Commercial geospatial startups: beware the valley of death

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WASHINGTON – Commercial firms continue to develop innovative geospatial products, which leaders of defense and intelligence agencies say they are eager to adopt. But it’s not easy for those products to make their way into day-to-day operations of those agencies, according to panelists at the Satellite 2020 conference here.

Even if a startup wins a study contract from the National Reconnaissance Office or National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, “there is still this valley of death that leads to operations,” said Josef Koller, senior systems director for the Aerospace Corp. Center for Space Policy and Strategy, and a former senior space policy advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

U.S. government agencies face many challenges in ingesting commercial datasets related to funding, information technology and cybersecurity, added Chirag Parikh, Microsoft Azure space lead.

“There is a broad gap between what [government officials] are professing at the policy, regulatory and legal side of things about embracing these new forms of geospatial intelligence and the truth about getting that information,” said Parikh, former director of NGA’s office of sciences and methodologies. “That is the difficult part. If you’re a startup company, how do you show your value to the end user in the government?”

U.S. intelligence agencies have faced similar challenges in the past. After President George W. Bush directed the government to establish a process for licensing commercial remote sensing space systems in 2003, it took years to get data flowing from commercial startups to people making decisions based on the latest intelligence, Parikh said. Initially, commercial data was reserved for “low-priority mapping-type work,” he added.

The problem of ingesting new geospatial datasets is more daunting now because startups in the United States and around the world are creating a variety of geospatial products with data drawn from synthetic aperture radars, hyperspectral and thermal infrared sensors, and radio frequency detection tools.

“There are people who have open arms to bring this in,” Parikh said. “But there is hard work that still needs to be done.”