ST. LOUIS — Umbra won a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to demonstrate novel collection techniques using synthetic aperture radar satellites, the company announced May 22.

DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development arm, awarded Umbra a cost-sharing agreement under a new program called Digital Radar Image Formation Technology (DRIFT). The agency allocated $4.5 million for the one-year project. 

Umbra, a startup based in Santa Barbara, California, operates a constellation of six high-resolution SAR satellites, and is scheduled to launch two more later this year on the SpaceX Transporter 9 rideshare mission.

U.S. government interest in commercial SAR imaging has grown significantly over the past year, Todd Master, Umbra’s chief operating officer, told SpaceNews

The DRIFT program seeks to demonstrate advanced imaging capabilities enabled by at least two SAR satellites flown in formation.  DARPA last year also awarded contracts to Jacobs, Northrop Grumman and PredaSAR.

Radar imaging emerged as a breakout remote-sensing capability of the war in Ukraine where optical satellites are impaired by dense cloud cover and weather conditions. 

Umbra under the DARPA contract will demonstrate a technique known as bistatic collection. Monostatic SAR imaging is done with a single radar that has the transmitter and receiver collocated. Bistatic imaging uses two radars, one that transmits and receives, and the other that only receives. 

“We plan to build out the remainder of our constellation with pairs of satellites flying in tight formation to support bistatic collection and other combined operations that provide unique phenomenology,” he said. 

Umbra was licensed to deploy 32 satellites.

SAR data more accessible

At the 2023 GEOINT symposium, “you’re seeing a much bigger SAR footprint” due to commercial advances, Master noted.

“Keep in mind that the commercial SAR industry in the United States has really only been around for a few years,” he said. “Everybody’s seeing is sort of like a new emerging technology” although Europe and Canada pioneered it much earlier. What’s changed is that the data was prohibitively expensive and not really widely available.

DARPA wants to experiment with collection modes, Master said, making small system modifications in the satellites and collection techniques that commercial companies are working on. 

Another commercial SAR company, Capella Space, announced last month it demonstrated bistatic collection, which the company said, can help to avoid interference from radar jamming and to enable moving target indication techniques. 

“Bistatic SAR improves object imaging by capturing images from different angles which provides more information about the shape of the object,” which could have significant utility in military operations, Capella said. “A bistatic imaging geometry can enable radars to image structures specifically designed to reduce the more common monostatic radar signature, such as stealth aircraft.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...