As Imagery Market Comes into Sharper Relief, DigitalGlobe Looks at Moving up GeoEye-2 Launch

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PARIS — Geospatial imagery and services provider DigitalGlobe on May 1 said demand for imagery of sharper resolution than what the U.S. government now allows for commercial sale appears so strong that the company could move up the launch date for its GeoEye-2 satellite.

DigitalGlobe appears to have won the argument with the U.S. intelligence community about whether imagery with a ground sampling distance of 30 centimeters should be available for open commercial sales. The current maximum sharpness is 50 centimeters.

U.S. intelligence officials in April indicated they had no problem with the idea. It is now up to the Obama administration, and specifically the U.S. secretary of commerce, to authorize the commercial sale of sharper imagery.

For the moment, none of DigitalGlobe’s competitors in the United States, Europe, Israel and Asia have satellites that are commercially available and equipped with sensors taking images sharper than 50 centimeters.

“It’s not done until it’s done,” DigitalGlobe Chief Executive Jeffrey R. Tarr said in a conference call with investors, referring to the policy change. Tarr said he was grateful for the endorsement of U.S. intelligence officials but that the company still had no idea if or when it will be allowed to sell the sharper imagery.

Longmont, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe operates a fleet of five satellites. Its WorldView-3, which offers 30-centimeter resolution, is scheduled for launch in mid-August after being delayed because of bottlenecks at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, launch base.

Given a planned three-month in-orbit testing period, WorldView-3 is now scheduled to enter commercial service in mid-November, some 2.5 months later than planned under DigitalGlobe’s EnhancedView contract with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, NGA.

In a May 1 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), DigitalGlobe said it had recently come to terms with NGA on a contract modification that would accommodate a delay of up to four months in the satellite’s launch.

NGA is still scheduled to increase its monthly payment under the EnhancedView contract, to $25 million from the current $20.8 million, starting Sept. 1 as scheduled, DigitalGlobe said in the SEC filing.

GeoEye-2 is one of the assets DigitalGlobe acquired when it purchased rival GeoEye in January 2013. The company has said it does not need GeoEye-2 immediately and has modified a launch contract with Lockheed Martin to include a potentially long delay. DigitalGlobe has also planned to store GeoEye-2, at a cost it has not disclosed, until demand justifies its launch.

That justification may come in short order if the Commerce Department signs off on the 30-centimeter-resolution request, Tarr said.

DigitalGlobe’s stock was hit hard in February when the company revised downward its 2014 revenue forecast citing international competition for lower-end imagery and delays in government contract awards. It also said the delay in the WorldView-3 launch would push some NGA EnhancedView revenue into 2015.

For the three months ending March 31, the company said its commercial revenue, much of it from civil government customers outside the United States, appears to be recovering.

DigitalGlobe has 10 Direct Access Partners that, within their designated geographic regions, are permitted to send orders to DigitalGlobe satellites and download the requested imagery on their own.

The direct-access partners accounted for $26.5 million in revenue for the three months ending March 31, up 23 percent from a year ago, the company said.

U.S. government revenue grew by 22 percent during the quarter, to $97.6 million. The EnhancedView contract, in addition to its monthly payments, includes a provision for variable purchases of value-added services. Revenue from these services, principally the Global Enhanced GeoInt Delivery program, doubled to $34.4 million.

Total DigitalGlobe revenue for the three months ending March 31 was $156.5 million, up 14 percent compared to the combined revenue of DigitalGlobe and GeoEye a year ago.

While not a generator of much revenue, DigitalGlobe’s participation in the long search for Malaysian Air Lines Flight 370 resulted in a large test of the company’s recently purchased Tomnod crowdsourcing platform.

Tarr said more than 8 million volunteers worldwide downloaded more than 1 billion page views to search, pixel by pixel, for MH 370. 

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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