SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla. — The remote sensing industry has a long tradition of seeding the market with giveaways of satellite imagery to selected researchers, non profit groups and non governmental organizations. Now GeoEye of Dulles, Va., has taken the unusual step of setting up a foundation specifically to manage its giveaways.

The GeoEye Foundation will decide which universities or groups should receive the free imagery, which will be drawn mostly from the archive of fine-resolution photos taken by GeoEye’s Ikonos satellite. The foundation will track how much imagery is given away, and listen to feedback about the imagery’s utility . A nine-person panel of GeoEye employees will oversee the foundation, said Mark Brender, the company’s vice president of communications and marketing, who will lead the foundation.

It might take GeoEye six months to formally establish the foundation as a tax exempt 501 (c)(3) company, said Brender. In the meantime, the foundation has begun operating as an internal company foundation.

Brender cautioned that the company is not opening the floodgates to free data. GeoEye plans to work only with “top-notch” universities and non governmental organizations, he said.

The company is in discussions with four universities: George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.; the University of Texas at Austin; the University of California, Berkeley; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass.

The foundation’s goals are philanthropic but not purely altruistic. The projects will be aimed at advancing GeoEye’s marketing , public relations and overall strategic goals. For example, GeoEye’s largest single customer has been the U.S. national security community, and for that reason GeoEye is sometimes misperceived as purely a defense contractor, Brender said. The foundation will seek to draw attention to the importance of satellite imagery and data to other disciplines, including global warming research, disaster response and urban planning, he said.

“The foundation will balance those perceptions and bring additional good will to the company and the company’s brand,” Brender said.

One of the foundation’s first projects already is under way. GeoEye has provided three fine-resolution Ikonos scenes of Jerusalem for use by participants in MIT’s Jerusalem 2050 project. MIT has challenged scholars and business leaders around the world to propose ideas for making the disputed city in Israel a “pluralist, just, and sustainable city shared by Palestinians and Israelis.” The five winners of the Just Jerusalem Competition will receive fellowships to MIT to continue working on their ideas, said Diane Davis, an MIT professor of political sociology and director of the Jerusalem 2050 project.

Davis said the satellite imagery will give competitors a detailed view of Jerusalem’s disputed borders and neighborhoods. “Here, we are using the satellite imagery in a very emancipating way,” said Davis. “What does Jerusalem look like as whole?” she said.

The MIT project is just one of many that could tap GeoEye’s 278-million-square-kilometer Ikonos archive, Brender said. Adding value to that archive, which Brender described as under utilized, is one the foundations’ main goals.

Airborne imagery from M.J. Harden Associates, a unit of General Electric purchased by GeoEye March 15, also might be used by the foundation in some disaster-response initiatives, Brender said.

The foundation also might ask universities to assess the quality of imagery from the company’s new GeoEye-1 spacecraft after it is launched later this year on a Delta 2 rocket, Brender said.

Global warming researchers might find data from the company’s existing OrbView-2 satellite valuable for determining the ocean’s role in storing carbon in the form of chlorophyll , Brender said. OrbView-2 maps phytoplankton and algae in the oceans mostly for commercial fishing companies that use that information to find fish.

The foundation has just begun assessing those and other opportunities. “I’m taking it on a go-slow approach because we don’t know how to gauge the level of effort it’s going to take,” Brender said.

By working closely with universities, Brender said, the company also hopes to identify the most talented students and recruit them to work for GeoEye.

GeoEye was formed in January 2006 when Orbimage of Dulles purchased Ikonos-operator Space Imaging of Denver. GeoEye continues to operate Ikonos and also the OrbView-2 ocean-color satellite. The company’s OrbView-3 satellites recently lost the use of its imaging camera, but a new satellite, GeoEye-1, is scheduled for launch later this year.

The idea of establishing the foundation had percolated within the company for months, Brender said.

“Now that GeoEye is just over a year old, and we’re planning to launch GeoEye-1 later this year, we thought that now’s the right time,” Brender said.