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Ukraine at War: Impacts of Geomatics, Geospatial & Earth Observation Technologies

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, sent shockwaves through the global community. As tension escalated in the months and weeks preceding the invasion, world leaders were divided as to whether or not a physical invasion would actually take place. Military demonstrations and postings in border regions had been increasing for months, but nobody knew if this was just a bluff. Almost 3 weeks later, we now know that it was not a bluff, as the invasion has gripped the attention of the global community.

Support for Ukraine has poured in from around the world in many different forms. There have been heavy sanctions placed on Russia by leading economies, other countries have sent weapons and munitions, and further, still, there have been various fund-raising efforts, through platforms ranging from Airbnb to cryptocurrency, all aimed at supporting the people of Ukraine in their defence against this senseless Russian invasion.

When you look around the world today, almost everything you see can be tied back to geospatial technology in one way or another, and I guess it is apt that even in war this is no different. Many of the systems that we rely on in our daily commutes rely heavily on spatial information, from weather reports as we decide how to dress for the day, to GPS navigation in our cars and buses. Some of these systems may seem trivial in the typical day to day life we comfortably live, but when your country is under attack, and your life is in danger, they become critically important.

Today we will take a special look at some of the biggest stories that have come out of the Ukraine conflict so far, specifically those that relate to the geospatial industry. We as a community have done some great work in supporting the Ukrainian people so far, we can only hope to successfully continue to support them until the end of this horrifying invasion, and forward into the future.

Satellite Imagery Providing Key Intelligence

In the hyper-connected world that we live in today, there are more earth observation satellites orbiting and downlinking data than ever before. The wide variety of satellites and their differing ability to deliver data has been critical in amassing intelligence on the movements of the Russians to coordinate and organize defence operations for the Ukrainian side.

Optical data has come from leaders such as Maxar, BlackSky and Planet in the form of high-resolution imagery, with Ukrainian minister of digital transformation Mykhailo Fedorov asking industry partners to send timely, critical imagery to the government by way of a partnership with EOS Data Analytics. This pro-bono work by industry leaders is elevating the profile of the commercial geospatial industry while also providing essential insights and intelligence to those in need of it most.

A satellite image released by Maxar on Feb. 27 shows a convoy of Russian military vehicles northeast of Ivankiv, Ukraine, and moving toward Kyiv. Credit: Maxar Technologies

Monitoring troop movements at night provides more of a challenge, but thanks to the nature of synthetic aperture radar (SAR), this is possible to do. On March 8th, Canada’s MDA announced that they had been granted permission from the federal government to share near-real-time SAR imagery with the Ukrainian officials. With RADARSAT-2 and the RCM mission, MDA has 4 SAR-capable satellites circling the globe and looking to provide important insights into the movements of troops, vehicles, and maritime vessels in the ongoing conflict.

A satellite image by Canada’s MDA Inc, which said it is providing Ukraine with real-time satellite images taken at night and through the cloud cover to support its fight against Russia, is seen of the city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada taken January 21, 2022.

The Double-edged Sword of Real-Time Data

Unsuspectingly becoming embroiled in the ongoing conflict, Google Maps has played a larger role than many would have guessed at first glance. Due to the nature of real-time vehicular and foot traffic data, Google Maps has had to confront a plethora of challenging decisions regarding the ongoing situation.

It began early on the night of the invasion, when Jeffrey Lewis, a professor specializing in arms control and non-proliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., noticed a traffic jam occurring at 3:15 am in Belgorod, Russia. He was monitoring Google Maps with a team of students as part of a project to analyze images taken from space. He and his team realized what was happening: a Russian armoured unit was moving toward the Ukrainian border. By comparing the traffic data with radar imagery, he and his team were able to realize that an invasion was underway long before the news was official. This realization came from thousands of kilometres away and demonstrated just what was to come in the following days.

As people began to flee targeted cities, onlookers from around the world didn’t consult the news for live, up-to-date information, they hopped onto google maps to see where the heavy traffic was occurring. You could see the real-time changes as people made their exits, looking as obscure as a morning commute on the 401, yet for those on the ground, life-altering decisions were being made.

What complicated matters more was when Google made the decision to turn off its live traffic features for all of Ukraine. There were initial fears that Russia could use Google Maps to target “busy” areas, posing an extreme risk to Ukrainian citizens. While these fears were logical, it is unfortunate that even by turning this off Russia still has capabilities to track cell phones and determine busy areas even without Google Maps. While the risk to civilians is all too real, the issue also became exactly what Lewis and his team realized. If they could track a Russian advance from Southern California, the Russians could do the same to monitor the movements of the Ukrainian forces.

GPS vs GLONASS and the Fight to Stay Online

When Finnish pilots began to experience intermittent jamming of GPS signals, they worried that the worst fears of some in the west were coming to fruition. GPS satellites are heavily relied on in times of conflict; troops need to know where to go and how to get there. While the jamming has so far been intermittent, it still was significant enough to cause a Lithuanian operator to cancel flights for the last 3 days. When signals are jammed intermittently, the source of the interference becomes hard to identify, especially from the ground. This isn’t the first time GPS interference has been detected in the ongoing conflict either. Hawkeye 360, a Virginia-based radio frequency data analytics company has detected GPS interference in the contested regions of Ukraine dating back to at least November of 2021.

HawkEye 360 detected increased GPS interference in and around Ukraine in the months leading up to the Russian invasion. Credit: HawkEye 360

The worries over GPS stem from another event that occurred in November as well. Russia launched a mission that destroyed one of its’ own satellites, but many saw this as a threat demonstrating their capability to target other satellites as well. The worldwide global positioning systems depend on 32 U.S. satellites that produce GPS signals. If Russia were to target these satellites, it would cripple much of the world’s logistical capabilities, not just militarily. Much of the world’s agriculture sector, now heavily invested in automation processes, relies heavily on GPS devices and connections to operate more efficiently. This has led to recent calls, particularly in the United States, to create back-ups and additional protections for this critical infrastructure.

At the same time as those in the U.S. are calling for additional protections to the GPS infrastructure, Ukraine has an ‘IT Army’ attempting to crack and disable the Russians’ own version of GPS. Russia created their own GPS system, called the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), towards the end of the cold war as an alternative to the U.S. backed GPS that was in place. With 24 satellites, GLONASS is a system that Putin has heavily invested in during his time in office. Through the late 90s and early 2000’s he restored an ailing system and increased its capabilities from 12 satellites to 24, while also in 2007 allowing the system to be used freely and publicly. The cyberattack on GLONASS will be no easy task, but if the collective manages to take it offline, that will definitely create some headaches for Russian officials.

Other Important Stories

New Interactive Map Helping Fleeing Ukrainians Navigate New Countries

A new app is helping refugees from Ukraine navigate unfamiliar regions as they flee the war. The interactive map shows users their best routes and transit options when travelling in Romania. It helps users reach other countries they may be hoping to get to as well, such as Hungary, Serbia, or Bulgaria. Languages the app can be used in include Romanian, English, and Ukrainian. The online application can be found here.

Maps to Familiarize Yourself with Ukraine

As always, conflicts occur in faraway places it can be hard to understand exactly what is happening when you hear names of places and landmarks that you are unfamiliar with. We find that we can always turn to maps to help us understand the developments we read about and listen to daily. One of our favourite sets of maps that really help visualize and explain the situation on the ground in Ukraine are from the BBC, which has put together an incredibly informative series that can be found here.

One of the maps from the BBC’s map series.

Clearview AI Providing Assistance to Ukraine

As of March 12, Ukraine has begun using Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology to help identify Russian assailants, assist at checkpoints, and identify the dead. The company has given Ukraine free access to its powerful search engine in the interest of vetting persons of interest at checkpoints, according to the chief executive. They are also hoping to leverage the technology to assist with reuniting refugees and their families. Clearview has assured Ukraine that this is a ‘special operation’ and also is not something that they have offered to Russia. To learn more about how Clearview AI is helping, click here.

Sources and Continued Reading:

[1] https://www.reuters.com/world/canadas-mda-provide-sar-satellite-imagery-ukraine-help-it-fight-2022-03-08/

[2] https://spacenews.com/eos-plea-for-imagery-of-ukraine/

[3] https://spacenews.com/satellite-imaging-companies-increase-profile-as-they-track-russias-invasion-of-ukraine/

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/02/25/google-maps-ukraine-invasion/

[5] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2022-03-08/google-maps-faces-complicated-geopolitical-questions-in-ukraine-conflict

[6] https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dgjka/google-maps-ukraine-live-traffic-russia-invasion

[7] https://spacenews.com/op-ed-russian-threats-a-reminder-of-the-need-to-protect-gps/

[8] https://www.flyingmag.com/pilots-in-eastern-finland-warned-of-gps-interference-near-russian-border/

[9] https://www.forbes.com/sites/dianafurchtgott-roth/2022/03/10/america-needs-gps-backup/?sh=cb4cfb957859

[10] https://uk.pcmag.com/security/139041/ukraines-it-army-is-attempting-to-take-russias-gps-system-offline

[11] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/glonass

[12] https://www.romania-insider.com/interactive-map-transit-routes-romania-ukrainians

[13] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60506682

[14] https://spacenews.com/hawkeye-360-gps-ukr/

[15] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/13/ukraine-has-started-using-clearview-ais-facial-recognition-during-war.html

One comment on "Ukraine at War: Impacts of Geomatics, Geospatial & Earth Observation Technologies"

  1. fionag11 says:

    Excellent article, Jacob

Comments are closed.

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