ST. LOUIS — The exploitation and analysis of satellite imagery and geospatial data to understand activities on Earth historically has given the United States a huge intelligence advantage. That lead is now shrinking, requiring the United States to step up its game, a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency official said Oct. 5.

“Over the past few years, the world has begun to experience seismic changes in its threat and technological environment, putting our decision advantage at risk,” Cindy Daniell, NGA’s director of research, said in a speech at the 2021 GEOINT Symposium.

NGA is a U.S. intelligence agency that analyzes geospatial data in support of the U.S. military, allies and homeland security organizations. 

Daniell said the agency is now focused on accelerating innovation by working more closely with the private sector and making it easier for geospatial technology players to do business with NGA. 

“We will need to expand our partnerships with all sources of innovation in the commercial space,” she said. 

NGA has launched several initiatives to team up with non traditional national security companies, “which are no less innovative than their larger counterparts, but may not have the necessary expertise to navigate the government contracting system or gaining close closer understanding of our problem set and technology needs,” said Daniell.

One of the most recent initiatives is a startup accelerator program based in St. Louis where NGA is building a $1.7 billion campus known as NGA West. The new facility is being designed with unclassified workspaces to facilitate collaboration with commercial businesses and universities. NGA in July opened the “Moonshot Labs,” a commercial-like workspace in downtown St. Louis.

The first cohort of startups was selected in April, and a second group of eight was recently announced for the second accelerator. 

“This enables the government to train non traditional solution providers, assess novel commercial solutions to specific geospatial problems, and simultaneously expand and foster the geospatial innovation base,” she said. 

A top priority is innovation in data analytics, said Daniell. “We need to leverage advances in artificial intelligence, particularly machine learning.”

Another effort deals with how NGA writes its broad area announcements (BAA) to industry. In February it launched the “Boosting Innovative GEOINT Research BAA” that lays out areas of interest as a “level entry point for all of industry,” Daniell said. “We are striving to make it easier for businesses to work with us.”

Moonshot is NGA’s buzzword to convey a sense of urgency. NGA Director Vice Adm. Robert Sharp kicked off the moonshot initiative to hammer home the message that the United States is in a geospatial intelligence arms race and that a concerted effort is needed to win.

Daniell noted that the United States for decades was the overwhelmingly dominant geospatial intelligence power and that reality is rapidly changing.

Outside the United States, “few countries and a handful of companies had access to space lift and space based sensors,” she said. “Cracks in this monopoly started appearing over the last decade, with the dam bursting over the last few years.”

New entrants into the market have taken advantage of smaller satellites, faster data processing and cheaper space lift for commercial and government clients, Daniell said. “As a result, high quality, timely, and cross phenomenology data is now available to a whole new set of consumers.” At NGA, “our analysts need help sifting, cataloguing and prioritizing the data before they can even begin to understand it.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...