For NGA Director, Torrent of Commercial Imagery Presents Opportunity and Challenge

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Profile | Robert Cardillo
Director, U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency


Making Sense of it All

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and its legacy agencies grew up on a trickle of government furnished, classified imagery from a small number of highly capable satellites.

Today, the NGA is witnessing a largely commercially driven explosion in satellite imagery sources that promises to turn that trickle into a torrent. The question now is how best to take advantage.

30-cm to 70-cm resolution
An interactive graphic on DigitalGlobe’s website illustrates how WorldView-3’s 30-centimeter resolution imagery compares to 70-centimeter imagery. Credit: DigitalGlobe screen capture

The NGA has long been an anchor customer for relatively high-resolution commercial imagery provided by DigitalGlobe. But the agency’s service-level contract with DigitalGlobe, which has a multibillion-dollar value over 10 years, is not necessarily the right model for dealing with the likes of Skybox Imaging and Planet Labs, venture capital funded companies that are deploying constellations of tens or even hundreds of small imaging satellites.

Robert Cardillo, a 30-year veteran of the satellite imagery business who took the reins of the NGA last year, is embracing this brave new world, even if he remains unsure of its implications for the agency.

One change that is already manifesting itself, owing largely to the unclassified status of commercial imagery, is an expanded mission and potentially higher profile for the NGA. In one recent example, an Internet-based map created by the NGA to aid relief workers in the Ebola stricken regions of West Africa quickly garnered 1 million page views.

Cardillo, who previously was responsible for providing the daily intelligence briefing to U.S. President Barack Obama, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.


In late March, you testified before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee in open session, marking the first time an NGA director has done so. Is this evidence of a more transparent NGA?
I hope it is. Much of what we do today still needs to be discussed behind closed doors so as to not inform threats to change behaviors. But the fundamentals of our business? The application of geospatial services across the board? I think you’ve seen me speak to my pride about what we were able to do in West Africa at a completely unclassified level. No username. No password. It’s what I believe to be a growing part of our business. The commercial revolution, explosion, is just affording us to have those conversations.

Skybox Imaging and Google
Credit: Skybox Imaging

How can the recent explosion of commercial interest in space-based digital imagery help NGA?
I couldn’t be more pleased. With the Google purchase of SkyBox, some of my colleagues are nervous. “Hey, Google is moving into your space.” I see it completely differently. Oh my goodness. How excited we should be that Google is moving into our space because think of the innovation; think of the application; think of the new ways of looking at it.

How do you see the NGA taking advantage?
In many ways, I don’t know. And I’m OK with “I don’t know” right now. There’s a lot to be learned here on both sides. Let’s face it: these companies are learning daily. We’ll learn with them. We are embarking now on a project with our colleagues at In-Q-Tel to help us further understand where the market is and where it’s going. There’s a whole lot of learning ahead of us.

Generally speaking, how has the operating environment changed since you started out in the intel business?
An image from space was a luxury. It was quite difficult to obtain. We’re moving into a new era, quite quickly, with the advent of these companies and sources of imagery. We’re talking space now but all sources have expanded. And the challenge going forward is whereas previously I couldn’t get coverage, now I can’t get coherence. How do I make sense of all of this data and this imagery and these sources? In the Internet era, this is the new problem. You could easily get overwhelmed with it. Data that could create insight could also create noise and confusion. I couldn’t be more excited about the path we’re on.

How might the proliferation of low-cost imagery change the the way the NGA approaches its job?
This agency exists to create additional understanding, additional insight, and additional opportunities to mitigate threats for our customers. The way we do that, historically, has been a presentation of the historic record placed into current context and then projected as far as we can, anticipating an actor’s next move. That’s still going to be our value proposition. The mindset — and I believe it is a mindset challenge as much if not more than an information technology challenge — is one in which I need my analysts to think more holistically about their intelligence topic or object of interest. The more we can persist over a target, the more we can understand it, the more we can detect patterns. I would argue that the ultimate value we should be providing is anticipation. What does that pattern mean that we have seen for the past day, week, month, year. How does that project become an opportunity for a decision-maker, a threat to a warfighter, a safer passage for a navigator.

As sources change, how will the NGA balance buying raw satellite imagery versus buying value-added intelligence products and services?
Look, I couldn’t be more proud of our partnership with DigitalGlobe and if you look at the way we contracted for those services and the way we were able to derive government-wide benefit from our expenditure, I think it is a best practice. For the most part, what I described is a data model. That’s what we wanted. DigitalGlobe is a great partner. I believe we’ll always need to procure both services and data from the commercial vendors, but I believe over time the overall weight will shift toward services. I can’t give you a percentage today. It’s related over time.

What does that mean for your commercial providers?
I just see us purchasing less data. You’ve just imaged that area 10 times, 100 times or 1,000 times during a certain period. I’m much more interested in changes, evolution, patterns, etc. — the derived benefit of all those images. We are pursuing those types of engagements with our colleagues on the industry side and we’re doing more in the future.

You’ve said demand for geospatial-intelligence services is increasing. How do you measure that?

Ebola virus
Colorized transmission electron micrograph if the Ebola virus. Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith Courtesy of U.S. Centers for Disease Control

I have some examples of where the growth is occurring. West Africa and Ebola would have never hit our zone of interest or attention 10 years ago for sure, maybe even five. The world is changing and our sources are changing. But I would also observe that expectations of our customers are changing. Whereas we have a rich history and are deeply proud of our legacy of support we’ve provided to those in military uniforms — and by the way that continues today and will continue in the future — we’ve now got a much smaller, shorter and recent history of supporting people in medical uniforms.

How does the proliferation of commercial imagery providers affect that new role?
I expect that success will raise the demand going forward. I’d also say these companies are going to pursue their own value proposition. They exist for a reason — to create great value, real value for their shareholders. That’s going to continue. I think our friends on the commercial side are going to expand my business case, my value proposition.

Where might that expansion happen?
Environmental issues. The Arctic. Areas where we likely would have not been involved in the past.

How does this change what your analysts do?
It opens it up. It gives us opportunities to see and understand problems in a different context than we had before. To the extent that our minds were wrapped around government-owned and classified sources, that narrows your way to think about a problem. Another way that we’re stretching our mindset is through a program we call the Geoint pathfinder.

What is that?
My intent there is to take a group, kind of my early adopters, and set them aside. What I’d like to use them for is to provoke some new ways of thinking. How could we better use this growing unprotected data? We should be seeking access to all sorts of unprotected data sources. It isn’t data for the sake of data. It’s data to create insight, understanding and coherence. We’ve just kicked that off. It will play out for the next couple of months. As we create a best practice, we’ll port that over. I’m using the pathfinder to instigate and to shake a little bit of our historic reliance on protected sources.

What is your message to the new breed of commercial data providers?
My first message to them is “thank you.” Seriously. As far as guidance, I don’t really know how I’m going to work with them. But one, I have interest. And two, I need their partnership. I’m asking them to be constructively provocative with us. We’re a bureaucracy and the federal government has very particular rules on engagement with industry.

Can you be a bit more specific?
We don’t have to be dependent on the three-year, hundreds of millions of dollars, months-long if not years-long competition contracts. We’ll need those for certain services. But I’ve got to a find a way to be much more agile. So I’m thanking them and I’m telling them that we are very open to their ideas and likewise we’d like them to be open to ours.

You mention agility. What does that mean from an acquisition standpoint?
What I’ve asked NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon to do is create, and to provoke and to prompt some conversations we haven’t had in a while about agile contracting and agile servicing mentality. I think we’re going to have to figure out how to do smaller quicker. I think we’re going to have to figure out how to shift data to services. I think we’re going to have to figure out — I will follow every federal regulation and rule — how to be more responsive.

Does the NGA have agreements in place to take advantage of satellite data from international allies?
Not just governments, but industry and nongovernmental organizations have to work together to tackle these complex problems. The challenges of today don’t affect just one nation — Ebola, ISIS, safety of navigation — are all multinational, even global issues. I cannot speak to the details of our international relationships, but I will say this: I’m happy to speak with anyone who honestly and earnestly wants to partner.