WASHINGTON — The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is seeking information from the private sector on barriers encountered by commercial remote sensing data providers when doing business with the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. 

A request for information (RFI) published Aug. 21 asks companies to submit details about what obstacles they experience trying to sell products and services to intelligence and defense agencies. Responses are due Sept. 22.

“Over the past decade, the commercial remote sensing industry has grown rapidly, and it continues to introduce new capabilities, improved imagery quality, and enhanced revisit rates,” the RFI says. 

Although it is the policy of the United States to eliminate impediments to the timely delivery of space capabilities and accelerate the use of commercial capabilities, the RFI says, “frequently commercial industry encounters challenges to working with the U.S. government and spending on commercial analytic products remains relatively small compared to spending on commercial satellite data.”

The Director of National Intelligence, says the RFI, directed a study to examine ways to overcome barriers to use of commercial remote sensing, space-based data and analytic services in the intelligence community and the Department of Defense.

The RFI is intended to identify specific challenges encountered by commercial providers of data — including imagery and signals — and analytic services. “Information provided in the responses may assist in the identification and understanding of systemic barriers to the use of commercial overhead data and analytic products and may help develop solutions and inform funding decisions.”

Commercial remote sensing includes all forms of satellite imagery and also non-imagery derived geospatial information such as automated identification system (AIS) data, radio frequency-derived data and finished analytics and products. 

‘Step in the right direction’

A white paper released last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued that intelligence and defense agencies are not taking advantage of commercial remote sensing innovation to the extent that they could.

“The capabilities provided by commercial firms can be used to complement government space systems across a wide range of national security missions and fill in gaps in capabilities where the U.S. government has lagged,” the paper said. “The challenge for the military and intelligence community is understanding how to leverage commercial capabilities for military advantage.”

Todd Harrison, a co-author of the paper and currently managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights, said the RFI issued by the ODNI “is a strong step in the right direction.”

“They are asking all the right questions to better inform and recalibrate their approach to accessing commercial capabilities,” Harrison said. 

“It is also telling that this is coming from the intelligence community and not the military or the Space Force,” he added. “The IC is much farther along in accessing and utilizing commercial space capabilities than the military is, but the information they are collecting from industry in the RFI could certainly help the Space Force as it begins to get serious about leveraging commercial space remote sensing capabilities.”

Harrison said the ODNI through this process may conclude that agencies need to provide contract on-ramp opportunities more frequently, and work with Congress to ease regulatory and licensing restrictions that are holding back U.S. companies.

“Many of the commercial space capabilities that are of interest to the U.S. government are based on satellites with an expected lifetime of five years or less,” said Harrison. “If contract opportunities only occur every three years or so, and the licensing and ITAR [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] review process takes months or years to work through, that seriously impacts the ability of companies to effectively use the systems they are building.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...