The Ukraine War - By Satellite, Internet & Phone

The war in Ukraine is being recorded like never before, showing the capability of technology to expose the atrocities of war. There have recently been allegations of Russia committing war crimes in Bucha, a city not far from Kviv. the capital of Ukraine.  

Some of these crimes may have been caught on video and communicated around the world with great speed. and serve to demonstrate how non-military technology may have a big impact in this conflict, providing Ukrainians with the ability to expose Russian propaganda and accelerate their capability to defeat the Russia's invading forces. 

Satellite images of murdered civilians that match videos taken by those on the ground have been released. In addition, photos and videos of bodies laying on the side of the road are providing evidence that Russia may have committed war crimes.

The photo evidence has convinced Western powers to ramp up sanctions on Russia and provide Ukraine with more military supplies, such as weapons and vehicles. The impact of technology on the final outcome of the war remains unclear, however, the satellite imagery offers Ukraine leverage over Russia as the latter regroups for a new offensive. 

Satellite imagery has been available to governments for decades when it comes to pinpointing war crimes and observing conflicts, however, it has never been so quickly available in the public domain until now.

After over a month into Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, nearly half of Americans (47%) approve of the US Biden administration's handling of the Russian invasion, while about four-in-ten (39%) disapprove; 13% say they are not sure.

The technical capability exists to document the destruction inflicted by Russia in Ukraine is likely to have long-lasting effects.

Throughout history, wars have been won by forces turning new technologies to their advantage. The 1415 victory of English King Henry V over the French at the Battle of Agincourt came because of his archers and their newly developed longbows, raining arrows over a distance the French could not match.

In the 21st century, communications satellites have brought the world unprecedented glimpses into the brutal war, using commercially available imagery, showing the Russian destruction of a shelter clearly labelled as having children sheltering  inside.  Also: 

  • Social-media videos shared via SpaceX’s Starlink satellites,
  • Photo-journalist’s pictures of the urban destruction from Mariupol filed instantly using  satellite phones. 

It’s likely these graphic dispatches from the war zone have played at least some role in the global outpouring of support and aid, including the 4 in 10 Americans who said in a March poll that the US should be doing more to help Ukraine. 

Commercial companies say they have improved their capabilities in an effort to provide this window into the war -for example, increasing the resolution of satellite imagery and reducing the time it takes to send intelligence to customers - “Many of these companies that are working tactically, responsibly in this crisis are doing things like pioneering new processing, exploiting, and dissemination techniques, and they will still have those after the war,” a space industry source said, speaking on background to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. 

“We think geospatial intelligence is having its Internet moment right now,” said Bill Rozier, the vice president of marketing at BlackSky, which is using artificial intelligence to analyse the satellite imagery it collects over Ukraine. 

Another satellite sensing firm, HawkEye 360, is  tracking radio signals from space to determine where Russia is jamming GPS in Ukraine. The company is doing it out of an “intense desire to help an ally,” CEO John Serafini said, and has expanded its capabilities “by an order of magnitude” since the war began, including improving resolution and making the data more usable by customers.  “There’s certainly a sense of urgency that gets accelerated in extremis, in times of conflict that has led to people working, probably, 18-hour days routinely .. We’ve had to accelerate the development efforts of our satellites, accelerate the development of some of our product capabilities in order to be able to meet the threat in eastern Europe.” Serafini,  said in a recent interview.

Demand for these specialist capabilities is increasing . When the war erupted, the US government more than doubled its purchase of commercial low-Earth orbit imagery over Ukraine from companies like HawkEye360, Maxar, BlackSky, and Planet, which was quickly shared with officials in US European Command, NATO, and Ukraine.

The US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has boosted its purchase of synthetic aperture radar-based services, which uses radar in space to create 3-D renderings of landscapes of buildings, by more than five times. Indeed, some commenatators are predicting that the demand for commercial intelligence and surveillance will continue to grow fast as capabilities increase and costs come down.

The defence and commercial sectors have an insatiable need for data and BlackSky has also tailored its algorithms and machine-learning software to analyse images more quickly and give customers context about what they’re looking at.

The use of commercial satellites for gathering open source intelligence over Ukraine to the rise of mass production during the World War I - after the war ended, the rapid developments remained and now mass production and GPS are a routine part of life. When satellite sensing companies are not collecting newsworthy images to disseminate to journalists and the public, their main source of revenue is tied to commodities, including tracking cargo ships hauling goods or counting cars in a parking lot to set surge prices. 

As the Ukraine war makes more people aware that these capabilities exist, imagery and data collected from space could also be used for less urgent missions, like a county inspector who checks backyard decks for compliance with local regulations.  

BlackSky compares their user interface to shopping on Amazon, saying customers can task satellites to look at a particular area from their home computers.  

Pew Research:     Defense One:     Bill Rozier / LinkedIn:     BlackSky:     HawkEye360:     Oodaloop:     CNN:   

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