Many of the people engaged in U.S. efforts to help find Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 will be in Tampa next month at a conference devoted to the techniques and technologies being used in the search.
The mystery of the flight, which disappeared one week ago, and the technology being used to find the jet will be a focus of the GEOINT 2013* Symposium coming to the Tampa Convention Center April 14-17, says Keith Masback, chief executive officer of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, which is sponsoring the conference. The conference was supposed to be here last year, but it was cancelled after the government shutdown — hence the asterisk in the official name.
“This is our largest annual gathering, where experts in geospatial intelligence from the U.S. and over 30 countries come together to talk about training and trade craft,” says Masback. “We talk about things that are currently impacting trade craft. Things that we have to pay attention to. Certainly this will be an important topic of discussion through the week.”
The list of keynote speakers includes Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Director Letitia Long, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Acting Director of the U.S. Geological Survey Suzette Kimball. U.S. Special Operations Command head Adm. William McRaven and U.S. Central Command head Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III also will deliver keynote speeches.
The symposium, subtitled “Operationalizing Intelligence for Global Missions,” is all about the kinds of techniques and technology being used to find the missing Boeing 777, says Masback, adding that the intelligence systems being used in the search are the same employed during warfare, drug interdiction or humanitarian relief. They currently are being used to monitor Russian activities in and around Ukraine, he says.
Geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT in military parlance, is using imagery, the intelligence derived from that imagery and mapping to determine activity on the Earth down to minute details from the sea bottom to space. In simple terms, it is a high tech answer to finding Waldo, Nemo or Dora the Explorer.
“Anybody in the (geospatial intelligence) business has a role in (the search for Flight 370),” says Masback, who once ran U.S. imaging satellite systems.
The search for Flight 370 likely involves U.S., international and commercial satellites, manned and unmanned aircraft, surface ships and manned and unmanned subsurface vessels transmitting imagery and other data, says Masback, who has no direct role in the search, but speaks from years of geospatial intelligence experience.
“Satellites are superb at collecting images from large swaths of the Earth’s surface, whether it is land or water. That gives you an excellent broad area view and allows you to then focus the efforts,” says Masback. “If you are able to see something from that large view, you can get it down to aircraft, manned or unmanned. In the parlance of targeting, that is called tipping and cueing.”
While there may be technology and techniques that the United States or other nations might not want to disclose, Masback says because this is a humanitarian effort, officials would look for ways to provide the information without tipping their hand about how they found it.
MacDill Air Force Base would play a peripheral role at most. The current search area, focusing on the Indian Ocean, is outside Centcom’s region and there is no mission for Socom. (Central Command and Special Operations Command both are based at MacDill.)
Elsewhere at MacDill, the Joint Communications Support Element, which provides cutting edge communications systems, also conceivably could play a role. Efforts to reach the element Saturday were unsuccessful. And KC-135 aerial refueling tankers flown by the 6th Air Mobility Wing or the 927th Air Refueling Wing could be called upon to gas up search aircraft. Officials from both wings could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The USS Kidd, a Navy destroyer; and a P-8 Poseidon aircraft out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa are the only two U.S. military terrestrial assets currently involved in the search, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col Cathy Wilkinson, who could not say if any U.S. space assets are involved.
Digital Globe, a geospatial analysis company with an office in Tampa providing services to Socom, has a crowd-sourcing effort to help find the missing jet. The company has five satellites and last year bought a company called Tomnod, allowing anyone who can get on the internet to access Digital Globe’s satellite imagery and help with the search.
So far, more than three million people have participated, says Turner Brinton, a company spokesman.
“We certainly hadn’t found the smoking gun, but the crowd did identify numerous tens of thousands of other objects of interest that helps us. Knowing the plane wasn’t in those areas allows us to rule those areas out.”
If you want to pour over the images and help, go to tomnod.com.