Commercial Collaboration: NGA, NRO Discuss Commercial Imagery Ambitions

Commercial imagery efforts push missions forward

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For 20 years, the GEOINT Symposium has been a living, breathing symbol of the vital partnership between government and industry. GEOINT 2023 in St. Louis is no exception—which was evident Monday afternoon at the Government Hub, where a moderated discussion in front of an industry audience underscored the continued value of commercial imagery to federal buyers at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Titled “IC Commercial Imagery and GEOINT Programs,” the 30-minute discussion featured Frank Avila, acting director of the Commercial Operations Group within NGA’s Source Directorate, and Pete Muend, director of the Commercial Systems Program Office at NRO. Together, they discussed how their agencies are making continued use of commercial products and services to advance their respective GEOINT missions.

“We’re out there discovering all of the great commercial solutions that the companies here are developing, we’re assessing those solutions to get an idea of the quality and utility to our mission, and then…[we’re looking at] how do we get those solutions into our environment and integrated with our tools and our capabilities,” Avila said.

According to Muend, the government historically has been most interested in commercial electro-optical (EO) imagery. To that end, NRO in May 2022 announced the results of its Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) contract. The government’s largest-ever commercial imagery contract effort, it awarded contracts to BlackSky, Maxar, and Planet—valued at $4 billion over the next decade—to acquire commercial EO imagery on behalf of the Intelligence Community (IC), the Department of Defense (DoD), and the federal civil sector.

“We’re very, very proud about how that process went and providing the bulk of support to and through NGA to the user community,” said Muend, who noted that NGA and NRO are quickly opening their apertures to accommodate new and emerging types of imagery even as they continue to voraciously consume EO products. “Commercial industry is always moving forward. It’s always innovating. It’s always bringing new capabilities to the front—things that, frankly, we didn’t even contemplate even as recently as a year or two ago.”

Among the most exciting commercial offerings on the horizon, for example, is hyperspectral imagery. In fact, NRO already has awarded six hyperspectral contracts just this year, Muend noted.

Avila is especially enthusiastic about the potential for commercial hyperspectral imagery. “It’s exciting to see that the frontier is now evolving and opening,” he said, citing use cases such as environmental monitoring. “Climate change is a big area that we’ve been starting to look at.”

Of course, hyperspectral also will have military applications, such as material identification. “One of the areas where we’re looking at where industry can go is: Along with the imagery, you’ve got to have the spectral library to be able to do that material matching. It will be interesting to see how industry begins to evolve that,” Avila continued. “Right now, every phenomenology—electro-optical, multispectral, hyperspectral, SAR (synthetic aperture radar)—is basically one…puzzle piece, that we can add to the big puzzle. We’re excited to see what this new puzzle piece is going to bring.”

Other future areas of opportunity could include commercial infrared and non-Earth imagery, as well as commercial radar imagery.

“We do have five total contracts…right now with radar providers,” Muend said. “The broader community…is working through a process right now to see what the next steps are—how we formalize that need and go forward. But I do see a continuing demand for commercial radar in the future, and if it forms into a program of record I look forward to competing and awarding that. Regardless, we’ll be buying commercial radar over the long term.”

Despite the government’s hunger for commercial imagery, there are challenges it must overcome in order to continue satiating its appetite. For example, both Muend and Avila acknowledged the need for tools and processes in the areas of cybersecurity, data lineage, and data trust.

And also, data storage—which is why NGA increasingly is moving from buying commercial imagery to buying commercial analytics services, according to Avila.

“What we’re really interested in is buying the insights—the knowledge—that can be generated and gathered from all of the information that’s out there,” he concluded. “Anticipating and knowing the volume of data that we’re going to be getting in the future, what’s a smarter way to handle all of that? Focusing on those insights is one way to go.”

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