DIUx likely to continue radar initiative in spite of setback

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SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), a Pentagon team charged with finding cutting-edge technologies to solve pressing national security problems, is not likely to abandon efforts to obtain radar data and analysis from commercial firms in spite of a recent setback.

Bloomberg reported Oct. 6 that House and Senate Defense Appropriations subcommittees opposed the Pentagon’s plan to transfer $50 million to the DIUx campaign to develop prototype commercial microsatellite Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technology and deep-learning analytics. DIUx did not provide any comment at press time, but observers in Washington said the Pentagon is exploring other funding sources for the effort to obtain a persistent capability to obtain imagery in all weather conditions, day and night and to derive useful insight from the observations.

DIUx already has provided funding to “a handful of companies” developing commercial SAR and SAR analysis tools and is in the “project execution phase,” U.S. Air Force Col. Steve Butow, DIUx West Coast military lead said in August at the Space Technology and Investment Forum here, adding that the first SAR microsatellite would launch in early 2018.

DIUX does not announce contracts, preferring instead to let firms decide whether to reveal their work with the government agency. Capella Space, a San Francisco startup developing SAR microsatellites, is a DIUx partner. Orbital Insight, a company based in Mountain View, California, that specializes in harnessing machine learning and computer vision to make sense of imagery, is another.

Planet, the San Francisco-based company that operates the world’s largest constellation of electro-optical satellites, declined to say whether it was involved in the DIUx SAR program, because “Planet does not comment on our product roadmap. That said, Planet does have an agreement with DIUx that includes the development of advanced geospatial data analytics capabilities,” according to a Planet spokesperson.

Entrepreneurs suspect that aerospace prime contractors may have encouraged congressional appropriators to scuttle the DIUx initiative.

“Larger aerospace firms have a great deal to lose if the Department of Defense pursues more cost-effective approaches,” an entrepreneur who does not have a DIUx contract told SpaceNews. “Their overhead structure makes it difficult to compete at the price point new entrants can offer.”

Longtime observers of the SAR market, however, are skeptical that commercial startups can deliver on their promises to obtain SAR imagery with microsatellites. They also question the commercial viability of the radar projects.