WASHINGTON — Members of the House Armed Services Committee in a report last week expressed support for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s use of commercial satellite data. They also asked NGA for details on its plans to integrate commercial data and services into “base programs of record.”

“The committee notes that the domestic commercial satellite imagery industry continues to develop rapidly with new capabilities available from constellations of satellites dedicated to daily monitoring of the entire planet along with a growing domestic geospatial intelligence analytic industry,” said the report by the HASC strategic forces subcommittee.

The congressional language reflects concerns by remote-sensing space companies that U.S. defense and intelligence agencies are not adopting commercial products and services at the pace and scale they hoped. 

Images collected by commercial Earth-watching satellite tracked the movement of troops after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and helped document the toll of the conflict. NGA was at the center of U.S. government efforts to tap commercial providers of satellite imagery to fill the demand.   

The conflict has been a prominent use case for commercial imaging satellites and their power to deliver crucial intelligence. But that has not translated into growing demand for imagery outside of the Ukraine crisis, noted David Gauthier, former director of NGA’s commercial and business operations 

Gauthier, who is now chief strategy officer at the consulting firm GXO Inc., said companies are concerned about the “lagging adoption” of commercial imagery and analytics services by U.S. intelligence and defense agencies. 

“What’s happening in Ukraine is special and it should be a benchmark for all other U.S. combatant commands in areas where the warfighter needs to operate with the benefit of open source intelligence and commercial remote sensing,” Gauthier told SpaceNews.

“My take on this is that the commercial market developed capability faster than the government could react to it,” he added. “Investors put money in, and companies expect the government to purchase more imagery and other commercial data and services faster.”

NGA and the National Reconnaissance Office are the industry’s top customers. The Space Force also has indicated interest in buying more commercial imagery and data analytics services. 

The NRO awarded large contracts to Maxar Technologies, BlackSky and Planet for electro-optical imagery. Commercial remote sensing from space has rapidly expanded into other phenomenologies, like synthetic aperture radar (SAR), radio-frequency (RF) mapping and hyperspectral imaging. 

About 20 companies in the SAR, RF and hyperspectral imaging sectors have signed agreements with the NRO to conduct experiments. 

“These companies have small dollar study contracts, and they are all waiting in line for the big programs to deliver data to the U.S. government,” Gauthier said. 

“The NRO has done a good thing by getting out in keeping pace with industry on study contracts. But they’re not following it up with large programs,” he said. “So this is a huge concern for the industry that’s now out on a limb, that has created capacity believing there would be a way to sell that at scale. And so far, there’s nothing in the budget to show us that can happen.”

The concern is notable in the SAR sector, considering that radar became the breakout remote-sensing technology of the Ukraine conflict because it can see through clouds.

“Commercial SAR is making huge headways,” Gauthier said. “And we have study contracts for it, but there’s no significant budget in either the NRO or the Defense Department to actually put commercial SAR in at the scale that will be necessary to sustain our industrial base and to deliver it to the battlefield for mission effects.”

Jason Mallare, vice president of government programs and strategy at Umbra, a commercial operator of SAR imaging satellites, said this nascent sector of the industry is reliant on government support. 

“The U.S. commercial SAR portion of the industrial base is at a critical tipping point and the U.S., as the world’s largest consumer of SAR data, has a need and an opportunity” to take advantage of domestic capabilities, Mallare said in a statement. “We are working closely with the NRO, NGA and the DoD to make sure the warfighter and taxpayer can benefit from the investment and technology that is presently available.”

Startups need revenue

Transitioning from research projects to revenue-generating contracts has been a challenge for startups in this sector, said John Serafini, CEO of HawkEye 360, a commercial provider of space-based RF data that works primarily with U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

“I think the U.S. government writ large has gotten very good at early stage research, development, testing and evaluation engagements” with industry, Serafini said June 15 at the Defense One Tech Summit.

“There are plenty of RDT&E programs out there” sponsored by agencies like the Defense Innovation Unit, AFWERX and In-Q-Tel, he said. 

“But sometimes they’re doing RDT&E projects for the sake of RDT&E projects,” Serafini said. “They’re not doing it for the sake of actually bringing it through the contracting process to deliver a fully embedded fielded capability to the warfighter.”

Meanwhile, “young companies are desperately seeking access to revenue to showcase validation for investors,” he added. Small business innovation research contracts are not going to help companies survive, he added. “They’re not building fully tested, ready-to-go products that can go out to the warfighter and support the analysts.”

Some pockets within the government, however, are getting “pretty good at understanding that transition paradigm,” Serafini said. “They come with transition partners before they start the RDT&E engagement, they come with transition money and earmarks ready so when the technology does successfully scale, they can build programs of record.” But that is usually the exception, not the rule, Serafini noted.

Industry executives speak June 15, 2023 at the Defense One Tech Summitt in Washington, D.C. Credit: Tony Frazier

Tony Frazier, executive vice president and general manager of Maxar Public Sector Earth Intelligence, said some government agencies have adopted “buy commercial first” approaches but changing the culture takes time.

Speaking at the Defense One Tech Summit, Frazier said NGA is looking to expand the Economic Indicator Monitoring (EIM) program where commercial companies compete for data analytics task orders. 

Some military organizations are seeing the value of commercial data analytics, said Frazier. The Navy, for example, subscribes to Maxar’s vessel detection service. “They’re not buying pixels, they’re trying to understand illegal fishing activity and share insights with allies and coast guards.”

Interest in commercial services is growing, he said, “but it just takes time to transition a mission that historically has been done in house.”

NGA plans to start a new program, called Luno, that will be modeled after the EIM program but with a broader scope. The plan is to use commercial monitoring services to track global military and economic activity.

Gauthier said he expects Luno to be a “substantial contract for commercial analytics services of many types.”

“This is good for the remote sensing industry because they not only can sell imagery into the NRO, and potentially imagery into the Space Force, but then they can also sell analytics to the NGA, combatant commands or any warfighting element that needs answers instead of raw data.”

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...