THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — With drone technology advancing into more and more industries, the aerospace department at Northland Community & Technical College (NCTC) is gearing up to take its Geospatial Intelligence Analysis program online this fall.
The move to a distance learning format will allow the college to train students around the world for careers in both the public and private sectors, ranging from military intelligence to retail marketing.
As an industry in and of itself, Geospatial Intelligence Analysis (GeoInt) is complex enough to defy simple categorization. Its widespread use across the greater aerospace spectrum has given rise to different meanings for different applications.
In basic terms, GeoInt is the practice of interpreting images of planet Earth, geo-referencing them, and identifying objects, structures and patterns in order to make recommendations.
“We train our students to turn images into digital maps with pieces of information layered on top much like a flip book,” explained Steve Sorenson, one of NCTC’s program instructors. “Looking at the recent California fires, for example, we can map the fires and then look to see what extent the damage is, how it will impact towns and how to plan evacuations all based on these layered maps we produce.”
The NCTC aerospace programs, including those that train aviation maintenance and unmanned aerial systems technicians, have all earned reputations for excellence since the department was first created more than 50 years ago, according to school officials.
“Northland aerospace education and aviation maintenance is well regarded in the industry,” said Curtis Zoller, Associate Dean Of Aerospace & Agriculture. “Companies like Northrop Grumman and Boeing come and recruit our students right out of class. We basically have a 100% job placement rate. Our instructors are in a constant coordination with these industry leaders to make sure our education is at the cutting edge of what’s going on in these advancing careers, and we’re doing the same thing with the imagery and geospatial programs, working with industry to stay on top of the trends.”
Nearly 80% of companies across all industries rely on some sort of geospatial data. Whether they realize it or not — or directly employ specific GeoInt technicians — companies, farmers and municipalities rely on geospatial data for things like mapping new retail locations, planning new communities, or forecasting crop yields.
For consumers, Google Earth may be the most obvious example of GeoInt in action. These maps of planet Earth are layered with information like street names, businesses, road conditions, etc. Behind all that functionality sits an expert technician trained in analyzing images and providing actionable intelligence in the form of a map.
More than 4 million jobs are directly linked to digital maps, explained Jon Beck, an instructor for UAS technology at NCTC.
“The economic impact is more than a trillion dollars yearly in terms of sales for businesses,” he said, “but beyond the economics, geospatial intelligence is enormously valuable to society as a whole. For example, emergency response teams… digital maps created with geospatial imagery and data have decreased response time by about 20% in situations where someone’s life is on the line. You wouldn’t typically think of a map as a lifesaver, but the maps we create can do just that.”
According to Zoller, geospatial intelligence is still an emerging field.
“The demand is great and increasing due to the continuing advancements in drone technology, which we here at Northland are on the leading edge of. With all the aviation technology, high-def cameras and high-tech imaging tools now available to every sector of the economy, it’s no longer just the military that needs trained analysts. We’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of career potential, and with this new online program, we’re going to be able to reach around the globe to help meet the demand.”