Skybox Imaging satellite imagery of Washington. Credit: Skybox Imaging

WASHINGTON — Commercially focused satellite imagery firms that have emerged in recent years on a wave of Silicon Valley venture capital could gain a major U.S. government customer as early as 2017: the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

NGA Director Robert Cardillo has said in speeches this year that he expects the skies to “darken with hundreds of smallsats” and that the agency must be poised to take advantage.

May 4 brought evidence that Cardillo is taking the initial steps to put the agency’s money where his mouth is. In a request for information posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website, the NGA offered indications of how it hopes to work with these new companies.

The NGA’s responsibilities include setting requirements for national security imaging satellites, processing and distributing the data they collect, and procuring and distributing commercial satellite imagery for military and intelligence customers.

Currently, the NGA’s anchor commercial imagery provider is DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colorado, which operates five highly capable imaging satellites. DigitalGlobe has swallowed up its competitors from a decade ago, but now faces competition from a new crop of providers that are launching large constellations of relatively low-cost spacecraft.

Cardillo has specifically mentioned Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, California, which is being acquired by technology giant Google; Planet Labs of San Francisco, which has launched scores of imaging microsatellites to date; and BlackSky Global of Bellevue, Washington, which is completing demonstration satellites. Many of these companies, Skybox included, are not expected to fully populate their constellations until late 2016, which fits with the NGA’s timeline.

“Multiple new commercial remote sensing satellite operators are building constellations of small satellites that provide a wide diversity of imaging capabilities,” the NGA solicitation said.

Robert Cardillo
Robert Cardillo, director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Credit: NGA

While the newcomers do not offer quite the same imagery quality as DigitalGlobe, they can provide more-frequent revisit times via larger constellations, along with novel capabilities such as full-motion video.

These new capabilities have captured the attention of the NGA. More-frequent revisit rates, for example, could improve and expand the types of data products and services the agency could provide, such as predictive analytics.

In the solicitation, the NGA said it is looking for new imagery, imagery-derived analytic products and “machine-to-machine interfaces with commercial imagery providers.”

“NGA is willing to consider alternative creative or unconventional solutions and architectures to satisfy its commercial GEOINT capability requirements,” the document said.

The request for information is part of what the NGA calls its NextGen Tasking Initiative, in which the agency is studying and developing new ways to collect, process and disseminate commercial, unclassified data. Cardillo has said in testimony and in speeches that he envisions an expanded mission and potentially higher profile for the NGA, particularly in supporting disaster relief efforts. He has cited an Internet-based map created by the NGA to aid relief workers in the Ebola stricken regions of West Africa.

The solicitation said the NGA is open to alternative contracting schemes including having one or more companies serve as a focal point for procuring commercial geospatial intelligence data, an arrangement that is similar to the Defense Information Systems Agency’s use of integrators to acquire commercial satellite bandwidth. The request also encouraged Web- and cloud-based solutions.

Responses are due June 3. Any formal solicitations as a result of the request for information likely would come in fiscal year 2016.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.