptive Sensor Analytics Project (ASAP).

ASAP will repurpose, modify, integrate and build upon existing commercial and government analytic capabilities to support border security operations.

(Learn More. The U.S. Border Patrol has identified a critical need to counter the use of low-flying and low-observable aircraft along our northern and southern borders. Detection and accurate tracking is challenging because the terrain masks the low fliers, and the aircraft typically are small and quiet, which makes them hard to find. The DHS S&T Borders and Maritime Security Division partnered with CBP operations and acquisition components to develop and demonstrate a man-portable system focused on early detection, classification, and tracking of suspected aircraft to differentiate between legitimate and illicit flight behavior. Courtesy of DHS Science and Technology Directorate and YouTube)

This automated software can sort through the enormous amount of imagery data from satellites, identify patterns or trends that indicate nefarious activities, and alert DHS operators and agents.

Jon McEntee, Acting Director of the S&T Borders and Maritime Security Division
Jon McEntee, Acting Director of the S&T Borders and Maritime Security Division

The goal is to increase available data for improved border situational awareness using software that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The key to robust situational awareness is persistent surveillance,” said Jon McEntee, Acting Director of the S&T Borders and Maritime Security Division of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard need persistent surveillance of vast border environments to fight drug trafficking and other criminal activities.

But why is S&T developing this technology now when there are limited satellites in the sky?

The answer is simple, “if we wait until these commercial capabilities are in orbit, we will be playing catch up and will have missed a significant opportunity,” explains McEntee.

“Instead, by developing these capabilities on the leading edge of this revolution in commercial space systems, we will be ready to fully exploit the robust commercial satellite constellations when it is realized in the coming years.”

In addition to improving homeland security missions, there are some real fiscal efficiencies which ASAP will help DHS realize.

In order to leverage the growing influx of imagery from the expanding commercial imagery constellation, DHS would incur significant recurring costs.

DHS S&TThese costs would result from the Information Technology infrastructure and analysts needed to manage and exploit the imagery.

Instead, the software would translate the images into reports containing numbers and words at a certain time. These are much smaller files than the image files.

Automating much of the exploitation and reducing the need to store and manage large imagery files will result in significant costs savings.