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A wartime plea to Western satellite companies: “We need this data, please”


A Maxar satellite image shows the buildup of Russian vehicles and helicopers on an airfield in Belarus prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
Enlarge / A Maxar satellite image shows the buildup of Russian vehicles and helicopers on an airfield in Belarus prior to the invasion of Ukraine.

Maxar Technologies

Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov was emotional and, at times, angry, during a 20-minute call with reporters on Monday evening as he spoke about the attack by the Russian military on his homeland.

“Within one hour there will be an attack on Kyiv again,” Polyakov said, pointing emphatically to his watch. “We need the data now.”

The data he referred to were real-time observations made by commercial satellites flying over Ukraine. Polyakov pleaded with the operators of these satellites, primarily Western-based companies who sell data to governments and private customers, to freely share their data with one of his companies, EOS Data Analytics.

Polyakov said EOS would rapidly process this data for passes over Ukraine and provide some basic analytics before sending the information to the Ukrainian Defense Service and the Ministry of Digital Transformation. EOS has the capability to quickly differentiate between 18 different types of Russian military vehicle, he said.

“Right now, we need to have this intelligence,” he said. “Every night we’ve been bombarded, and at night we are blind. We need this data, please.”

Polyakov noted that, in recent days, commercial companies have been releasing high-resolution satellite imagery into the public domain to showcase their capabilities. While this has been impressive, he acknowledged, such releases have been more useful for public relations purposes than actionable by the Ukrainian military. The data is often two or three days old, Polyakov said. “We don’t need to know where Russian tanks were two days ago,” he said.

He also cited the need for a special kind of data that has become increasingly popular in recent years, which comes from synthetic aperture radar, or SAR, satellites. In contrast to passive optical satellites that collect data in the visible, near-infrared, and short-wave infrared portions of the spectrum, these satellites emit their own energy. They then record the energy reflected back from the surface of Earth.

The key advantage of SAR satellites is that they can collect data day or night and through cloud cover. Polyakov said SAR satellite data is important to understanding Russian troop and vehicle movements at night and noted that clouds cover about 80 percent of Ukraine during the day.

Screen capture of Polyakov speaking during a Zoom call with a handful of reporters.
Enlarge / Screen capture of Polyakov speaking during a Zoom call with a handful of reporters.

Noosphere/Zoom

Polyakov is appealing to Planet Labs, Maxar Technologies, Airbus, SI Imaging Services, SpaceView, BlackSky, Iceye, Capella, and other companies who can provide the needed data.

During the call with reporters, Polyakov acknowledged that he was making an “aggressive” request. The 44-year-old entrepreneur has a checkered relationship with US regulators and was recently—and to some observers, unfairly—forced to sell his controlling interest in the US-based launch company Firefly. However, the passion he clearly feels about preserving his homeland is difficult to deny.

It is not immediately clear how commercial companies will respond. This is really the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery has played a significant role in providing open source information about troop movements, military buildups in neighboring countries, flows of refugees, and more.

Previously, such data was proprietary and largely collected by a handful of nations. The role of such a powerful, widely available technology has yet to be defined in a warfighting domain, and it’s not clear whether private companies are willing to freely hand over raw data to another commercial company with the intent of helping one side in the conflict.

But we’re about to find out.



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