Satellite imagery startups to challenge Maxar for big government contracts

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The NRO is ready to start buying products from new vendors and move beyond the single-supplier arrangement with Maxar Technologies.

SAN ANTONIO — The talk of the industry at this week’s geospatial intelligence symposium GEOINT 2019 was the National Reconnaissance Office’s friendly outreach to commercial suppliers of satellite imagery that for years have felt shut out of the market.

A year after taking over the responsibility for buying commercial satellite imagery from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the NRO is ready to start buying products from new vendors and move beyond the single-supplier arrangement that NGA signed nearly a decade ago with DigitalGlobe, which has recently been rebranded by its parent company as Maxar Technologies.

Maxar is now the NRO’s sole supplier of commercial satellite imagery under the EnhancedView contract, which NGA inked in 2010 with two companies — DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. By 2012, government spending cuts forced NGA to slash its imagery budget by half. EnhancedView subsequently was reduced from more than $7 billion to about $3.5 billion, which led to the merger of the two companies under DigitalGlobe.

Now, the NRO pays $300 million a year for access to Maxar’s WorldView-1, WorldView-2 and WorldView-3 satellites and its image library under the program it renamed EnhancedView Follow-On. EnhancedView was originally a 10-year deal set to expire in 2020. When the NRO took over the management of the contract, it added three yearly options worth about $300 million a year.

NRO officials said extending Maxar’s options until 2023 gives the agency sufficient time to transition to a new procurement while continuing to buy imagery from Maxar to ensure there is no disruption in supply.

Troy Meink, director of the NRO’s geospatial intelligence directorate, announced June 3 that the agency in 2020 will start a new procurement that will include multiple companies. To begin the process, it awarded one-year contracts to Maxar and two other suppliers — Planet and BlackSky — to allow the NRO to study the companies’ products and gain insight into the projected size and capacity of their satellite constellations.

The NRO calls these “study contracts” because the information they receive from vendors will be used by the agency to examine the companies’ abilities to task, collect process and deliver satellite imagery. “These are major efforts to start working with vendors that traditionally we have not, to figure out how they can deliver product and best meet the requirements,” Meink told SpaceNews in a June 3 interview. “We are trying to understand how we can use their capability. Licensing is always a big deal. That’s part of the study phase. How could we license that data?”

Meink said the opportunities for new players will be significant because the NRO expects it will need more imagery than it currently acquires from Maxar, which means it is likely to spend more than $300 million annually. Meink declined to say how much more.

A newly created Commercial Systems Program Office at the NRO will oversee the procurement of imagery. The office’s director, Peter Muend, said that after the one-year study phase, the NRO will start planning large procurement awards in late 2020. “We see a dramatic increase in commercial requirements. That means we’re going to be buying a lot more commercial imagery than we have in the past,” he said June 4 at GEOINT.

While the NRO will acquire the imagery, the NGA will continue to buy the “value added” services and analytics after the imagery is purchased, Muend said. “We are just buying the pixels.”

Muend said the NRO has an important relationship with Maxar but “no single provider can meet all of our needs. We’ll be on contract with multiple providers in the future.” Maxar will remain a key provider, he said. “We’re very much eager to continue to move forward with them but also add Planet and BlackSky, and others beyond that.”

Planet and BlackSky were selected because they are able to provide products now whereas other companies have plans to offer imagery but can’t yet, Muend said. As the industry matures, the NRO will be open to bringing in more vendors.

The study contracts will be a chance for Planet and BlackSky to actually show they are viable competitors. “We want to make sure there’s truth in advertising,” Muend said. Both companies have sold imagery and services to the government under narrowly scoped contracts, but the NRO needs to see whether they are able to satisfy the agency’s more ambitious demands.

The NRO will model the companies’ capabilities and analyze how their imagery would be integrated into the agency’s ground systems architecture that will combine commercial and government imagery. The NRO also will examine the companies’ business plans “so we have confidence in their projections of what they’re going to build in the future,” Muend said.

In the first part of the study contract, the companies will demonstrate their imagery collection abilities. The second part is more complex and requires the companies to deliver imagery to “user specified downlinks.” This would show whether they are capable of providing imagery to military forces in war zones, for example, which operate tactical ground terminals. During a conflict, the military would need imagery quickly and would not want data to pass through the corporate enterprise architecture.

The study contracts will “lay the groundwork for the future,” said Muend. The plan is to focus first on optical imagery. The NRO will consider procuring other data sources from commercial vendors such as synthetic aperture radar, he said, when those products are available.

New competitors

Both Planet and BlackSky are commercial players that have been eager for a shot at the biggest imagery buy from the U.S. government.

When BlackSky was formed in 2015, several of its employees were GeoEye and DigitalGlobe alumni, including chief technology officer Scott Herman. “We’re made up of people from the national security community that support national security missions,” Herman told SpaceNews. “We see that as our primary and first vertical that we really want to focus on.”

At the same time, BlackSky is rapidly building a commercial business. “The government wants us to have a commercial business,” Herman said. “They don’t want us to be solely dependent on the government.”

Based in Seattle, BlackSky is owned by Spaceflight Industries, a space services firm. BlackSky has two Earth imaging satellites in operation and plans to have eight in service by year’s end, Herman said. The company’ long-term goals are to deploy 30 satellites by 2023, and possibly 60 in the years after, depending on the market demand.

BlackSky supplies high-revisit imagery but primarily sees itself as a provider of global monitoring and alerting services that combine pictures — taken by its own satellites and other companies’ satellites — with other sources of intelligence such as social media, news and other data feeds. “We are not just a satellite company,” said Herman. “We build satellites to support our global monitoring.” BlackSky’s foreign military customers have described the company’s service as “NGA in a box,” Herman said.

San Francisco-based Planet has been making modest inroads into the defense and intelligence market. In March, the NGA renewed its third contract since 2016 with Planet, extending the agency’s subscription access to daily imagery over select areas of the Earth.

“We’re excited” about the NRO contract, Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Planet, said in a statement.

Schingler and other former NASA scientists founded Planet Labs in 2010 with the goal of providing universal access to satellite Earth imaging. It makes small, low-cost satellites and operates the world’s largest constellation of commercial imaging satellites, with 140 currently in orbit.

The head of Planet’s federal business, Jen Marcus, told SpaceNews the company is developing new analytics products using artificial intelligence, and is upgrading satellites with new cameras to satisfy demand for higher resolution pictures.

Marcus said the company will remain primarily a commercial business but does want to increase its footprint in defense and intelligence. In the future Planet is looking to become a vertically integrated imagery and analytics company, said Marcus. “We think there’s a big value and efficiency in vertical integration.”

Despite the competitive pressures from new players, Maxar executives said they are confident the company will remain a key provider of imagery to the U.S. government. “For nearly 20 years, Maxar has been a trusted partner of the U.S. government,” Maxar CEO Dan Jablonsky said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the NRO as they increasingly adopt commercial imagery.”

Tony Frazier, Maxar’s executive vice president of global field operations, told SpaceNews the company has committed $600 million to building a new constellation of satellites, WorldView Legion, that would be smaller and image the Earth at faster rates than its legacy spacecraft. Legion will start launching in 2021 in anticipation of future government demands for high revisit imagery, Frazier said. The company has not yet revealed how many satellites it will build, although an FCC filing indicated it would be as many as 12.

Culture change at NRO

The commercial imagery procurement is viewed as a sign of a cultural shift at the secretive NRO. Meink said a desire to buy products from the market instead of developing government-owned systems is just common sense, given the massive investments made by the private sector in satellites and launch vehicles.

Muend said the NRO is changing but not radically. “When we first assumed responsibility for commercial imagery some folks worried that we wouldn’t do it justice,” he commented. “I feel we have done the right things. We are having a deliberate discussion to make sure we buy commercial imagery everywhere we can, and only build national systems where commercial systems don’t exist.”

There is a real effort to increase openness in “how we interact with providers,” said Muend. The agency will be watching developments in the industry as it figures out a procurement strategy for commercial imagery and other types of data. “We’re operating on the information that we have now,” said Muend. “We recognize that what we’re setting up now is not the final answer.”