Profile: Stuart Shea, Chairman, U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation

L ack of advocacy wasn’t the problem that Stuart Shea sought to correct with the creation of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) in January 2004. A variety of professional groups were already lobbying on behalf of geospatial intelligence programs, but there was too little communication among members of the community, says Shea, who also serves as vice president of space and intelligence programs at Northrop Grumman’s TASC systems engineering support division in Chantilly, Va.

USGIF now serves as a forum for government, industry and academic officials to discuss national security issues and offer solutions based on the work of those individuals and groups, Shea says. It also has an education component.

USGIF has a speaker series that has included James Clapper, the NGA director; and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as an annual symposium.

The organization also has made educating college and graduate students who may enter the field another top priority. In addition to awarding scholarships , USGIF is developing and promoting curriculum guidelines and a voluntary accreditation process designed to help colleges and universities prepare students for a career in geospatial intelligence, Shea said.

USGIF is sponsoring a series of events beginning June 9, when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is scheduled to offer classified presentations and demonstrations at its Bethesda, Md., headquarters that highlight the capabilities and technologies the agency needs from industry. The following day, USGIF members will make unclassified presentations about technology that could help NGA as well as other customers.

“We intended to serve as a collection point for assembling needs identified by USGIF and the community at large, and provide insight regarding gaps between the geospatial intelligence needs and existing capabilities,” Shea said.

Shea talked about the current issues facing the geospatial intelligence field during a May 23 interview with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

How healthy is the commercial remote sensing industry right now?

It’s very healthy. Like any other industry it has gone through growth pains. There are some problems, but worldwide, it’s a very healthy market. We tend to think in the United States about DigitalGlobe, Orbimage and Space Imaging, but worldwide there are literally hundreds of these companies.

More and more people are using commercial satellite imagery, and this is driving the development of better processing and storage tools.

However, I would also suggest to you that the U.S. commercial imagery companies need a good strong kick in the pants if we want to see them develop improved satellites. The companies are healthy enough to continue in the business, but if we plan on using commercial satellite imagery in a stronger way for military operations and intelligence, the government needs to inject more funding.

NGA already has awarded several major contracts to commercial imagery firms in recent years. How much more money does the industry need?

There has been a lot of funding put into commercial imagery in recent years; NGA has been a real strong advocate on that. It would be hard to put a number on it, but I would suggest to you that it’s probably two or three times what it is today, annually. That doesn’t mean they can’t survive without it — I think they will survive.

Right now the big-ticket items are the ClearView and NextView awards from NGA. But more money is needed for the industry to have a strong business case to develop new technology and next-generation satellites.

What can the government do to become a smarter buyer of commercial satellite imagery?

I think the government should find a way to consolidate its purchases of commercial satellite imagery and re-examine its requirements because there are some unmet needs today that might be met in the future with satellite imagery. NGA is supposed to buy all of the imagery for the Defense Department, but in practice, the services sometimes buy products separately.

State governments also could consolidate imagery purchases, rather than having each local government buy products separately. This could help make satellite imagery more affordable for uses including planning new roads, and local governments are one example. When people want to build a new road, they take new aerial photography. Well, why don’t they use commercial satellite imagery? It has to provide the right kind of resolution, and be the right period of time, but we can work with them.

What are some other changes that would benefit the government’s geospatial intelligence work?

I don’t think we have enough emphasis on training.

There is no consolidated school in the intelligence community on the geospatial side. Yes, you do have the NGA school. But how do you deal with the training that they do at the Central Intelligence Agency, and how that differs from NGA? Or the U.S. Geological Survey?

A U.S. Army official recently said that service needs sharper wide-area imagery. What is the best way to address that issue?

The big push in both the commercial and government fields over the past 25 years has been for higher-resolution imagery. Everyone wanted to have one-meter resolution and high-fidelity imagery. Nobody really focused on broad area search responsibilities.

People have ignored broad-area imagery because things like Landsat and SpotImage existed. The commercial imagery providers are not necessarily going to focus on broad area because it costs too much money to launch a satellite without a large enough customer demand.

The business model has to support it, and right now, most military users are primarily interested in high-resolution imagery, not broad-area coverage.

What is it going to take to get broad-area imagery that is sharper than Landsat?

My sense is that the military provides about 10 or 15 percent of the funding for a commercial remote sensing satellite.

Then you need to find the other 85 to 90 percent of the buyers, and most of those buyers aren’t interested in an improved broad-area search capability, so you need to convince them that the improvement is a good thing.

What is the likelihood that the Pentagon would build better broad-area imagery satellites itself?

The military has not been the big buyer of broad-area imagery. It’s mostly been buyers in the civil areas like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Forest Service. Those have been the big broad-area users, but they can’t buy their own satellites — they don’t have the money to do it.

What can NGA do to make better use of unmanned aerial reconnaissance platforms?

There are lots of great unmanned aerial vehicles out there, but the problem is that NGA doesn’t own them. Those things are made for the operational warfighter, for imagery collection to support operational and tactical needs.

Eventually, I could see NGA developing its own air fleet, but that’s assuming they have the money to buy the platforms, and I think there are more efficient ways of doing that, like working out arrangements to gain access to existing systems. If the Air Force is buying X number of Global Hawks, add five or 10 more to the mix so that other people can take advantage of it.

What are some of the issues coming up in your forums?

We’ve been contacted by people who want to raise the visibility of cultural intelligence in our forums.

Cultural intelligence looks at the cultures that exist worldwide and how issues like religion and economics have been affected by geography and natural resources.

It looks at religious factions and asks why do they exist? Why do they have differences? To me, it’s the next evolution of mapping.

The Washington newspaper Roll Call, which covers congressional politics, reported in 2003 that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence had added $500,000 to the intelligence budget for 2004 to create your organization. Is that true?

No. The intelligence committee never gave us any funding. There was a staffer on the committee who is a strong advocate for geospatial intelligence, and wanted to see a tighter interaction between the industry and government. There was discussion about setting money aside for the foundation, but it was never approved or authorized.