NGA Will Take Over Pentagon’s Flagship AI Program

Vice Admiral Robert Sharp at GEOINT 2022

Vice Admiral Robert Sharp at GEOINT 2022 Gabriel Thacker / GOVEXEC

Agency also sending new special spy drones to Eastern Europe.

DENVER—The National Geospatial Agency will take over Project Maven, the Pentagon’s key artificial intelligence program designed to identify individual objects out of a massive amount of surveillance data, NGA’s outgoing commander, Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, said Monday. 

Referring to the Pentagon’s most recent budget request, Sharp pointed out that “NGA gains operational control of Project Maven’s [geographical intelligence] AI services and capabilities from the office of undersecretary of defense for intelligence that includes responsibility for labeled data, AI algorithms, testing, [and] evaluation capabilities.”

The Defense Department launched Project Maven in 2017 to help analysts make better use of the huge amounts of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance footage that drones were collecting over the Middle East. Maven has since become a sort of blueprint for other Defense Department AI initiatives. 

“We already have ongoing efforts to leverage AI machine learning algorithms to enable genomic analysis at scale. And this [memorandum of understanding] brings together two major DOD AI and ML efforts,” Sharp said. 

That transition will occur over the next fiscal year, said Mark Munsell, NGA’s chief technology officer. “Right now we're doing a lot of activities, getting people on the program, leadership in place, setting up a program office structure and all those kinds of things to receive it. As far as the technology goes…Our agency is very enthusiastic about capitalizing on the department's investment over the last five years.”

That could also mean that more of Project Maven’s products could make their way into the public domain faster. In his remarks, Sharp repeatedly emphasized the importance of more imagery being made public to influence the global conversation around things like Russia’s attack on Ukraine. In the same way that Project Maven has cut down on the amount of time it takes analysts to find things in intelligence data, it could also cut down on the amount of time it takes to make those insights public. 

Geographical intelligence or GEOINT products, “in the form of commercial imagery and services have been instrumental to those fighting in Ukraine…It's been used very effectively to provide transparency and to counter Russian disinformation,” he said. 

The agency is also undertaking a new program to help bring more onthe-ground mapping information to Eastern Europe, where it could affect the fight against Russia in Ukraine. In March, he said, NGA “teammates” visited with allies in Eastern Europe to “train some military partners” on the use of a small tactical mapping drone for the battlefield, called Aerial Reconnaissance Tactical Edge Mapping Imagery System, or Artemis

“It's a small unmanned aircraft system that's ideal when you have atmospheric conditions that aren't the best for satellite collection, [such as]  extensive cloud coverage,” he said. “Due to this initiative, we now have military forces in Europe who can use Artemis for high resolution imagery, creating their own [geographical intelligence] at the tactical edge that can be easily shared at the unclassified level with international partners and with no restrictions.”

He declined requests to name which military partners were using the drone now.