When you switch on a light, pay for an item with a credit card, or use your phone’s navigation app to avoid traffic or find your favorite restaurant, you benefit from the work of experts in geomatics— the science of determining the “where” and “when” — either in, on or above the ever-changing Earth’s surface.
Our navigation, banking, power grids and many other elements of American life — including our national security — depend on scientists’ precise knowledge of timing and the location of items across the Earth’s surface and in near-Earth orbit. Our lives are easier and safer today because of technological advances by geomatics experts in the U.S. government, industry and academia, but our agency and national population of experts in this tradecraft is declining. As director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, I know that to maintain that security into the 21st century, we need more students studying geomatics — to become the next generation’s geomatics experts.
Geomatics is a science the United States has traditionally dominated, but many U.S. competitors, including China, are investing heavily in geomatics — both in technological infrastructure and in the education of their students. To maintain our leadership in this field, the United States must also continue to invest in our own technological systems and, more importantly, create a steady stream of geomatics scientists, engineers and mathematicians who have the knowledge and vision to keep the United States at the forefront.
One possible threat to the United States’ world leadership in geomatics is what’s happening with the global positioning system. Developed by U.S. scientists, GPS is the premier system used worldwide for precise positioning and navigation, as well as maintaining precise time — critical for banking and numerous electronic grid systems. NGA, along with other U.S. government entities, supports the U.S. Space Force in maintaining the GPS system.
While our GPS is currently the worldwide standard, we must continue to develop and improve the technology to more safely support emerging technologies such as self-driving cars and 5G capabilities. We’re working on it, but so are others, including Russia and China. They are delivering their own global navigation satellite systems, or GNSS. Just last year, China launched the final satellite for its own GNSS, BEIDOU. It was a wake-up call for the United States — and I, along with many in the geospatial field, heard it loud and clear. We must continue to innovate in the field of geomatics — but we can’t do that without the next generation of geomatics professionals.
We are fortunate that NGA has some outstanding geomatics professionals on our team, helping us provide world-class geospatial intelligence to the U.S. armed forces, first responders and policymakers. Those geomatics professionals make our products more accurate, which saves lives. Geomatics fundamentally underpins our modern way of life. Quite frankly, we can’t do what we do without them. Geomatics experts are not only crucial to how NGA operates today, but they are crucial to our future success. As NGA director, I’ve announced the agency’s Moonshot — our imperative to sustain U.S. geospatial-intelligence superiority. To achieve this, NGA will need to harness the knowledge and talent of the next generation of geomatics scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
But a concern for NGA — and many in U.S. government and industry who deal with geomatics — is where will this next generation come from. As many current geomatics professionals approach retirement age, there aren’t enough young scientists trained and ready to step up and take their place in the U.S. A committee convened by the U.S National Research Council to discuss the future of geomatics found that there was a “lack of a trained workforce to develop and maintain the infrastructure in the coming decades.” Not only that, but as American students remain unaware of this important field, academic programs in geomatics have reached — or are trending to — reduction or dissolution, impacting generations of geomatics professionals to come. At the same time, our competitors are making significant investments to develop geomatics expertise in their own people, both in their home countries and in existing U.S. academic programs.
To cope with the scarcity of American geomatics professionals, NGA initiated a strategy to hire bright college graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and to educate them in geomatics through our innovative distance-learning program. This enables our graduates to increase their knowledge while serving the mission. Geomatics is a challenging science to master, and I am grateful to these team members for taking up the challenge, but the need for these professionals in the United States is so strong that individual programs like ours can’t be the only solution.
To achieve NGA’s Moonshot and maintain U.S. national security, we must continue to be the world’s leader in the field of geomatics. We need people to develop and manage cutting-edge geomatics methods and technology. To do that, we need students studying in this field now at our colleges and universities, and even delving into geomatics at the high-school level.
Creating more “geodetic professionals” is not merely a matter of developing interest. Our overall STEM programs need to focus on engagement, mentoring and broad communication across our communities — the K-12 educators who inspire students in the classroom, the parents of our young scientists-to-be, the villages that raise them. We must market, we must engage, we must mentor from kindergarten to college in order to assure the STEM professionals of the future are present to support the challenges of the future.
President Kennedy challenged America to put man on the moon inside a decade. We call on the nation to quadruple the number of STEM graduates in the next decade. Our economy and our national security rest upon our ability as a nation to meet this challenge.
So, please, encourage the burgeoning STEM professionals around you to investigate the science of geomatics. And for those students interested in STEM, consider geomatics as a specialty. There are so many exciting developments at the forefront, and NGA is hiring! Many government organizations and industry are hiring too.
Bottom line — geomatics is crucial to U.S. national security. We’re calling out to all potential geomatics professionals of the United States: Your country, your family and your friends need you.
Vice Adm. Robert Sharp is director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.