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Artificial Intelligence to be Used for Charting, Intel Collection

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Nautical, terrain and aeronautical charting is vital to the Defense Department mission. This job, along with collecting intelligence, falls to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Two senior DOD officials think that artificial intelligence will aid NGA's mission.

Three men sit next to each other on a stage.
Tech Conference
Nand Mulchandani, left, chief technology officer for the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center; Mark D. Andress, right, chief information officer with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; and moderator retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bill Bender, speak Dec. 12, 2019, at the AFCEA NOVA-sponsored 18th Annual Air Force Information Technology Day in Washington.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191212-D-UB488-002A

Mark D. Andress, NGA's chief information officer, and Nand Mulchandani, chief technology officer from DOD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, spoke yesterday at the AFCEA International NOVA-sponsored 18th Annual Air Force Information Technology Day in Washington.

The reason charts are so vital is that they enable safe and precise navigation, Andress said. They are also used for such things as enemy surveillance and targeting, as well as precision navigation and timing.

This effort involves a lot of data collection and analysis, which is processed and shared through the unclassified, secret or top secret networks, he said, noting that AI could assist them in this effort.

The AI piece would involve writing smart algorithms that could assist data analysts and leader decision making, Andress said.

Two airmen focus on a computer screen.
Intelligence Gathering
Air National Guard intelligence analysts assigned to the 181st Intelligence Wing work on new developmental programs at the Hulman Field Indiana National Guard Base, Ind., Nov. 02, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Luke Strum
VIRIN: 191102-Z-II995-1007

He added that the value of AI is that it will give analysts more time to think critically and advise policymakers while AI processes lower-order analysis that humans now do.

There are several challenges to bringing AI into NGA, he observed.

One challenge is that networks handle a large volume of data that includes text, photos and livestream. The video streaming piece is especially challenging for AI because it's so complex, he said.

Andress used the example of an airman using positioning, navigation and timing, flying over difficult terrain at great speed and targeting an enemy. "An algorithm used for AI decision making that is 74% efficient is not one that will be put into production to certify geolocation because that's not good enough," he said.

A man speaks.
Technology Day
Mark D. Andress, chief information officer, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency speaks, Dec. 12, 2019, at the AFCEA NOVA-sponsored 18th Annual Air Force Information Technology Day in Washington.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191212-D-UB488-003A

Another problem area is that NGA inherited a large network architecture from other agencies that merged into NGA. They include these Defense Mapping Agency organizations:

  • DMA Hydrographic Center
  • DMA Topographic Center
  • DMA Hydrographic/Topographic Center
  • DMA Aerospace Center

The networks of these organizations were created in the 1990s and are vertically designed, he said, meaning not easily interconnected. That would prove a challenge because AI would need to process information from all of these networks to be useful.

Next, all of these networks need to continuously run since DOD operates worldwide 24/7, he said. Pausing the network to test AI would be disruptive.

Therefore, Andress said AI prototype testing is done in pilots in isolated network environments.

However, the problem in doing the testing in isolation is the environments don't represent the real world they'll be used in, he said.

Nonetheless, the testing, in partnership with industry, has been useful in revealing holes and problems that might prevent AI scalability. 

Lastly, the acceptance of AI will require a cultural shift in the agency. NGA personnel need to be able to trust the algorithms. He said pilots and experimentation will help them gain that trust and confidence.

To sum up, Andress said AI will eventually become a useful tool for NGA, but incorporating it will take time. He said the JAIC will play a central role in helping the agency getting there.

A man speaks.
Technology Conference
Nand Mulchandani, chief technology officer, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, speaks Dec. 12, 2019, at the AFCEA NOVA-sponsored 18th Annual Air Force Information Technology Day in Washington.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191212-D-UB488-004

Mulchandani said the JAIC was set up last year to be DOD's coordinating center to help scale AI. 

Using AI for things like health records and personnel matters is a lot easier than writing algorithms for things that NGA does, he admitted, adding that eventually it will get done.

Mulchandani said last year, when he came to DOD from Silicon Valley, the biggest shock was having funding for work one day and then getting funding pulled the next due to continuing resolutions. He said legislators need to fix that so that AI projects that are vital to national security are not disrupted.

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