Op-ed | The geospatial revolution: What’s a government to do?


This commentary originally appeared in the July 3, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Hardly a day goes by without another announcement about a potentially disruptive geospatial capability, whether a new smallsat constellation, a new app designed to help remote-sensing users leverage different spatial and spectral capabilities, or the creation of entirely new companies organized around a deep understanding of some sensed issue on Earth, such as agriculture or infrastructure. These emergences are fueled as much by on the ground developments like mobile communications, data analytics, cloud computing, and the creation of unique machine learning algorithms as they are by developments in aerospace platforms and the sensor combinations they allow.

We are witnessing a geospatial revolution, driven by fundamental advances in increasingly persistent data collection and analysis. Critically, this revolution will not only benefit individual companies, but create important new opportunities for the public at large. In this view, the geospatial revolution and its potential benefits are global, not just confined to the powerful or the few.

How should governments respond and participate in this geospatial revolution? We continue to move, quickly, far away from the legendary imagery analyst peering over a light table trying to pry open an adversary’s deepest secrets. Meanwhle, we now recognize that U.S. government efforts designed to limit global access and innovation have only served to encourage competitors.

For some, there is a temptation to conclude that government’s options to influence developments in this area are completely lost. That’s wrong. Governments continue to play an important role in the shape, speed, and direction of geospatial markets, albeit in a very different way than in the past and sometimes with non-obvious leverage points. The recent European Space Agency’s FutureEO workshop and U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s GEOINT Symposium point to new insights about how to reshape government action and participation. Four prescriptive insights come to mind:

1. Anticipate better 

Whether thinking about global space markets or security issues, anticipation is a critical enabling capability for the 21st century. Anticipation involves systematic thinking about the future on an issue, the trends that drive change, positing how they interact with one another, and thinking about the impact of different outcomes.  So here, for example, we can consider the big trends that underpin technical, market, and regulatory aspects of the geospatial revolution. What kinds of disruptive sensing and downstream knowledge creation will be proposed next for commercialization, and how should government think about them now?

The modern U.S. history of remote sensing commercialization offers a useful case study for reflection. Key assumptions by the U.S. government failed to anticipate industry and foreign government actions and reactions, such as the inevitable commercialization of space-based radar imagery and that the availability of imagery data in the market would stem the tide of foreign interest in indigenous space capabilities. Perhaps with benefit of hindsight, new government thinking is emerging  faster  (but still not especially fast) about new capabilities like commercial weather data and satellite servicing.

Anticipation, and its ability to create confidence in emerging geospatial capabilities, is also important to governments for other reasons.  Beyond thinking ahead of the market to understand potential government use cases, or regulatory considerations, governments need to consider where to place their own scarce innovation bets for unique missions like intelligence.  The Trump administration seems undecided about the value of basic research that could actually ensure U.S. space leadership, by fueling developments in space manufacturing and low-cost access to space.

2. Speak with a more coherent voice
Bold U.S. policy pronouncements over the past two decades about space commercialization have rarely been followed by coherent implementation initiatives. Fast-moving commercial changes often complicate long-term government programs and investment plans, and requires creative thinking about how government-industry relations should adapt in a wildly disruptive market. There’s room for some optimism here as the U.S. government has leveraged SpaceX’s commercial talents in support of a National Reconnaissance Office mission and, more broadly, recognized the potential commercial role in space situational awareness.

Another issue, of course, is the security dilemma: the tension created between commercialization and rapid access by a wide range of participants to innovative new capabilities. On this score, the U.S. government has been profoundly schizophrenic, trying to play defense instead of creatively and purposefully shifting to the realities of a more transparent world. The key to retaining security advantage is not information and technology control, but quick adaptation and innovation across government and commercial capabilities. Technology constraints only incentivize smaller aerospace players to collaborate and proliferate faster, thereby limiting the real sources of U.S. leverage and control. Thinking about new ways of shaping the global geospatial market and adapting to transparency should be top priority topics for the new National Space Council.

3. Leverage, leverage, leverage

U.S. government mission managers should look to commercial developments to change how they do business and to create wholly new kinds of understanding around public policy missions. While not all agencies will engage the commercial world at equal speed, there are and will be a great number of lessons that agencies can learn from each other on issues ranging from new business models to licensing to mission evaluation methods.

Thus far, NASA is an exemplar in the Trump administration’s strategy for leveraging new commercial missions for new lunar missions and satellite servicing. NGA, starting with its 2015 Commercial GEOINT Strategy, has been the pioneer in this regard, with sister agencies the National Reconnaissance Office and NOAA  mostly reacting. NGA recognizes the need to aggressively pursue substantive, knowledge-oriented developments in the market while opening the aperture to commercial markets, through new geospatial brokerage models and public-private partnerships.

Ironically, the budget pressures posed by the Trump administration to some U.S. civilian agencies could be the catalyst for further innovation. Agency directors need to be mindful that the greatest resistance to commercial innovation might come from within those government programs most likely to benefit from them, whether because of traditional thinking, worries about job protection, or bureaucratic disincentives to risk taking. The executive branch and the Congress should work together to reshape and transition existing U.S. government programs without blame or prejudice. Successful commercial pilots should be incorporated quickly into mainstream government programs.

4. Regulate with strategic purpose There is no doubt that regulatory uncertainty has played an important role in constraining the revolution, or, to say it another way, that commercial innovation is advancing in spite of slow-moving regulation. Some of that is due to the energy provided by the venture capital market, while the existence of geospatial complements or substitutes that point to the fallacies and ineffectiveness of control (or at least control in the same old ways).

Again, the commercial satellite remote-sensing regulatory regime is a good example of what works and what doesn’t. The United States has had for over two decades a bold, bipartisan policy of leadership in commercial remote sensing – consistent with its broader global remote sensing history and mandate – yet much of this period could be characterized by reactive thinking and incoherent, halting action.  True, the U.S. government’s historic, monopolistic imagery advantage is gone, and adversaries are reaping the advantage of unique data access and open-system global learning. But this is only one dimension of the new transparency that the U.S. government must thrive in: traditional thinking about secrecy, information control and limited access must shift, predominantly, to a more sophisticated use of advanced geospatial analytics, dynamic fusion of government and commercial data, and selective approaches to information sharing, release, and control in ways never before imagined.

Here there’s a glimmer of hope. Aside from seeking new ways to streamline license reviews, U.S. government regulators recently announced a series of decisions about non-Earth imaging, off-nadir imaging and nighttime imaging that reflect the broader realties of the geospatial market (eegulating satellite imaging angles doesn’t make that much sense in a drone-filled world, for example). But these decisions took over 18 months, much too long in a competitive, high-speed global market. Much more boldly, new legislation from the House Science Committee reaffirms the Commerce Department’s role in facilitating U.S. space innovation. It proposes a revitalized Office of Space Commerce as the centerpiece of the U.S. government’s approach to regulation, with a very light touch approach and a burden of proof on government agencies as to why certain capabilities should not be licensed in an increasingly transparent world (congressional initiatives, especially the extra efforts of Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) and the House Science Committee have been a welcome catalyst for updated thinking on these issues).

Any new rules should be forward-looking and comprehensive

Today, some companies proposing ideas outside the traditional imagery arena are regulatory orphans that do not have clear pathways to licensing. This will hinder innovation in wholly new space areas, or worse, drive it overseas.  Regulation should increasingly consider how a whole new raft of foreign legal and regulatory constructs — such as ESA’s 2016 Space Strategy for Europe and Japan’s new launch and licensing laws — create the potential for both cooperation and competition.

Not surprisingly, these factors and levers intertwine in complex and curious ways. Anticipating future developments creates a framework for sensible government investments in government and commercial capabilities to satisfy near-term and future public missions. Speaking with a coherent voice creates confidence in the market – for both innovators and investors – about the breadth of U.S. commitment to progress. It also strengthens American leadership in modernizing the international order for space and mitigates foreign competitors’ use of U.S. regulatory uncertainty as a marketing ploy for buying abroad.  Understanding and leveraging the elements of the new transparency becomes the foundation of advancing American interests in a highly complex and dynamic world with a whole range of security challenges. We need global leadership and market shaping, not reactive, out of date thinking.

A geospatial revolution is well underway. And it is moving very, very fast. The U.S. government needs creative, coherent, and forward-looking policies in order to fully leverage the value that the revolution will create. And with coherent and predictable implementation of those policies, it will encourage other countries to follow suit.

Kevin O’Connell is president and CEO of Innovative Analytics and Training, LLC, a Washington-based professional services FIRM.