A U.S. government agency that relies on satellite imagery to monitor global crop conditions is taking steps to streamline the way it buys data.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) is among the biggest government customers for Landsat imagery and also pulls in information from other sources in order to stay abreast of daily changes around the world .

While there is not a specific budget line dedicated to acquiring satellite imagery, the FAS spends about $4 million per year on data products. That funding is spent mainly with companies that develop advanced products from raw Landsat satellite images.

FAS launched a new contract March 1 that is designed to allow its satellite imagery acquisition process to make better use of its limited budget, said Brad Doorn, remote sensing coordinator for the FAS’s Crop Assessment Division.

“In 2000 we put on a contract for Landsat 7 data that we thought was innovative because we would be buying satellite imagery like a commodity,” Doorn said. In the past the FAS told vendors that “we wanted so many scenes and here are the specifications. The contract was successful as much as the satellite was successful, but now we think the industry and our mission needs would be better served by a contract based more on final deliverables.”

Currently, Radarsat International of Richmond, British Columbia, procures satellite imagery for FAS from Landsat and Canada’s Radarsat spacecraft, while Earth Satellite Corp. of Rockville, Md., provides the FAS with data from sources outside of North America.

These commercial providers helped increase the amount of data the FAS can acquire by providing volume discounts that government agencies cannot provide under law, Doorn said. But the FAS is letting its contracts expire as it tries to develop the new procurement approach through a new contract, he said.

The FAS acquires an average of 2,000 to 3,000 scenes per year, but Doorn does not want the number of scenes to be acquired used as the metric for the new contract.

“The premise of the new contract is that we need to be efficient,” Doorn said. “I’m not expecting to get a $100 million budget. I’m expecting the money that I have and it’s really looking at that and saying how can we use that money better and provide better service to USDA with the budget we have.”

The new approach calls for a single company to oversee satellite imagery acquisition for the FAS, focusing not on obtaining a certain number of scenes per year but on delivering specific information, Doorn said. The agency is hoping that a new approach will help the agency use its budget in a more effective manner by eliminating spending on imagery that may not provide the information the agency needs, he said.

“We have to monitor all the international crop regions — period,” Doorn said. “I have the resources to do only a small fraction of that. I know I’ll never have the resources to do everything, so I need to be able to use those resources in the most flexible manner possible.”

The change could help the FAS take more advantage of unique sources of information, such as radar altimetry data collected by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that can be used to monitor the heights of reservoirs around the globe, Doorn said.

“NASA brought this to us and said this is perfect for looking at irrigation potential and problems around the world,” Doorn said. “It’s basically throw-away data, and it’s a good example of finding innovative, creative solutions.”

The new contract, awarded by FAS to ASRC Aerospace Corp. of Greenbelt, Md., took effect March 1. The initial value of the deal is $2 million to cover the last six months of the 2005 budget year. It also includes four one-year options valued at $4 million per year, Doorn said.

ASRC, a subsidiary of Alaska’s Arctic Slope Regional Corp., has several contracts in its portfolio for providing various management and support activities at NASA field centers, but this is the company’s first foray into satellite imagery.

The FAS will not direct Arctic Slope on which satellite imagery to buy, only which information to deliver. “I’m sure we will still be using Landsat data and still be using weather data,” Doorn said. “The real goal here is to have a contract with a company that gives them more flexibility to handle the acquisition of the products. The company can do what they feel they can do from a business standpoint, which should give them more creativity and allow them to be more innovative.”

ASRC spokeswoman Angela Brandt said company officials were trying to set up how the contract will work and were not available to comment.

Doorn considers the contract an experiment, and while the award was made to a company with some space-related business, the ultimate solution to his problem may not come from somewhere in the space industry, he said.

“We want a firm that can be innovative, and I don’t know how this works,” Doorn said. “We’re looking for creative solutions and this is all transparent. What we do is very open for the world to see, and we want people to see how we do our business.”

Doorn hopes the acquisition of all satellite data by the FAS will fall under the new contract by Oct. 1, the beginning of the next budget year for the U.S. federal government, but he knows this new approach will be a work in progress.

“We’re not expecting perfection,” Doorn said. “This is going to be an evolution; not a revolution.”