Friday, January 15, 2010

ESC group aids Haitian response efforts with critical imagery

A commercial satellite image downloaded and processed by the Eagle Vision System, managed by specialists in the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., shows the destruction in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, following this week's massive earthquake there. Such images are helping disaster response officials provide faster and safer assistance to residents there. (U.S. Air Force photo)

by Chuck Paone, 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass (AFNS) -- The 950th Electronic System Group's Eagle Vision imagery collection team here sprang into action within hours of the 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti to its core Jan. 13.

By about 9 p.m. that evening, program officials began working to order commercial satellite imagery of the island nation from a pre-established list of world-wide vendors, said acting program manager Capt. Dan Urban. They then notified two Southeastern U.S.-based Air National Guard units and told them to be prepared to receive the imagery.

The units, the 169th Communications Flight out of South Carolina and the Alabama ANG's 232nd Combat Communications Squadron, operate Eagle Vision systems, which have been designed to receive and exploit this imagery. Both have the ability to cover Haiti within their 'imaging circles.'

"They jumped on board and began working to download and enhance images when the first commercial satellite made its pass the next morning," Captain Urban said.

Disaster response officials use the satellite imagery to plan, prioritize and optimize their actions, often comparing overlays that contrast current conditions with pre-disaster imagery.

"This before-and-after comparison expedites the detection of destroyed roads and homes and highlights possible future trouble spots," Captain Urban said. "By rushing it to relief workers, we help them plan the safest and most logistically feasible routes, so that they can get aid to the most heavily populated and most heavily affected areas fast."

In all, the EV system consists of five deployable satellite downlink stations that collect and process near-real-time optical and synthetic aperture radar imagery from commercial satellite constellations. The system ensures that U.S. forces, or in this case, disaster responders, have current, high-resolution imagery of the area of interest.

The imagery does not offer the fidelity that national defense-asset imagery does, but the pictures are more than sufficient to meet disaster response efforts, according to Captain Urban. The great advantage is that they're more readily available and can be turned around much faster, generally within two to four hours, depending on the amount of refinement (adding in street names, etc.) required by the end-user.

The commercial imagery also is unclassified, which means that combatant commanders or first responders can freely share it. This makes EV very useful and popular within the disaster response community.

In this case, in addition to funding and procuring the satellite imagery, program officials here also are working to augment EV operator activity. They have been poring over archival imagery and sending the most useful pictures out to the users.

"In a disaster situation, we almost always go into this mode, doing whatever we can to help responders do their job better," Captain Urban said.

The program office also will continue ordering commercial satellite imagery for as long as officials require it, working to put together the most comprehensive list of shots they can. In this instance, and most others, the program office bears all the costs itself, using a reserved pool of money.

In 2009 Hanscom's EV team supported five deployments and aided recovery for 18 natural disasters, providing maps layered with satellite imagery so rescue workers could optimize how, where, and when to respond. Their support was so outstanding that the NORTHCOM commander put EV on the "must have" list for responding to natural disasters in Northern America, Captain Urban said.