Interview with Sean O`Connor

Principal Imagery Analyst at IHS Jane's
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Sean O`Connor, Principal Imagery Analyst at IHS Jane’s, Explains How Satellite Imagery Delivers Valuable Insights for Defence and Security

As Principal Imagery Analyst for Aerospace Defence and Security Department of IHS Jane’s, Sean O’Connor handles all imagery analysis work, mostly for the Jane’s Satellite Imagery Analysis product for which three different kinds of analysis is undertaken: 1. Facility analysis, 2. Event analysis, 3. Topic analysis.

1. How are you using Airbus Defence and Space’s satellite imagery in IHS Jane’s publication? 

We have drawn very heavily on Airbus Defence and Space imagery for the past year and use it for three of our main products in Defence Weekly, Intelligence Review and for most of our Satellite Imagery Analysis products. We use Airbus Defence and Space data mostly because it is very convenient and because we can deal directly with the provider.
Currently we use about 95% optical imagery simply because it is more convenient for our customers to recognise what we are trying to show and easier to understand. We use radar imagery in cases where we are trying to observe something going on when we can’t get optical imagery e.g. due to cloud cover. In this situation radar imagery can deliver the information we need. Last year for instance we did an analysis of the expansion of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) facility in Southern Russia, where we could nicely show how things are changing based on automated change detection methodologies for radar imagery.

2. What are the major defence topics that you are working on at the moment and how can/does Airbus Defence and Space support these activities?

Right now we are looking pretty heavily at the South China Sea and a lot of the Chinese island building processes that are currently ongoing. We also look at various developments in countries of interest such as Iran, Pakistan, India and North Korea. We cover anything that is nuclear-related such as the infrastructure expansion in the Yongbyong Nuclear facility.

We are also covering things that are going on with the Chinese and Russian militaries and covered the Ukraine crisis pretty extensively as well. One of the things we are looking at right now with regard to the Russian military is their deployment of long-wavelength counter stealth radar systems to upgrade their air defence network.The last thing that I just processed through the Airbus Defence and Space server was Sanaa Airport in Yemen. We were looking at some of the post-strike imagery from the Saudi Arabian airstrikes that took place at some of the rebel positions outside the capital.

3. You are using Airbus Defence and Space’s GeoStore to access the imagery. What is your experience with the portal? How does it support your daily activities? 

The Airbus Defence and Space GeoStore is the most convenient tool that I have found yet to yield access to and acquire commercial satellite imagery. It is very easy to use, it is very intuitive. The fact that you can upload a Shapefile or .KML makes everything very simple and makes it a lot easier to find available imagery. The various search and filter functions (e.g. based on the sensors, resolution, percentage of cloud coverage) provide fast access to the right data. And the fact that we are dealing directly with the provider is beneficial to us and to any commercial customer, because it cuts out having to deal with a process of going through a secondary supplier. It significantly cuts down on the acquisition and data access time, which obviously is vital to IHS Jane’s work. 

4. Do you have a guarantee to get regular acquisitions of your Areas of Interest? 

Most of the imagery we use simply comes from searching the extensive archives of Airbus Defence and Space, particularly from the Pléiades satellites, which we like to use because of the very high resolution data.
Airbus Defence and Space has tasked its satellites to regularly acquire imagery of the world’s hotspot areas, which means that the majority of time we are able to find what we need by searching what is available in the archive already.
If there is something that we are looking for that has not been recently covered, then we will contact Airbus Defence and Space and have the satellite tasked to acquire a useful image the next time it is passing over the Area of Interest. Additionally, we use the GO Monitor Service to provide repeated tasking over a couple of areas.
We also get notifications from Airbus Defence and Space, when there is something that they feel might be of interest to us. For example they told me yesterday that they will be tasking the satellite over Sanaa, Yemen, early today, which obviously was of great interest to us and we were able to start looking through the acquired imagery this morning.

5. What would you consider the top challenges for satellite imagery analysis in the coming years?

This is a difficult question. One of the challenges we could see over the next couple of years, is a more directed effort by some of these target states such as Iran or North Korea to develop more sophisticated “denial and deception” mechanisms to basically conceal activities to satellite observations. Until now they only had to worry about a handful of military satellites for observation, but now that there are more and more commercial sensors collecting data and making it available for anybody to access and exploit, there is an increasing chance that they will try to conceal their activities in more and more sophisticated ways.
There is also always the possibility that with the increasing availability and resolution of satellite imagery, governments and institutions might decide that they want to return to where we were 5-10 years ago with a more restricted access to this kind of information. If that comes into play, that would obviously be a significant detriment to somebody like IHS Jane’s who are doing commercial satellite imagery analysis work.

Interview with Sean O`Connor, Principal Imagery Analyst at IHS Jane's