Geospatial Information in Every System

The Ministry of Defence in The Netherlands has made huge progress in terms of geospatial technology adoption. About 10-15 years ago, everybody was using paper/printed maps. Now, everything has become digital, and we are able to use verified geospatial information in every system, says Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Bier, Geo Information Officer of the Armed Forces, Ministry of Defence, The Netherlands.

By Meenal Dhande and Ruban Jacob

Over the last few years, there has been a growing trend around the use of geospatial, particularly location technology, in defense and internal security. How does the Ministry of Defence in The Netherlands use this technology?

All the things that happen around us are based on location. So, I would say that location is the starting point, or the point where all information comes together. Looking from the Ministry of Defence’s perspective, it is very important that the location is verified — we need to be sure that something has happened on that location. For example, like all defense ministries, we are using weapons and strike fighters. Be it a bullet or a bomb, the most important thing is that it should hit the target, and so, the target should be very precise and verified.

We are part of NATO and ArcGIS is the common standard within the organization. In the Ministry of Defence, we have been using ArcGIS, as we have to work together with other units and nations, for which sharing of geo-information is a must. We have also been using the ERDAS Imagine and Apollo software from Hexagon Geospatial which has added value for us. I am not talking about geo-intelligence because that has to do with analysis interpretation, which is mainly used by our intelligence community.

The Ministry of Defence is supporting other ministries in the fight against pandemic. We are using geo-information for that work, because as military people, we are professionals and are good at organizing things

You have worked with the ministry of Defence in different capacities. How has the ministry evolved in terms of technology adoption, especially when it comes geospatial technology?

If you look at the past decade, we have made huge progress. Currently, we are able to use and share geo-information within the entire ministry. About 10-15 years ago, everybody was using paper/printed maps. Now, everything has become digital and we are able to use verified geospatial information in every system — command control, navigation, simulation and weapon systems. Like most nations, we have a geoportal in the ministry, and our geo-information producers put all the content on it. For every person in the ministry, it is possible to go on the Intranet and to see what information is available. The users can also take geo-information from the portal to their systems and use it. That’s been a big step forward.

Can you tell us about the ministry’s contribution in supporting the fight against COVID-19, and does the action plan include use of geospatial data and technology?

In The Netherlands, the fight against the pandemic is led by the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Health. However, these ministries do not have enough capacity to deal with the huge number of affected people. So, the Ministry of Defence is supporting them by sending additional medical personnel and helping in coordinating, for example, transportation efforts. Yes, we are using geo-information for that work, because as military people, we are professionals and are good at organizing things — we can easily set up a network and coordinate things anywhere.

In January this year, the Defence Geographic Agency (DGeo) of the ministry signed a multi-million-dollar, multi-year subscription to SecureWatch, Maxar’s Cloud-based geospatial intelligence platform. How has been the experience of using the platform, and how has it helped?

We are very happy with the agreement as it provides us an entry into actual satellite information, which is important for us. If we are on a mission somewhere in the world and are retasked, we need additional satellite information. For example, in September 2019, our navy ships were having an exercise in the Caribbean. The region was suddenly hit by a hurricane, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked us to deliver some humanitarian assistance on two islands. However, the ships that were cruising did not have the information of those islands. Of course the Navy was prepared for the exercise, but it did not have actual information about other areas in the Caribbean.

Since they were retasked, they needed other geo-information that was verified. They could find old satellite imagery on the Internet, but they needed imagery captured after the hurricane to plan humanitarian assistance. By using satellite imagery from Maxar, we are able to do that in a very quick way, to plan our assistance adequately. We are using this imagery also to plan military missions and operations.

As far as data is concerned, does the ministry collect data on its own, or does it depend on the national mapping agencies for base data?

If you talk about geodata of The Netherlands, then we source it out to the Dutch Cadastre. We have an agreement with them, and they provide us with geo-information. Until 2001, the ministry had its own topographical service. We were tasked to get all the geo-information of the country. In 2001, we sourced it out completely to the Dutch Cadastre.

Can you tell us about the state of adoption of 4IR technologies such as AI, Big Data and IoT?

We are looking into these technologies. We are holding discussions and trying to find out what can be done with Artificial Intelligence. Within the ministry, we have experiments. We are aware of the fact that we should use AI in the near future. But we are at the discussion stage and are trying it case-by-case. It’s quite difficult because you need highly trained people with specific knowledge in that field. Such people are scarce, and it’s hard to get them. The Ministry of Defence does not employ people at the pace as it wants; sometimes the benefits offered by other (private) companies is more attractive.

The quality checks for geospatial data have to be more rigorous in defense. Can you tell us how this works: does the Cadastre run a quality check at the time of collection, or does the ministry carry out quality check on its own?

Yes, we do, because we are responsible for all the geodata that is being used within the ministry. We have a hydrographic office and the Defence Geographic Agency. These units produce geo-information and provide it to the entire ministry. So, it’s their responsibility to look at the quality and to run a check.