Troy Meink,who leads NRO’s Geospatial Intelligence Directorate, discussed the intelligence agency's commercial imagery acquisition plans at the 2019 GEOINT Symposium in San Antonio. Credit: SpaceNews/Sandra Erwin

This article was updated June 3 at 2:51 p.m. to correct Peter Muend’s title. He is director of NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office.

SAN ANTONIO – On the first day of the 2019 GEOINT Symposium here, the National Reconnaissance Office announced three contracts, whetting everyone’s appetite for more information on how the agency plans to acquire commercial satellite imagery for the U.S. defense and intelligence community. At the direction of the Director for National Intelligence, NRO is taking over the acquisition role previously performed by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

As part of the transition, NRO awarded a $300 million contract with options in September to DigitalGlobe, now known as Maxar Technologies, to continue the Enhanced View program. Through the new contract, Enhanced View Follow-On, Maxar will continue to provide the U.S. government with priority access to imagery from WorldView satellites and the company’s digital archive.

Days before the GEOINT Symposium, NRO awarded contracts to BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet to study how to obtain the imagery and data the firms collect. If the studies proceed as expected, NRO will award procurement contracts to the companies within six months to a year. Troy Meink, who leads NRO’s Geospatial Intelligence Directorate, and Peter Muend, director of NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, discussed the agency’s plans to acquire commercial imagery June 3 with SpaceNews staff writer Sandra Erwin and SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.

You made news today with the study contracts awarded to BlackSky, Maxar and Planet. Meink: The requirements we get from NGA, who gathers them up for the entire Department of Defense and intelligence community, significantly increased for commercial class capability. After we moved the DigitalGlobe EnhancedView contract over, the first thing we did was start looking to add additional companies that had existing capability to offer. We went through a process and picked Planet and Blacksky.

BlackSky and Planet are companies that we haven’t previously worked with. DigitalGlobe has been a long partner of the U.S. government and they have a fantastic capability. The contract looks at how we will work with them in the future on some of the new capabilities that they’re bringing.

What’s next in terms of acquiring imagery?
Meink: The next step will be to look at the companies that are a little bit further out, that don’t have capability to offer right now. As you can imagine, a number of them came over and talked to me today. Probably in the next six months or so, we’ll be looking to go out and explore contractors that may not have some capability in 2020, but maybe in 2022 or 2023. The next step is to start looking at the next generation coming on line.

Will you acquire imagery through commercial contracts or traditional defense procurement?Muend: We’ll have to wade through that. It will be whatever best meets our needs.

As far as value, years ago NGA spent $7 billion for commercial imagery. Will contracts be in that range?
Meink: We expect our investment in commercial in total to increase going forward. As you can imagine with the increase in requirements, there’s going to be an increase in the cost. But the idea is to go out to the industrial base and foster a little competition but also take advantage of some of the new commercial companies. The key thing is these companies are all very different. They have different business cases and they’re probably all going to require different contracting approaches and licensing approaches to get full utilization of their capability without totally changing how they do business. We don’t want to be heavy handed. We don’t want to come in and dictate how they’re going to operate and lose the essence of these small commercial companies. We’re trying to be very flexible. I would expect to see different types of contracting depending on the company and what’s best for them and us.

Are you saying contracts will be worth billions?
Muend: I would rather talk about it in terms of requirements. Requirements are dramatically increasing.

Meink:  I can’t say where those previous numbers have come from. But given what we spend today in commercial, we expect it to increase. And I don’t see an end in sight. I don’t see that in five years we would all of a sudden say, “We don’t need commercial anymore.” We expect that trend to continue because the requirements were being asked to meet are growing.

Muend: It does fit into a much larger architecture that we’re trying to address seamlessly to create something that leverages the best of what commercial can bring to the table. Obviously we’ll keep building systems as well to meet the entirety of the government’s needs.

What is NRO’s role with respect to commercial satellite imagery? And is it limited to imagery? Companies are offering RF signals detection.
Meink: I see our role with commercial imagery the way I see our role across both the imagery and the signals intelligence NRO does. We essentially are an acquisition organization. We develop, procure and operate space systems to support national and military users. We do that now and we have done that for NGA.

The director of NGA is the functional manager for GEOINT. NGA gathers up requirements across the national and DoD communities, validates those, gets agreement and hands those off to us. We go off and procure the system. Whether it’s a unique government system or these new commercial capabilities that we’re bringing online, it’s really the same role for the NRO.

Why did NRO take over commercial imagery acquisition?

Meink: That’s essentially what we do for everything other than commercial right now. DNI directed NGA and NRO to do this. A lot of it had to do with procuring it in a more integrated and efficient fashion. The belief was that we could do that in a more integrated fashion between the unique national systems and commercial systems. The NRO is an acquisition organization. That fits in our wheelhouse.

What are the challenges and opportunities in this transition as you go from NGA acquiring it to NRO acquiring it?
Meink: The single biggest challenge was making sure there was no break in the continuity of capability. That was the key thing. We’re through that. That’s really a testament to how well NGA worked with us and how well Congress worked with us to make this transition. As you can imagine, there’s shifting of resources between agencies, which Congress gets involved in.

The opportunities are to try to more closely integrate it with the trades going on with the larger GEOINT architecture that includes both the classified and unclassified, how we trade capabilities and better utilize more of a commercial capability that’s coming online. We’re doing that. You see that with the recent awards.

What is the purpose of the new study contracts?
Meink: The study contracts are to start working with the vendors on what product they have now and what they could be bringing online. These companies are very dynamic. They are bringing on new capability all the time. We are working with them to define all the way from tasking, to getting the data, to getting it to NGA and disseminating it to the users. We’ll look at the best contracting and licensing approach. It might be different with the different vendors. They have very different kinds of capabilities that probably warrants a different licensing and/or contracting structure. That’s what we’re going to be working through. But the end goal is to get through that and award procurement contracts, which would start bringing in the mainline capabilities from those companies to start meeting the requirements that NGA passed on to us.

You mentioned getting a lot of responses to the Request for Information (RFI) for commercial imagery. That must’ve been interesting.
Meink: It was. The dynamic nature of some of these smaller startup companies means their offerings change rapidly. Halfway through the process, some of them called us up and said, “We are no longer in that business. Maybe we’ll work with you in the future.” That is a very different environment than we’re used to working in. We realize that’s the nature of working with these small startup companies. That’s going to happen. We just have to incorporate that into our strategy and realize some of them are going to pan out and some of them aren’t. We’ll take advantage of the ones that do. Both Planet and BlackSky have been very good to work with, very flexible. We’re pretty excited about getting them on contract.

For commercial imagery providers, how will working with NRO be different from working with NGA?
Meink: We are an acquisition organization. I’m sure we do things slightly different than another agency within the U.S. government. But in the big picture, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of difference. Some of the companies haven’t worked a lot with government, let alone NGA. We’re trying to be very flexible in how we work with them and bring them online so we are not upsetting their business plan. The government could be potentially a big customer for these companies. We want to make sure that we don’t re-vector them away from their commercial business model.

Are there any things companies that want to work with you should do like avoid foreign investment?
Meink: There are always concerns along that line. There are some policy restrictions on what we can do and who we can work with. That is one of them.

Muend: I would recognize this is an international marketplace. Investment is one thing, but in terms of commercial international sales it is a worldwide enterprise, as it should be. That’s part of being a viable business.

Meink: In fact, the more product they sell, the better for us. If they are leveraging the larger customer base, the U.S. government gets a better deal on the products.

What should a company do if they want to show you some product or potential product?
Meink: We put out an RFI primarily focused on capabilities that exist today. We’ve made those awards. We will be going back out probably in the next six to 12 months in either an RFI or maybe a [Broad Area Announcement] to solicit additional ideas for capability that’s not available in 2020 but is a little bit further out. We want to give those companies an opportunity to engage with us. We can potentially start working with them depending on what they have to offer.

We focused initially on electro optical. That’s primarily because that’s where most of the commercial capability is. We will potentially be looking at some of the other phenomenology: radar or other imaging capabilities.

One of my questions was about if you could say anything about how much money you plan to spend on commercial imagery. Before your speech today, you were introduced today as someone with a $15 billion budget?
Meink: I don’t know what that refers to. It could be a long-term, unclassified GEOINT summation of budget that we probably can’t talk about the specifics on. Maxar did announce the Enhanced View Follow-On contract was $300 million a year. That was in their press release.

You don’t disclose the actual budget numbers?
Meink: No.

What are your responsibilities at NRO?
Meink: We’re responsible for the research, development and delivery of all GEOINT imaging systems and supporting operations of those systems. All of the national assets and with this transfer of authority, all the commercial systems as well. We’re responsible from basic research and development all the way through development, operations, then supporting operations until the end of life of the systems. Other parts of the organization do day-to-day operations of those satellites.

Depending on the system, how you go about it is very different. The commercial systems will be different than our unique national systems. But again, our authority is to essentially work with the contractors, procure that capability and deliver that into NGAs libraries for distribution to the rest of the community. The NRO also does that for signals intelligence systems. I do it for GEOINT systems. The other part of the NRO does it for signals intelligence systems.

You said the cost of launch coming down is a significant development because it opens up new architectures for NRO. Does that mean you’ll be developing new constellations like low Earth orbit, small satellite-type constellations?
Meink: Potentially, yes. The price of getting on orbit had a tendency to drive us to very large, very capable satellites, both commercially and the government. It was so expensive to get to orbit, you have to take full advantage of that launch by putting as much capability as you could on a rocket. It had a tendency to drive you toward very large satellites but fewer numbers within whatever architecture you were building. That [price] has dropped by a third or even more for the larger rockets. We’re now around a hundred million or so. And it’s not just the new entrants. ULA has been the historical launch provider and their costs are coming way down, too.

With the smaller commercial launch companies, you may get down below $10 million for a launch. That change in a launch paradigm has opened the door to new architectures. In the commercial world, you see some proliferated communications systems and proliferated imagery systems. We’re obviously exploring that.

It’s not just that. I mentioned the new digital technology that’s come out of a massive investment in miniaturization. Combined with the lower cost launches, that is really opening up different architectures. We have to take advantage of that. As Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats articulated a number of times in the Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intense competition from a number of foreign countries is what we are seeing. For us to maintain our capability, we have to innovate more rapidly than we have done. That means we have to work with a lot of this new technology, figure out how to get it into our systems and then also how to leverage the new commercial companies that are coming online. That’s the focus of what we’re doing going forward with our acquisitions, trying to take advantage of some of the new technologies but also some of the new commercial partners that are coming online.

NRO is known for accepting minimal risk in its launches. Would new launch vehicles bring greater risk?
Nobody wants high-risk launch vehicles, whether it’s the Air Force, the NRO or civil space. The good news is that launch costs are coming down even for very reliable launch vehicles. We’re going to take advantage of that. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. In everything we do, we have to make sure that we deliver the capability we’re directed to deliver. We can’t take any risk in doing it. That’s different than saying, “I can’t take any risk at the individual satellite level.”

With some of the more proliferated constellations, you may be able to have a higher failure rate because if you lose one out of ten, it’s not as bad a day as if you’re losing one of two. As we go to these proliferated architectures, we can build that ability to take risks into that acquisition strategy so that we can leverage some of the more advanced technologies or disruptive technologies to deliver capability that’s needed. We can have failures within the constellation that are acceptable and almost planned-in from the beginning. There are some areas where you can do that. You can proliferate. You can take a little bit more risk at the satellite level because you’re building more of them and you can manage that. On other missions, physics still dictates what we can and can’t build. In some cases, we will need larger and more expensive satellites and more capable rockets to launch those. We’re still going to need reliable rockets.

BlackSky is advertising satellites you can task to get you information within 90 minutes. Is that a hypothetical example of the type of thing that could be done with this new approach?
Meink: The answer is yes but I’ve got a couple of caveats. If that capability exists in the commercial world and we can go procure it, we’re not going to build it ourselves. If I can go to Planet and BlackSky and buy that kind of capability, I don’t need to build that on the government side. I’m only looking at building things that are unique, we can’t buy commercially or for some other reason the government needs to have special controls. In general, if we can get it from a commercial company, we’re going to do that.

We can make those kinds of architectural trades. If I can buy a commercial system, I can focus my unique systems on the unique things that government needs to do for national security. Those are the kind of efficiencies that we’re working right now. One of the things you’re getting at as well with that question is the flexibility to task and get the data rapidly. That’s critical.

Whether it’s a unique government capability or a commercial capability, the ability to streamline the upfront tasking, streamline the collection and streamline the processing using a lot of the automation that we’re working with NGA to leverage from commercial world is one of the critical things we’re trying to do. Whether it’s commercial or with the classified systems, we need to do that to support the requirements from military and national intelligence.

Anything else that you want to talk about?
Meink: The key thing is not just the collection piece, the satellite piece, but working with the community on how you do the tasking, having an architecture on the ground to catch the data, process it and get it out quickly to the users. That is just as important as the satellites. We’re spending a lot of time at the NRO working with NGA to do that to meet the requirements, which include dissemination of data in theater as well as back here in the U.S., to give that flexibility for the users to get access to it regardless of where they are.

The ground is not something you should be thinking about after the fact. Space systems are unique that Kepler orbital dynamics control you to some degree. If you’re collecting data here, you’re probably going to have to download the data someplace else. How you tie that together on the ground and in space is critically important to closing the timeline. That has to be an integral part of what you’re doing. Some of the new technology gives us flexibility. It used to be buildings to process data. The new compute power and digital stuff allows us to do processing on the satellites and then in smaller locations than we have in the past. But integrating that all together, including both the national and the commercial data to support the users, is critical. We’re spending a lot of effort focusing on that as well.

Are you a customer of the Amazon ground service?
Meink: We’re not. We’re looking at that, though. That’s interesting. The U.S. government does use Amazon web services, cloud services. We still run our data over commercial fibers. We encrypt encrypted the data, commercial or otherwise. I know Amazon has come and talked to us.

Muend: I would add security and information assurance is a big part of everything that we do. For good reason. Meink: All the companies we work with are aware of that. That applies to commercial as well as our national systems. How they handle the data is important. Cybersecurity and all those sorts of things. Whether you’re a U.S. national system or a commercial system, you have to take that into consideration because obviously there are those out there that are looking at it.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...