Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov was emotional, and at times angry, as he spoke to reporters about the Russian military’s attack on his homeland during a 20-minute chat with reporters on Monday night.
“Kyiv will be attacked again within the hour,” Polyakov said, pointing emphatically to his watch. “We need the data now.”
The data he was referring to were real-time observations from commercial satellites flying over Ukraine. Polyakov asked the operators of these satellites, mostly Western-based companies that sell data to governments and private customers, to freely share their data with one of his companies, EOS Data Analytics.
Polyakov said EOS would quickly process this data for overflights over Ukraine and provide some basic analysis before sending the information to Ukraine’s Defense Service and Ministry of Digital Transformation. EOS is able to quickly distinguish between 18 different types of Russian military vehicles, he said.
“Right now we need that intelligence,” he said. “Every night we were bombed and at night we are blind. We need this data, please.”
Polyakov noted that in recent days, commercial companies have been making high-resolution satellite imagery publicly available to demonstrate their capabilities. While impressive, he conceded such publications were more useful for PR purposes than for 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 noted the need for a special type of data, which has become increasingly popular in recent years, coming from synthetic aperture radar satellites, or SAR. Unlike passive optical satellites, which collect data in the visible, near-infrared, and near-infrared regions of the spectrum, these satellites radiate their own energy. They then record the energy reflected back from the Earth’s surface.
The main advantage of SAR satellites is that they can collect data day and night and through cloud cover. Polyakov said SAR satellite data is important for understanding Russian troop and vehicle movements at night, noting that clouds cover about 80 percent of Ukraine during the day.
Polyakov reaches out to Planet Labs, Maxar Technologies, Airbus, SI Imaging Services, SpaceView, BlackSky, Iceye, Capella, and other companies that can provide the data they need.
During the phone call with reporters, Polyakov admitted that he made an “aggressive” request. The 44-year-old entrepreneur has a checkered relationship with US regulators and was recently – and unfairly for some observers – forced to sell his majority stake in US-based launch vehicle company Firefly. However, the passion he evidently feels for preserving his homeland is hard to deny.
It’s not immediately clear how trading companies will react. This is truly the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery has played a significant role in providing open-source information on troop movements, military build-ups in neighboring countries, refugee flows and more.
Previously, such data was proprietary and largely collected from a handful of nations. The role of such a powerful, widespread technology in an area of warfare has yet to be defined, and it’s not clear whether private companies would be willing to voluntarily hand over raw data to another commercial entity to help one side in the conflict.
But we’re about to find out.
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