NRO Director Chris Scolese

WASHINGTON: Artificial intelligence and machine learning will be crucial to NRO’s efforts to use large constellations of small satellites in the future to fill the huge appetite within the Intelligence Community and the military services for remote sensing data, Director Chris Scolese says.

“The satellites themselves are going to have to be, to some degree, able to take care of themselves. Artificial intelligence and machine learning onboard the satellites to help us control the constellations is absolutely critical,” he told the Virtual Small Satellite Conference yesterday afternoon. “In our case, we’re very interested in resiliency and maintaining the capability of the system through all kinds of conditions. And, in which case, we need to know how are we going to self-heal the architecture. If we suffer any losses for any reason.”

It’s not only satellites that will need AI. Ground stations, he explained, will require it — not just to coordinate data flow from the myriad sites needed to communicate with large constellations, but to be able to rapidly fuze many different types of data.

“We’re going to want to use data from multiple sources and, you know, just thinking about it, you’re gonna have different look angles, different lighting conditions, a whole bunch of different things we’re going to have to go off and address and coordinate,” he said.

As Breaking D readers know, the NRO is considering how to build a hybrid architecture for obtaining and using space-based ISR, expanding its traditional approach of building handfuls of large, highly-capable and extremely expensive satellites — the so-called exquisite approach. Its new approach includes opening its doors wider to commercial providers of electro-optical imagery, as well as exploring buys of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and other non-traditional sensing capabilities such as the use of radio frequency (RF) transmissions to track targets.

Scolese would not be drawn about the specifics of the planned architecture, saying only that “there’s a role for the whole spectrum of capabilities that are out there and available to us.”

He did mention that the spy agency is soliciting innovative ideas for its “Architecture of the Future,” with the bidding window closing on Sept. 30.

The specific NRO website for the “Arch-F” program, as Scolese called it, is down for maintenance, but the general NRO site explains the Broad Area Announcement (BAA) covers “multiple Areas of Interest” and provides an opportunity for “traditional and non-traditional developers” to participate in “building the NRO of the 21st century by presenting innovative ideas.”

Scolese noted that NRO is working closely with Space Force, Space Command and the Space Development Agency as it forges its new approach.

“We don’t want to duplicate efforts,” he stressed, saying that if a capability already exists within another government agency, “we will use it.” (D.N.).

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