If C4ISR is at the heart of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) joint agenda, then geospatial data is the essential element that underlies the data of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In recent years, geospatial analysis has transitioned from a specialist trade to a forces-wide capability that will only grow as demand for information rises with the introduction of new battle management systems and data distribution solutions.

Pierre Bilodeau oversees defence and security business development for Esri Canada. A retired lieutenant-colonel, he served in the CAF for 32 years, with 18 spent in the geomatics community, including as Commanding Officer of the Mapping and Charting Establishment. Garnet Hunter is Esri Canada’s senior defence account manager and continues to serve as a Reservist following over 30 years in the CAF that includes multiple tours in the Balkans and two deployments with Special Forces in Afghanistan as the task force commander’s geomatics advisor. A geographic information system (GIS) solutions provider, Esri has seen its ArcGIS software become a central platform in the design and management of geospatial solutions for the military and intelligence communities. They spoke with editor Chris Thatcher.


We have seen widespread uptake of GIS and geospatial applications in a relatively short period. What’s driving that?

Pierre Bilodeau: GIS is no longer just a tool for specialists who require a high degree of training. It now includes Web-enabled tools with simple applications that staff officers at headquarters and soldiers can leverage in the field. As well, the technology is now pervasive and can be used on any platform including server, desktop, mobile, Web and cloud. With the ability to deploy GIS in a cloud-based environment, you can now access geospatial applications from your smartphone or any mobile device in the field. The cloud extends GIS tools and services across the enterprise and makes it accessible to users on any device, anywhere, at any time.

Garnet Hunter: A decade ago, the limited computing power available restricted access to geospatial information to specialists with very high-end computers. With the increase in computing power and the ability to serve geospatial data in standard-based Web service formats, this information can now be consumed in any Web browser on any mobile device. In the past, everything had to be manipulated and managed by a specialist operator. Now, these operators have the ability to provide anyone in the CAF with access to geospatial information and applications. These new applications can be configured with only the features and functions required by the user to solve a specific problem.

What has been the impact of commercial mobility applications? I can download a street view of my neighborhood and overlay information about services. What’s the military equivalent?

GH: In the military context, you can now collect, analyze and manage any type of information using GIS. The technology has evolved to consume real-time information, as well as filter this information based on specified parameters. It can also automatically send alerts through several mechanisms (e.g., SMS and email). Today, users can integrate social media, such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, and conduct sophisticated analytics that may include advanced algorithms written in scientific languages such as MatLab.

PB: The mobile environment is changing the way that the military conducts operations. Essentially, the soldier has become another collection platform or sensor. On the battlefield, he’s able to collect data in real time, update the information based on the sensor he is using (e.g., video, camera or binoculars), geo-reference the information, and send it back to headquarters. From headquarters, commanders can see what the dismounted soldier is doing and seeing. For example, instead of gathering reconnaissance information, writing a report and bringing it back to headquarters, with GIS, everyone in the force is now able to see that information in real time on a dynamic map. This enables informed decision-making. This type of data collector application already exists in other sectors and can significantly enhance military operations.

GH: One of the critical factors in the military planning process is the movement of materials. Often, you wait for vital equipment to arrive in theatre; however, it’s quite difficult to tell exactly where it is or when it will arrive. The implementation of a modern tracking system with RFID tags and barcode scanners could monitor shipments and automatically send updates as to their whereabouts. This simple application of real-time tracking and updates by location would allow for more efficient movement of mission-critical equipment. This is essentially the same process millions of people use every day to track orders from e-commerce sites such as Amazon.

PB: There are numerous business applications of GIS that could very well apply to the military. Many of our commercial customers use the technology to determine the best location for new stores by analyzing demographic information (e.g., population density and median income), as well as understanding traffic patterns and effects of new store locations on their supply chain. The same type of analysis can be applied to the military to find the best place to set up a logistic support base for resupplying forward operating bases, by using road networks, airfield locations, terrain and other relevant information.

The backdrop to all this is greater speed of decision-making. Are we seeing evidence of that yet?

PB: We’re seeing the Army move towards this model for command and control with GIS technology. With its Land Command Support System Life Extension (LCSS LE) project, the Army is moving from its current client server-based solution to a Web-based environment. This will allow them to easily share information across the enterprise. It will enable more efficient data collection, sharing and analysis, as well as enhanced decision making using the most current information. When everybody in the organization can provide input and share information in a collaborative environment, then decision making will be much faster.

This is dependent on an open architecture. How far along is that and is it widely recognized?

GH: Traditionally, GIS data required specialized skills and powerful computers. As a result, IT departments viewed GIS as a niche capability and non-enterprise solution. Esri’s ArcGIS platform is built on IT standards and supports enterprise level security (e.g., PKI and SAML). It provides a Web-based solution that can easily be added to enterprise networks. Currently, services built on the ArcGIS solution are available on the Defence Wide Area Network (DWAN). These services can be integrated with other enterprise systems such as National Defence’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system DRIMIS. Many provinces have recognized the value of incorporating GIS into their enterprise networks. As well, we continue to see Web-based GIS built on IT standards evolving into an essential component of many organizations’ enterprise infrastructure.

PB: Over the years, Esri has supported and adopted open data standards developed by the Open Geospatial Consortium. The ArcGIS platform is able to integrate various data formats and interface with other business information systems. Notably, NATO selected the ArcGIS platform as its core GIS software because of its support for standard data formats and application interfaces.

How is this playing out in the Joint environment? Are service silos changing?

GH: Our customers have told us that they will no longer accept black-box solutions that only support a single environment because it’s not affordable, sustainable or maintainable to support multiple Command and Control systems that are not interoperable. They’re looking for cross-platform solutions that support the joint fighting environment. If a soldier needs to talk to an aircraft on the battlefield, he should no longer be limited by the solution that fits only the Army’s requirements. Succeeding in the modern battle space requires joint integration – you need one version of the truth. Esri’s strength has been in supporting operations in the land environment. Within the next two to five years, we will fully enable the joint environment.

PB: The CAF Chief Force Development (CFD) has clearly indicated that silos will be removed in future development projects. The current data silos are all environment-specific, but CFD has recognized that they are all interconnected in support of a joint fighting environment. The Army will be the first environment moving to this network-centric model.

This is now more than visualization of real-time data, it’s also an historical record of the landscape.

GH: Everything takes place in the landscape of a map, nautical chart, in the air or space. When you’re in an operational theatre, each report returned and every type of vehicle movement (blue force tracking) is recorded and becomes a historical record. All of these events are date and time-stamped and can be reviewed. Every event that has ever happened within one kilometre of a location can be viewed. This is a very powerful tool for intelligence and operational planners. The maps, charts and imagery are the landscape on which everything else happens. Once these events are overlaid, they can quickly be analyzed and the data used to make informed conclusions.

Can this also be applied to DND’s business renewal process?

PB: Every department is advancing information management and geospatial is a key component. Some have addressed it as part of their overall strategy, while others will do so down the road. Shared Services Canada will change the way the DND does business. It will centralize a lot of capabilities and services, and eliminate duplication. In the past few years, we’ve seen many of our customers adopt business intelligence (BI) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems, so we’ve introduced Esri Maps for Location Analytics to support all of these applications. These solutions allow users to overlay their business data on a map and conduct geospatial analysis directly in the business application they use every day.

Geospatial has been key to intelligence analysis, but is it fully integrated with intelligence processes?

PB: We learned some great lessons in Bosnia and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, for example, we had the All-Source Intelligence Centre (ASIC), which is now being adopted as a concept in Canada. ASIC combines various information sources including intelligence analysis, imagery analysis, geospatial analysis, human intelligence, open source data and terrain data. In theatre, you typically have imagery analysts working with geospatial analysts – they are co-located, where in the past, they were isolated – creating the geospatial imagery support team.

GH: The broader intelligence community has recognized the benefits of geospatial analysis. The needs of the intelligence community have often driven the development of geospatial capability improvements. They have a need to optimize sharing and filter through massive amounts of information. Spatial analytics in the past was often an overlooked piece of the overall operational picture. For example, when someone says “something unusual is happening at this location,” this activity could actually be something that occurs on the third Monday of September every year. By leveraging spatial analytics, the user could remove this activity from the suspicious activities list. This allows them to focus their limited resources on actual suspicious activities. The ability to capture data, date and time-stamp it, and analyze it for trends or comparables is significant. It’s not just a point on a map: one can go back and see everything associated with these past events. The vision of the CFD joint fighting environment is a key component of the future integration that will significantly enhance the capabilities of intelligence analysis.

We’ve seen a convergence of training with mission rehearsal. Are we moving to a point where databases in training or mission rehearsal systems will be updated in real time and converge with those used in operational theatres?

GH: Very much so. This is a natural convergence that just makes sense. In the past, data was trapped in the specialized system used by geospatial operators. Now, using IT standards and Web capabilities, high-resolution global datasets can be made available to everyone. When forces are deployed, part of their mission includes collecting high-resolution data. In Afghanistan, a higher resolution elevation dataset was collected which was 25 times higher than what was commonly available. I see the incorporation of high-resolution models (e.g., buildings, airfields and harbours) created for simulator environments using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software and global elevation and imagery datasets.

One advantage would be to have a section in a simulated environment where they can drive the roads and routes before arriving in theatre. With the high-resolution imagery available today, the section would achieve situational awareness of the environment. This simulated environment could use events from the current operations in theatre, enabling the section to investigate previous incidents that have occurred along that route. They would be able to review the previous units’ responses to real-life incidents, discuss and rehearse their actions based on the current Tactics, Techniques and Procedures.

Given the government’s interest in economic development of the North, I would imagine the Arctic is the next step, is it not?

PB: The Arctic is the next frontier; however, most of the data is considerably out of date. The capture and availability of imagery in the North is also an issue. We’re hopeful that in the future, we’ll be able to add high-resolution coverage of the Arctic region once it’s available. We continue to seek out sources of data to augment our current database. The nautical chart coverage in the North is also key to Canada’s economic development and security and has become a priority for the federal government. The main challenge for the government will be to invest in updating and maintaining geospatial data sets in the North.

GH: One of the key planning tools will be GIS, because in the North, space and time are critical planning factors. In the North, the “art of the possible” with respect to resource allocation will be of primary concern. Questions such as: “What plane is located at which base?” need to be answered to effectively respond to an incident. A database with the status of ships, aircraft and army resources would be valuable to support northern operations. The Rangers are also asking for higher resolution data to support their operations. The capability exists for them to collect information that would contribute to the CAF. With a simple application, they could collect information on streets, facilities, tracks and trails within their community. This would bring value not only to the northern communities, but also to the military and governments that support them.

You’ve mentioned the art of the possible. What’s the next evolution for this technology?

PB: The major trend we see for GIS in defence is the increased use of mobile devices, where every soldier on the battlefield would become a collection platform. This includes crowdsourcing and the use of social media. Soldiers are no longer going into theatres where they’re isolated from the local population. When the revolutions began in northern Africa, Esri developed map viewers so that users could see Twitter feeds, Flickr photos and YouTube videos of the events. One could easily see what was happening in Egypt, and that the incidents were concentrated in Tahrir Square. It was the same during the Boston Marathon bombing. For police and public safety agencies, it’s a new way to visualize and make sense of all the information that’s now available in real time.

Another evolution we see in the future is indoor mapping. In 3D and terrain databases, one can see only the exterior of the building. Now, we’re able to map the inside of the building using technology such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR). One can now visualize the interior before entering the building. This is especially useful in special event planning and critical infrastructure protection. We’re also seeing greater use of geo-fencing such as in commercial applications which allow stores to notify shoppers on their smartphone of a sale based on their location. Similarly, alerts can be sent to soldiers on the battlefield when they’re within a certain distance of a minefield.

GH: Another trend is the move towards a cloud GIS environment and virtual machines (VMs) to sustain mission-critical information systems. In the near future, the Army’s new cloud environment will permit them to continually add, change or update geospatial capabilities. This environment is no longer about hardware boxes that have to be replaced as everything is on the cloud. It’s a huge advantage to any organization. In the past, you built something and were stuck with it for many years. Development cycles are going to be much faster, and the addition of new functionality and capabilities will only take weeks, not multiple years.