Demonstration of employment of AI for satellite surveillance by Chinese researchers which had led to the low earth observation satellite Qimingxing 1, homing on to Patna and Danapur Cantt can be a timely warning of the way ahead for securing information from space for India’s military.
A report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) indicates how researchers in China employed artificial intelligence [AI] to give temporary control of Qimingxing 1 a satellite in near-Earth orbit for 24 hours.
While the AI was induced from ground, the operation for redeployment of the satellite was autonomous without any human intervention as per the SCMP Report which quotes a paper published in the journal Geomatics and Information Science of Wuhan University.
The experiment was designed to understand the potential of AI in survey and mapping and while conducted by Wuhan University’s State Key Laboratory of Information Engineering in Surveying, Mapping and Remote Sensing the dual use potential by People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Strategic Support Force needs to be underlined.
Given close integration between the academia in China and the military in new initiatives undertaken under the leadership of President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping, increased use of AI in satellite surveillance is envisaged.
What Qimingxing 1 Did?
To understand the potential uses a brief look at what the low earth satellite Qimingxing 1 performed autonomously through AI needs to be understood.
By picking up locations on the earth using AI Qimingxing 1 was directed autonomously to Bihar’s capital Patna with a nearby cantonment of Danapur which houses the Bihar Regimental Centre. As soldiers of the Regiment were involved in the encounter with PLA at Galwan in Eastern Ladakh on June 15, 2020, there is evidently more than coincidence.
Another location was Japan’s Osaka port, one of the busiest and which also hosts US Navy vessels from time to time operating in the Pacific.
The locations were selected by AI through instructions fed by the researchers but the autonomous operation of Qimingxing 1 denotes future potential.
Exploitation of AI Potential
Exploitation of AI potential for satellite surveillance can be identified given the large numbers that are planned by China in the future. Controlling each of these satellites which could be in hundreds if not thousands would be humanly impossible, while AI could be employed appropriately for observing areas of interest refined through machine learning generating even more intricate results with each passage.
As the SCMP report outlines this will also enable full exploitation of large number of satellites in orbit some of which are said to be idling.
To provide the AI with basic information there is a requirement of building a huge data base and factor in a number of variables from environmental conditions to technological limitations. The process is intricate but basics seem to have been mastered by China’s State Key Laboratory of Information Engineering in Surveying, Mapping and Remote Sensing (LIESMARS) to actively allow AI to control a satellite.
Capability demonstrated by researchers in the Wuhan university of control of satellites may remain at the initial stage and may not have generated much interest had it not been for homing on to Patna in India and Osaka in Japan, but is a warning of potential ahead especially with Chinese plans for launching thousands of satellites in the future.
No Indian military location could therefore be devoid of surveillance from Beijing putting a premium on passive security measures.