All FSI News Blogs December 9, 2021

Geospatial Intelligence as a Means of Promoting International Security

Arelena Shala, a student in the Class of '22 of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy (MIP) helped pioneer several new projects on geospatial intelligence gathering during her summer internship with BlackSky and Planet.
Arelena Shala, Master's in International Policy ('22)
Arelena Shala, Master's in International Policy ('22)

In a multipolar international system during the era of technology disruption, international security continues to be fragile. Whether overtly or covertly, ambitious states have been competing to obtain a comparative advantage over the one-another, such as China and the United States. While governments rely on national technical means (NTM) on tracking other states’ actions, the implications of this competition would ultimately fall on the general population. The ubiquitous nature of international security has inspired many academic experts, private organizations, and corporations to develop open-source intelligence (OSINT) analysis with the purpose of improving transparency and expanding NTM capacities. Of the most prominent OSINT fields is geospatial intelligence and imagery analysis, which has come a long way through increased cooperation with commercial data providers, particularly satellite companies.

Over the last decade, the quality of imagery collection has increased in both spatial and temporal resolution. While the former allows for the discerning of smaller objects captured on the surface of Earth and positive identification of them, the latter allows for monitoring of sites on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Therefore, both are required for a comprehensive analysis of the site of interest and proper academic practice.

Over the summer, I worked with Allison Puccioni, a career imagery analyst and a consultant at BlackSky, who provided me an opportunity to cooperate with BlackSky and Planet, two of the leading commercial satellite companies on the salient issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). An article from The Drive released on July 14, 202, sparked interest in a remote facility in Xinjiang, China just south of Bosten Lake. The functionality of the facility is still disputed, but the structural features suggest that it may be a directed-energy weapons (DEW) development facility. As no previous research on this facility had been conducted, we decided to conduct a comprehensive analysis together with Allison and Katharine Leede, a senior majoring in Political Science and part of the CISAC Undergraduate Honors Program.


Over the summer, I had an opportunity to cooperate with BlackSky and Planet, two of the leading commercial satellite companies on the salient issue of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

This analysis required the acquisition of extensive imagery of the site, which was available only at BlackSky through their global monitoring program. BlackSky was more than willing to share the imagery with us in an effort to establish academic-private sector cooperation. The data consisted of 400 images of the site spanning from mid-2019 to August 2021. To manage this large amount of data, we went through every single image, noting any key features and tracking them over time. The image below depicts an aerial view of the Bosten Lake Facility, which is characterized by the presence of large hangars with retractable roofs. The imagery is also of high temporal resolution, up to 10 images a day in some cases. This frequency allows us to create a pattern-of-life where we identified the times and days of the week the hangars would be open. Assuming that the current hypothesis is that this facility is a DEW testing site, we can infer that the tests were conducted when the hangars were open. However, further analysis is required to confirm this statement. After compiling the pattern-of-life analysis, we needed to identify the objects inside the hangars in order to confirm our hypothesis.

An aerial view of the Bosten Lake Facility in Xinjiang, China
A Snapshot of the BlackSky Spectra Tasking Platform Depicting An Aerial View of Bosten Lake Facility

While BlackSky imagery has an unmatched temporal resolution, it comes at the cost of spatial resolution. Therefore, we identified key images in which activity at the site was at its highest and requested those images from Planet. Planet’s SkySat satellite constellation has a resolution of 0.5 meters, allowing one to identify small objects in the image. This technique we used is generally referred to in the intelligence community as Low-to-High Resolution Tipping and Cueing. This is the process of monitoring an area or an object of interest by a sensor and requesting “tipping” another complementary sensor platform to acquire “cueing” an image over the same area.

This project has also attracted interest from major defense-related media outlets, most notably Janes Intelligence Review (JIR). Upon completion, this project will result in a published article in JIR and is scheduled for the December 2021 edition. Additionally, the project received attention from the Defense Innovation Unit in the U.S. Department of Defense, whose representatives expressed interest in establishing cooperation for future projects.

This internship provided  me an opportunity to be one of the first people to analyze an emerging case study such as the Bosten Lake Facility in China and learn how to work with commercial satellite companies. As a military officer in the Kosovar Army, I will have to deal with public-private partnerships, and the connections I have made together with the communication and networking skills I acquired will contribute to a more successful career. Additionally, geospatial intelligence analysis will be included in my job description as an intelligence officer, thus having had the chance to practice the necessary skills in both an academic and corporate setting will greatly aid me in the future.

The connections I have made together with the communication and networking skills I acquired from my work over the summer will contribute to a more successful career.
In addition to pioneering the Chinese DEW project in cooperation with BlackSky and Planet, I have had the privilege to be a part of the geospatial team for the United Nations Department of Political and Peace Building Affairs’ (UNDPPA) Innovation Cell, also headed by Allison Puccioni. This team comprises experts in geospatial science and imagery analysis and serves as the bridge between policymakers at the UNDPPA and its corresponding contractor, Element 84 Inc., a geospatial engineering firm. During this internship, I was trusted with exploring a database as part of the Iraq Water Security Project, a platform developed to track water scarcity along with other indicators across governorates in Iraq used by both the UNDPPA and relevant authorities in Iraq. Specifically, I analyzed the water scarcity data points to take the project one step further to identify any correlation between drought and conflict. 

Finally, the UNDPPA internship also allowed me to be part of the pioneering team for an environmental security project in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The project was initiated as a result of negotiations between the UNDPPA and DPRK, and environmental security became the only area of mutual interest that will further facilitate cooperation from the DPRK government. As the framework for this project was only developed this summer, it is still an ongoing process requiring coordination between policymakers, diplomats, DPRK representatives, and the engineering team who realizes the requirements put forward into a platform similar to the Iraq Water Security Project. As I have had the opportunity to be present during the creation of this project, I will be looking forward to contributing to its development and seeing the result.