NRO begins journey toward commercial data program of record

by

ST. LOUIS – The National Reconnaissance Office is preparing to survey commercial capabilities to provide various geospatial datasets as part of a long-term campaign to establish a new program of record.

After NRO Director Christopher Scolese announced the NRO’s plan to issue a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) to learn about commercial synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) datasets, Peter Muend, director of the NRO Commercial Systems Program Office, met with reporters to discuss the agency’s imminent plans for SAR as well as future plans for hyperspectral, lidar and RF data.

Through the BAA scheduled to be issued this fall, the NRO is seeking information from companies that currently acquire SAR imagery and data as well as firms that will “have some capability in the pretty near future,” Muend said. “We look forward to seeing how they do their modeling methodology and to start thinking through how that capability might fit into our larger hybrid architecture,” which includes government and commercial satellites.

As companies launch SAR satellites and begin to acquire new datasets “we’re going to be very interested to start receiving some of that data, to assess it and making sure that the quality lines up” with advertised capabilities, Muend said.

Startups or established firms that are not yet ready to share their plans for SAR and firms preparing to collect other types of geospatial data will have opportunities to respond to future BAAs.

“We’ll be putting out focus areas on a very routine basis, multiple times a year I would expect, with different focus areas,” Muend said.

For the first BAA, NRO will solicit information on SAR capabilities from U.S. companies, including U.S. firms with foreign ownership.

“Companies with U.S. subsidiaries would fall into that category,” Muend said. “Obviously, there are still security considerations to work through but it’s not going to be quite as limited to purely U.S. ownership.”

(That is an important distinction because the first commercial firm to establish a SAR constellation, Iceye of Finland, has a U.S. subsidiary in California.)

Once the NRO identifies promising commercial capabilities, the agency may provide direct funding to companies for work to satisfy unique government needs, Muend said.

NRO will work with other government agencies including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to conduct “formal quality evaluations” of the datasets to understand how they would fit into “government architectures,” Muend said.

Integration of the data for government users is likely to begin as a manual process, but transition to an automated fashion as the NRO begins establishing mechanisms to task SAR satellites to collect imagery.

Over the long term, this process is expected to help the NRO establish formal requirements for a new program of record. That program of record will be something that the community can “stand behind and budget for” over the long term, Muend said.

Future BAAs may focus on hyperspectral imagery, lidar and RF geolocation.

The BAAs are “intended to be a demand signal that says, ‘If commercial industry can provide capability there, we’ll be right alongside them as they develop their capability. Where and when that provides value to our mission we absolutely want to be there to purchase it and leverage that,'” Muend said.