U.S. military and homeland security organizations rely on the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) for critical data that commanders use to make decisions on the battlefield or in domestic emergencies.
Amid a surge of commercial sources of geospatial intelligence and data services, NGA is pivoting from its traditional reliance on government-owned data and is moving to take advantage of private sector capabilities, says David Gauthier, director of NGA’s commercial and business operations group.
Based in Springfield, Virginia, NGA is responsible to meet the geoint needs of national security agencies. Two years ago, the National Reconnaissance Office took over from NGA the job of acquiring commercial satellite imagery. But it’s up to NGA to buy the analytics services needed to make sense of the data.
Gauthier spoke with SpaceNews staff writer Sandra Erwin about NGA’s growing needs for commercial data and services.
How is NGA planning to tap into commercial geoint?
We are recognizing that commercial geospatial services and data are growing much larger than just overhead imagery. So we’re now looking into non-traditional sources of data — anything that provides a location of activities, objects or events. We are also asking the commercial vendors in our industry to gather multiple sources of imagery.
For example, we’re noticing more vendors using radio-frequency mapping capabilities to provide information that we can consume more directly in our analytic processes. We want commercial industry to develop automated imagery exploitation algorithms, and to bring multiple sources together so that we can get a stream of information or daily feeds, and activity updates that feed our national security algorithms.
As new requirements emerge, we pass our community needs to the NRO and work together to evaluate what the commercial companies can provide.
What do you see coming out of the commercial industry that is exciting to NGA?
We are finding it very interesting that there are a lot of companies offering services and solutions beyond traditional imagery. We are seeing a rapid growth in smallsat SAR (synthetic aperture radar) capabilities. We see hyperspectral imagery coming along with analytics services. So I think there’s a huge appetite for diversity of raw geoint data sources and for more innovative products and services across our users.
Long term, we want to open the aperture as wide as we possibly can, and reach beyond our traditional means to provide unique insights that wouldn’t normally be attainable from imagery alone. We recognize now that we don’t have to be the ones putting our eyes on raw imagery to make sense of what’s happening around the world.
What are some recent contracts NGA has awarded for geoint analytics?
I would call the contracts we’ve awarded experimental or small scale. NGA signed an agreement with BlackSky as part of a “broker platform” program where we ask the company to provide us access to a larger group of companies that they partner with.
Under this program we have asked BlackSky for a significant amount of commercial SAR services and imagery and they’ve subcontracted that from Ursa, a reseller of multiple SAR constellations’ services.
We’re trying to get a taste of what all of the SAR vendors are able to do from a collection standpoint and bring that to our analysts. We’re doing that to address a number of user needs in U.S. Southern Command.
Another example is a contract we awarded to [data analytics provider] Altamira for ocean surveillance and tip-offs of illicit maritime traffic activities in the Southern Command area.
Any concerns you have about commercial services?
The whole market for analytics is still relatively immature. We certainly see this as a growth area we’re asking the industry to work on and propose more services to us.
But we don’t want companies to only rely on government work for their sustainment. Even though there is a huge demand for SAR capabilities, there are more SAR companies and more industry capabilities than could be supported by the U.S. government alone.
We want companies to be vibrant and in a competitive market that sells to a lot of sectors. SAR will be an interesting one. There’s a lot of demand but also a lot of supply and we’ll see what happens.
Are there any services NGA needs that are not currently available?
I think that we’re not finding enough of what I would call market-ready analytic services that directly integrate into our analytic workflows and feed our automated models and algorithms.
In areas like target monitoring and maritime domain awareness, for example, we’re interested in global activity alerting so we can predict unrest or other developments. So we’re looking for more offerings in these areas and the markets are still immature or slow to develop.
Why are these products not maturing fast enough?
One factor might be that some of this requires analytic companies to go get data from multiple providers and create their own value-added algorithms and services. And that requires a high degree of business partnering which is difficult in a competitive growing market.
Fusion of data can’t be done with government imagery because it’s classified. The proliferation of commercial imagery is allowing enough capacity and enough collection for companies to do this themselves — develop their own training data, create algorithms and sell the results.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 14, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.