A wartime appeal to Western satellite companies: ‘We need this data, please’

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Enlarge / A Maxar satellite image shows the buildup of Russian vehicles and helicopters at an airfield in Belarus before the invasion of Ukraine.

Maxar Technologies

Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov was emotional and, at times, angry during a 20-minute call with reporters Monday night as he spoke about the Russian military attack on his homeland.

“In an hour there will be an attack on Kiev again,” Polyakov said, emphatically pointing to his watch. “We need the data now.”

The data he was referring to were real-time observations made by commercial satellites flying over Ukraine. Polyakov pleaded with the operators of these satellites, mostly Western companies that sell data to governments and private customers, to freely share their data with one of his companies, EOS Data Analytics.

Polyakov said EOS would quickly process this data for passes over Ukraine and provide basic analysis before sending the information to the Ukrainian Defense Service and the Ministry of Digital Transformation. EOS has the ability to quickly differentiate between 18 different types of Russian military vehicles, he said.

“Right now we need this intelligence,” he said. “Every night we have been bombed and at night we are blind. We need this data please.”

Polyakov noted that, in recent days, commercial companies have released high-resolution satellite images into the public domain to show off their capabilities. While impressive, he acknowledged, such statements were more useful for public relations purposes than they were exploitable by the Ukrainian military. The data is often two or three days old, Polyakov said. “We don’t need to know where the Russian tanks were two days ago,” he said.

He also cited the need for a particular type of data that has become increasingly popular in recent years, which comes from synthetic aperture radar, or SAR, satellites. Unlike passive optical satellites that collect data in the visible, near-infrared, and short-wave infrared portions of the spectrum, these satellites radiate their own energy. They then record the energy reflected from the Earth’s surface.

The main advantage of SAR satellites is that they can collect data day or night and through cloud cover. Polyakov said SAR satellite data is important for understanding Russian troop and vehicle movements at night and noted that clouds cover around 80% of Ukraine during the day.

Screenshot of Polyakov speaking on a Zoom call with a handful of reporters.
Enlarge / Screenshot of Polyakov speaking on a Zoom call with a handful of reporters.

Noosphere/Zoom

Polyakov uses Planet Labs, Maxar Technologies, Airbus, SI Imaging Services, SpaceView, BlackSky, Iceye, Capella and other companies that can provide the necessary data.

During the call with reporters, Polyakov admitted that he was making an “aggressive” request. The 44-year-old entrepreneur has a rocky relationship with US regulators and was recently – and some observers say, unfairly – forced to sell his majority stake in US launch company Firefly. However, the passion he clearly feels for the preservation of his homeland is hard to deny.

It is not immediately clear how commercial enterprises will react. This is truly the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery played a significant role in providing open source information on troop movements, military build-ups in neighboring countries, refugee flows, etc

Previously, this data was proprietary and largely collected by a handful of countries. The role of such powerful and widely available technology has yet to be defined in a war domain, and it is unclear whether private companies are willing to freely hand over raw data to another commercial company in the purpose of assisting a party to the conflict.

But we are about to find out.

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