DHS Demand for Satellite Imagery Falling Short of Industry EXpectations

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Like the Indian Ocean tsunami before it, Hurricane Katrina has validated the importance of high-resolution satellite imagery in responding to natural disasters, but the market for using this type of data before the fact to mitigate or even prevent certain calamities has not taken off as quickly as some industry officials had hoped.

In addition to providing the dramatic before and after shots to illustrate the extent of the devastation wrought by Katrina, commercial imaging satellites were instrumental to the planning of recovery operations, according to industry officials. These same officials said commercial imagery also can be an important tool that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can use before disasters — either natural or man-made — strike.

Although DHS is using imagery for applications such as border surveillance and port security, operators of commercial imaging satellites are not seeing the spike in homeland security-related business they had expected in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s very, very below expectations,” said Jim Youker, executive director for North American and federal sales at Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo. Space Imaging operates a satellite capable of taking pictures with 1-meter resolution, which is sharp enough to discern ground features of that size or larger.

Youker declined to quantify Space Imaging’s expectations versus actual sales in the homeland security market.

Chuck Herring, a spokesman for imaging satellite operator DigitalGlobe of Longmont , Colo., agreed that sales have not met expectations, but said that will change as DHS authorities begin to understand the benefits satellite imagery can offer. “From our perspective, business has been a little lower than expected, but I think that’s across the board for any tech companies in that realm,” Herring said. “There are obvious applications … so we do expect that to grow.”

Currently DHS uses some commercial imagery for advance planning, according to Bill Schuster , chief operating officer of Orbimage of Dulles, Va., another U.S. competitor in the satellite remote sensing arena. Satellites have photographed U.S. harbors and borders, both considered potential entry points for terrorists and their materials, he said. Imagery also is being used to plan emergency evacuation routes and pinpoint key facilities such as hospitals, he said.

Schuster declined to say whether homeland-security sales have met Orbimage’s expectations, but agreed that the market has great potential. “The applications there are enormous,” he said.

Youker identified port security as one area where commercial satellite imagery is still underutilized. “Looking at all of the navigable waterways along the coastal areas, the charts are not based on satellite imagery,” Youker said. “They haven’t charted … all the obstructions and the hazards that exist.”

DHS spokesman Kirk Whitworth declined to answer questions for this story.

Part of the problem, according to Youker, is that DHS, a patchwork of federal agencies and departments stitched together after the Sept. 11 attacks, does not have an overarching program for coordinating purchases of satellite imagery. The Pentagon, the largest single consumer of commercial satellite data, has such a vehicle in the ClearView program.

Under the ClearView program, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which processes and distributes imagery products for the military and intelligence community, is prepared to spend up to $500 million through 2007 on data and related services from DigitalGlobe, Orbimage and Space Imaging.

ClearView was in fact the contracting mechanism the NGA used to obtain imagery used in the Katrina relief effort. The imagery flowed from the NGA to relief organizations including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, industry officials said.

A ClearView-type program might serve DHS’s needs, Youker said, but a more horizontal approach in which the department’s various divisions can take the initiative might be even better.

“I think it’s very difficult to put that many people together in one organization [DHS] and get a direction for what they want to do with their geospatial architecture, and how they want to get together and share and distribute information,” Youker said. “I think there needs to be an overarching enterprise which allows for distributed centers of geospatial intelligence, which would be connected and have protocols for sharing the information versus waiting for a top-down hierarchy to emerge.”

Another problem, according to Herring, is the lack of a clear understanding at the DHS about how satellites stack up against other image-gathering platforms such as aircraft. The two are more complementary than competitive, he said. “There are things we can do that they can’t when you have a natural disaster,” he said. Satellites, for example, are not subject to overflight restrictions and certain weather-related complications, he said.

“As people understand the utility of the imagery, we do feel that market will grow,” he said.