Defense Drawdown Provides Geospatial Opportunities

by Matt Ball on January 13, 2012

It’s no secret that the removal of troops from Iraq, and eventually Afghanistan, will reduce the need for military personnel and geospatial analysis. There has been a great expansion in the number of professionals that practice geospatial intelligence, and inevitably many of these workers will be looking for a new vocation. Indeed, just today we learned that the NGA will buy out 150 professionals over the coming year.

In addition, a central theme to this year’s GeoInt conference was the need to cut billions out of the budget in the next ten years. This theme foreshadowed the missed opportunity by the “Super Committee” to enact mandated $1.2 trillion in savings, which has triggered the necessity to trim $492 billion from defense spending from 2013 through 2021, and a reported $25 billion from the NGA alone over 10 years. These cuts will likely come at the expense of innovative small businesses that have gained traction for their ideas by becoming contractors on projects that have pushed the boundaries of situational awareness with many new and exciting tools.

Budget cuts, and drawdowns of force, are nothing new in the military community. This ebb and flow of needed capacity is always cyclical, and as in all such transitions there are opportunities to the geospatial industry and the overall economy with these latest reductions.

Needed Analysis

Displaced professionals will enter a rather grim job market overall, and yet their skill set is in high demand. With growing amounts of data from a myriad of sensors and systems, there is an overwhelming need for those that can make sense of a firehose of information. There are no better trained professionals to address this type of challenge than today’s geospatial analyst who have been trained to take a very close look for changes that might signal opportunity.

The cutting-edge tools that these professionals have been exposed to — whether that’s advanced sensors and UAV platforms or innovative automated analysis and fieldforce deliver mechanisms — are also technologies that are in hot demand in the private sector. The recent focus by the military to engage crowdsourcing as a means to improve insight into local conditions also sets these individuals apart as they have been exposed to an important new trend that will also greatly enhance business.

Commercializing Innovation

There is a long history of geospatial innovations coming from military investments. GPS is probably the flagship technology that has grown so very integral to our everyday lives that there’s no question that it will continue. If you doubt the longevity, necessity, or commercial value of GPS, just ask LightSquared who have done the whole geospatial community a service by rallying support and awareness of this vital location service.

With these latest conflicts, a whole new focus on geospatial tools to inform operations came into being. Whole new sensors, and meshed sensing capabilities were, and are being, deployed in order to gain advantage over elusive adversaries. This sensing has been coupled to new systems to analyze and inform. Throughout these new workflows there have been innovations in hardware and software that stand to provide great insight into unprecedented global change. As it becomes increasingly necessary to understand and predict this change, in order to adapt and reduce impacts, these technologies should see wide commercial and government policy-driving appeal.

What Not to Do

While these 15 percent defense spending cuts are certainly forcing hard decisions, there’s growing indication that the EnhancedView high-resolution imagery contract may be in jeopardy. The defense department’s commitment of $7 billion over the next 10 years on this contract has been a bright spot in the geospatial industry as it signaled a strong commitment to both understanding global change, as well as making this change awareness available to global companies by placing this capability in the hands of commercial imagery companies rather than solely on classified platforms.

In this era of increasing government transparency and open data policy, the fact that GeoEye and DigitalGlobe imagery are available for purchase is an important distinction for both their value as well as the commercial possibilities. Some very important considerations, if these deliberations on cutting EnhancedView catch steam, is the long time frame needed to develop satellites, the lost data and insight if these satellites don’t reach orbit, and the dramatic impact that these satellite have had, and continue to have, in the face of natural disasters.

In an increasingly complex world, the last thing that we need is to cut back on our ability to constantly update our awareness of our planet. It’s easy to point out the international competition in the satellite imagery space for a xenophobic defense, with no fewer than five Chinese earth observation satellite launches planned for the coming year alone. Surely the value of these companies and this contract far exceed the government’s investment for their commercial impact to the economy alone, not to mention our ongoing ability to manage our world.

As this re-shuffling of capabilities and personnel takes place, the broad value of geospatial insight should guide us forward. There has perhaps never been a time where the commercialization of capabilities could make a more profound impact on awareness as well as the economy.

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