Aeronautics achievement

Dr. Thomas Snitch ’75, ’15 (Hon.) recognized for longtime work in aeronautics

By Bob Cunningham

Dr. Thomas Snitch ’75, ’15 (Hon.) was honored this fall with a full membership into the International Academy of Aeronautics during the International Astronautical Conference (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Snitch was just one of four Americans in a group of about 35 honorees who were recognized by the IAA, the world's leading academic organization in the astronautics world.

His diverse career has ranged from being a senior adviser for nuclear weapons and weapons control at the U.S. Department of State to CEO and co-founder of GeoQuera, which is comprised of mathematicians, physicists and artificial intelligence professionals who use high-resolution satellite imagery and advanced algorithms to find terrorists, criminals and poachers.

Snitch said the induction ceremony was a very humbling experience.

“I was sitting one table over from Buzz Aldrin,” he said. “It’s very nice to be honored by your peers, because a lot of the guys there are old-timers who go back to the early days of the U.S. and the Soviet rocketry, missile and space programs. When you walk off the stage and all of these people are shaking your hand, you just can’t believe it because I knew these guys when I was a kid and now I have the same lapel pin that they do.”

It was Snitch’s work that he perfected “many years ago” in Iraq and Afghanistan that helped him with one of his more recent projects: helping park rangers catch poachers in southern Africa.

Snitch used satellite imagery to detect and apprehend foes who were planting IEDs, roadside bombs, in Iraq. Snitch’s team GPS-tagged every spot where a bomb had gone off in Baghdad and then added pertinent data such as time, day of the week, weather, and so on. Then, they would build a database and look for patterns.

“It didn’t take long to determine there were distinct patterns,” he said. “It was very clear that you could create a model that gave you a very high probability — not perfect but better than driving down the road and looking for a bomb.”  

Then, with GeoQuera, he was using high-resolution imagery from satellites to solve real-world problems, and added drones to the component.

So, when a Serengeti National Park ranger asked for his help with poachers of rhinos and elephants, he reverted to his days in the Middle East by making the “mathematical analogy that poachers are to terrorists what rhinos are to soldiers.”

Snitch started working with a reserve in southern Africa, where wildlife biologists had collected data over a several-year period. After analyzing the data, they used a big satellite image of the park and blew it up to the size of a wall so they could mark where poachers had struck.  

“Every rhino that had been killed in the past five years had been killed within 165 meters of a certain road — every single one,” he said. “All we did was collect data and visualize it.  

“We went back in June of 2013 and started flying drones up and down the road. On the first night - we didn’t have that drone up in the air for more than 10 minutes - we saw a car pull over and a bunch of guys get out and fake like they had car trouble. They were getting ready to climb the fence when the rangers were on these guys and arrested them.”  

Snitch said that poaching in the areas that they monitored with drones has decreased by 90 percent.

“It’s the use of appropriate technology: satellites, drones, data analytics and mathematical modeling to create a solution set which has proved to be very effective,” he said. “We now are testing in places where illegal fishing and illegal logging are taking place.”  

It’s been 41 years since Snitch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese and Asian studies from BGSU, but he still refers to the University as “home.”

“I picked up tools at the University that I’ve carried with me every day of my life,” said Snitch, whose generosity was recently recognized with membership in the Williams Society of The Presidents Club, a recognition society for donors who have lifetime giving to BGSU of $1 million or more. “There were people there in the faculty, and a dean in particular, who were very kind to me and very helpful to me. Bowling Green was very good to me, and that’s why my wife and I made a decision to give back to the University.”  

In addition to his private giving, Snitch also assists the University with federal relations.