Air Force goes with BlackSky’s Spectra AI platform to track impact of COVID-19

A satellite image of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport reveals an unusually high number of parked airplanes (identified in yellow boxes) and an unusually low number of parked cars. That’s consistent with what would be expected during the COVID-19 pandemic. (BlackSky Photo)

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide. The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

“BlackSky is giving decision makers the crucial information they need to protect U.S. interests at home and overseas amid today’s rapidly shifting threat landscape,” BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said today in a news release.

“By combining global geospatial data sources with satellite remote sensing data, Spectra provides a near-real time look at the evolving pandemic and provides critical insights to inform national security,” he said.

The contract was awarded through AFWERX, the Air Force’s small-business innovation program, and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Although the financial terms of the contract were not announced, AFWERX’s solicitation called for providing Direct to Phase 2 grants worth as much as $1 million over the course of 27 months. AFWERX added the emphasis on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the course of the solicitation.

O’Toole said Spectra will help the Air Force “maintain a watchful eye over its supply chain” amid the pandemic.

“Spectra will provide the Air Force an easy-to-use outbreak monitoring and decision support tool,” he said. “The platform will help us combat the spread of COVID-19, manage risk and ensure the protection of personnel around the globe.”

BlackSky, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, has offices in Seattle as well as Herndon, Va.

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