An artist’s rendition of the Jilin-1A optical satellite. Photo: China Daily

Chinese researchers last month unveiled an advanced AI system that enables low-cost commercial imaging satellites to become potent spy platforms.

In a paper published in the domestic peer-reviewed journal Fire Control and Command Control by China’s state-owned defense industry, a Chinese team said its AI upgrade to its Jilin-1 satellite achieved a 95% precision rate in identifying small objects such as planes in the air or cars on the street, seven times more than previous technology.

The AI is reportedly capable of keeping track of moving objects, even if the object turns sharply or disappears into a tunnel. 

According to Lin Cunbao of the People’s Liberation Army’s Space Engineering University, traditional satellite AI assumes it had made a mistake when it loses track of a target, achieving only a 14% success rate in analyzing satellite video.

In contrast, their new AI would estimate a moving target’s direction based on experience and continue tracking it based on the most likely direction it would take. In addition, Lin’s paper mentioned that the AI could recapture the target as soon as it reappeared and added that their AI could work even better from space.

The Jilin-1 satellite, first launched in 2015, is China’s first commercial Earth observation satellite. It is notably smaller than other spy satellites, weighing less than 100 kilograms. 

China also showcased its AI-enhanced satellite reconnaissance capabilities in June last year when its Beijing-3 commercial satellite performed an in-depth scan of a 3,800 square kilometer area of San Francisco Bay in only 42 seconds at an altitude of 500 kilometers.

The images were sharp enough to allow military vehicles on the street to be identified, and what types of weapons they carried. 

In contrast to traditional spy satellites that must remain stable while scanning an area of interest, the Beijing-3 rolled and yawed wildly, allowing it to scan far larger areas. The performance test over North America showed that Beijing-3 can take images with its body twisting up to 10 degrees per second, a capability not seen in previous satellites.

Beijing-3 is also claimed to have a response time 2-3 times faster than WorldView-4, the most advanced earth observation satellite developed by the United States. Also, Beijing-3’s scanning band is 77% wider at 23 kilometers compared with WorldView’s 13 kilometers, while weighing only half of its US counterpart. 

Lead scientist Yang Fang stated in the peer-reviewed journal Spacecraft Engineering that “China started relatively late on agile satellite technology, but achieved a large number of breakthroughs in a short period of time.”

In 2020 Changguang Satellite, the manufacturer of the Jilin-1 Satellite, released satellite video footage of what appeared to be a fighter jet flying over a city, in an apparent showcase of the satellite’s tracking capabilities. However, it was not clear what type of fighter jet was being tracked in the video. 

A photo taken over a Chinese city by a Jilin-1 Satellite. Photo: WikiCommons

Future Chinese imaging satellites could be equipped with onboard AI and image processing capabilities, which would eliminate the need to broadcast data to ground stations for further analysis. This eliminates significant delays, especially if the satellites are tracking targets on the other side of the planet. 

Chinese satellites will soon be able to stream live satellite footage to an end-user’s smartphone, a capability confined at present to the war rooms of leading military powers. 

China’s efforts to integrate military AI into its commercial satellites may be seen as an attempt to increase the survivability of its space-based intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) platforms via proliferation. 

By 2025, China plans to launch the full constellation of 138 Jilin-1 satellites in orbit. Upgrading these satellites with onboard AI that considerably increases their imaging capabilities would increase their persistent monitoring capabilities and increase their survivability via proliferation against US and allied anti-satellite weapons, such as lasers, microwaves, electronic warfare, cyberattack and missiles through their sheer number. 

The fact that these satellites were designed as civilian assets in the first place obfuscates the distinction between military and civilian assets in space.

Similar to how China’s use of fishermen and civilian law enforcement agencies to assert its maritime claims in the South China Sea confounds the rules of engagement by other claimant states, the use of commercial satellites for potential military purposes may present similar problems in crafting the rules of engagement in outer space.

In addition, the dual-use nature of China’s ISR satellite capabilities shows significant advancement in its military-civil fusion strategy, which aims to reorganize its science and technology enterprises to ensure that new innovations simultaneously advance economic and military development.