EXCLUSIVE: NGA To Weigh Smallsat Options Under New Commercial Strategy


eWASHINGTON  — The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) could request funding as early as next year to begin experimenting with the different imagery products becoming available from a new generation of commercial satellite operators and data analytics firms.

According to a strategy document to be publicly released Oct. 26, the NGA envisions eventually entering into a variety of contracting schemes with the newcomers, many funded by Silicon Valley venture capital. Some of these companies have already begun launching imaging constellations of unprecedented size.

The initiative would not affect the NGA’s current EnhancedView service contract with longtime supplier DigitalGlobe of Westminster, Colorado. But it suggests that DigitalGlobe, which over the past decade has swallowed up its peer-competitors, soon will have company as a provider to the mapmaking and imagery analysis agency, which buys commercial data on behalf of the military and intelligence community.

At nearly every public speaking engagement over the past year, NGA Director Robert Cardillo has discussed the “darkening of the skies” with small satellites and the possibilities this opens for an agency with ever-expanding imagery requirements.

“The combined possibilities of an emergent commercial space market, the small-satellite revolution and a vibrant community of companies already mining the possibilities of geospatial data has inspired us to seek new opportunities,” Cardillo said here at a conference earlier this year.

Skybox Imaging and Google
Credit: Skybox Imaging

Cardillo has specifically mentioned Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, California, now owned by technology giant Google; Planet Labs of San Francisco, which has launched scores of imaging microsatellites to date; and BlackSky Global of Bellevue, Washington, which is completing demonstration satellites. The resulting proliferation of lower-cost imagery has given rise to another set of companies that are using and perfecting so-called big data analytics to predict anything from crop yields to the earnings of major retailers.

The new “Commercial Geoint Strategy” is the NGA’s first major step toward taking advantage of the trend. In it, the NGA says it does not envision a one-size-fits all contract with small-satellite companies, but instead individualized contracts with differing price tags, lengths and requirements.

But first, the NGA would fund a series of experiments, possibly in 2017, to evaluate new data products and “explore new tradecraft possibilities,” the 18-page document, a copy of which was provided to SpaceNews under embargo, says. The NGA could release a broad agency announcement by the end of the year to begin experimenting with these new companies.

John Charles, the NGA administrator who led the development of the strategy, said the intent is to make small-satellite providers “a regular part of the business rhythm,” and in some cases alter the agency’s role as a customer.

The strategy envisions different relationships with different companies. “Do they want the government as a customer or do they want the government as a major customer?” Charles said in an interview.

For DigitalGlobe, the NGA has long been the anchor customer, having co-funded development of the company’s most capable satellites and accounting for well over 50 percent of its annual revenue. Industry sources have said the emerging companies are reluctant to seek similar arrangements with the NGA for fear they would come with strings attached in the form of operating restrictions.

Charles said he has met with about a dozen small-satellite companies in the past 18 months to discuss working with NGA. NGA expects many of their planned constellations to reach a critical mass in the 2018-2020 timeframe.

While the newcomers do not offer quite the same imagery quality as DigitalGlobe in terms of resolution and geospatial accuracy, they can provide more-frequent revisit times via larger constellations, along with novel capabilities such as full-motion video. DigitalGlobe operates a constellation of four highly capable satellites, the newest of which can collect data sharp enough to discern ground objects as small as 30 centimeters across, with another planned for launch next year.

The strategy document puts a premium on persistence with the idea that frequent revisit rates would allow more precise measurements of change in a specific area.

The strategy also formally speaks to the NGA’s need for speed, even at the risk of the confidence in the accuracy of the image. This marks a significant change from the agency’s traditional emphasis on precision.

“Some customers are now willing to consider a trade of confidence level for speed, in order to support both operational and policy decision cycles,” the strategy said. “NGA needs to meet these new customer desires as well as the traditional requirement for high-confidence analysis.”

About 70 vendors are expected to come to NGA headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, in November to discuss the new strategy.