Satellite data sources could improve intelligence

Image credit: Capella

New data sources from satellites could make it harder for criminals and lawbreakers to hide.

The right satellite images can provide a 'smoking gun' in investigations against mischief and wrongdoing. Our own investigations have proven the value of satellite data. Whether it’s images portraying crimes against humanity, severe environmental misconduct or just clues that something might go wrong for further verification, visual intelligence can be an essential way of presenting a corpus delicti.

For my own investigations this has proven to be highly effective. But there are caveats to conventional satellite data. Clouds constitute one major problem. If the timing is wrong they can cover an area of interest and miss the action. Culprits may know this and try to avoid, for instance, making illegal at-sea transhipments in cloudless weather conditions or cutting forests illegally when they can't hide from the spying eyes of satellite images.  

The latest generation of satellite earth-monitoring technology provides some solutions.

One company proposing alternatives to conventional visual remote-sensing data is HawkEye 360, which uses formation-flying satellites to build a class of radio frequency (RF) data. The data obtained by the space tech startup based in Virginia, US could prove valuable for investigating land-based conflicts, fish fraud and IUU fishing activities more broadly, sanction breaking at-sea transfers, to name a few examples. It says it provides the data to governments and private parties, who uses it in various ways such as for defence programmes, wildlife protection, and maritime applications. 

"We did a lot of work in the Galapagos, looking at activity of vessel of a Chinese fishing fleet. They were coming up along the border of the Galapagos EEZ. We tried to provide better visibility and tracking of that large fleet", says Adam Bennett, product marketing director at HawkEye 360 (see below).

At sea, its satellites proved useful by listening for specific RF signals emitted by ships through their navigation radars and radio communications. It’s not only the cloud problem these new techniques can tackle. By using RF, vessels that maliciously (or not), turn off their AIS tracking signal – E&T reported on this problem as part of a previous investigation – may find it harder to hide much longer.  

Another company is Capella Space, a SpaceX customer was on board the Transporter-1, a SpaceX mission that was the first of a series of SmallSat Rideshare missions that launched in January. The San Francisco-based outfit issues high-quality synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. SAR data is microwave data sent by an active sensor. It’s emitted from an energy source from an observation platform such as a satellite. The data then used for analysis consists of the energy signal reflected back from the earth surface. Radar instrumentation and antenna dictate the spatial resolution of the data.  

The resolution of Capella SAR images is astonishingly high. Shortly after the container ship Ever Given became stuck in the Suez Canal, the company’s analysts were able to published SAR images of the blockage. “It's just something that you would not be able to do without having that level of automation and high revisit,” Michael Lapides at the company says.  

In March, the company released images captured by its two latest spacecraft, launched in January. A small and inexpensive spacecraft allows building a network of satellites that can capture the earth at high frequency. Several times a day is the goal for now.

SAR technology for intelligence gathering has become increasingly usable for earth observations, experts say. Analysts believe the potential market is enormous.

Capella is not the only player in town, however. Finnish satellite imagery firm ICEYE, with a similar offering, continues to grow in the US and elsewhere. It announced in March that it signed business contracts worth $50m last year. 

For a use case of how to extract value for intelligence work from SAR images, you don't have to look far. 

Intelligence-seeking customers can use Capella's services for what the company calls ‘persistent monitoring’ scenarios. One recent example saw Capella’s SAR intelligence in action when a press organisation knocked on its door. It was interested in the China-India border conflict and wanted to look at the Chinese side of the border to understand activity in the Himalayas. It found what it was looking for - confirmation of a buildup near the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

In other images in Capella-2 SAR images, observers could see white objects that represent armoured vehicles climbing up and down mountain roads near Ladakh, a region administered by India as a union territory, adding important detail to the border dispute in Galwan Valley where the border strife resulted in armed conflict. Capella images could expose intelligence what other low-resolution open-source satellite images couldn’t see (such as open-source Sentinel 2 images).

What gave investigators an edge was that Capella’s SAR images captured high-resolution data of night-time activity. The images pierced through the heavy cloud cover of the Himalaya mountain range, a region that is notoriously cloudy at night, and “usually when the most interesting things happen,” a Capella analyst says. With that technological intelligence at hand, analysts could then identify the build-up of radar systems developed on the ground and other new infrastructures such as bunkers and trenches.

Aksum Airport

SAR image example: Image of Aksum Airport (in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia), captured during the Tigray conflict when the Tigray People's Liberation Front sabotaged the runway before falling to federal forces (Capella).

Image credit: Capella

Deforestation - Rondonia, Brazil

SAR image example: Deforestation in Rondônia, Brazil (Capella)

Image credit: Capella

Roswell Air Center

SAR image example: Roswell Air Center, south of Roswell in Chaves County, New Mexico (Capella)

Image credit: Capella

Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base

SAR image example: Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base (Capella)

Image credit: Capella


SAR image example: Capturing the skyline of Tokyo, Japan

Image credit: Capella

Nanhui New City

SAR image example: Nanhui New City, a planned city located in the Pudong New Area of Shanghai, China

Image credit: Capella

A company spokesperson says that its 50 cm x 50 cm SAR is the highest resolution commercially available. “The company uses an automated cloud-based delivery platform to rapidly deliver data from its constellation to government and commercial customers in all-weather conditions 24 hours a day.”

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