The NGA’s new imagery-buying initiative could benefit federal agencies far outside the intelligence community

Each year, federal officials ask the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for nearly twice as many satellite images, maps, charts and other data products than the 16,000-person combat support and intelligence agency can provide.

Today, most of NGA’s imagery comes from commercial satellite imagery pioneer DigitalGlobe and an undisclosed number of spy satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office. But as a wave of commercial satellite startups prepare to launch scores of image-gathering satellites, the NGA is looking at how the entire federal government — not just the intelligence community and the military — can take full advantage of a gathering tide of new offerings.

“We’re about to enter a brand new space age, the likes of which the world has never seen; and because of it, the planet itself will be more visible than ever in history,” NGA Director Robert Cardillo said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. “Imagine the Earth, seen as millions of daily 1-meter slices, with common access by everyone to that imagery. So we have to leverage the unclassified community far more than we ever have before as an intelligence agency.”

Around the same time as Cardillo’s Vegas speech, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper quietly tasked the NGA and the NRO to form a joint task force to study the rapidly evolving satellite-imagery marketplace and make sure the U.S. is positioned to take full advantage of what new entrants have to offer.

Clapper wants the NGA to develop new acquisition strategies for commercial data, evaluating exactly what capabilities emerging providers can offer, and determining whether the intelligence community’s IT infrastructure is ready to handle the coming data tsunami.

Although Clapper’s initiative is only just getting going, the NGA is already working with the General Services Administration — the federal government’s lead purchasing agent for readily available goods and services — on a new contracting initiative that, in a best case scenario, would make buying commercial imagery as easy for an agency as purchasing software licenses for Microsoft Office.

The program is called CIBORG, the Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT, and beginning next year it would give government agencies — from the Department of Agriculture to the Defense Intelligence Agency — a way to supplement the NGA’s current offering by chipping in their own money to buy additional imagery from emerging commercial providers using NGA contracting agreements.

John Goolgasian, director of the NGA's source operations management directorate. Credit: Tim D. Miller

John Goolgasian, director of the NGA’s source operations management directorate. Credit: Tim D. Miller

“This is a radical change” for these government agencies, said John Goolgasian, director of the NGA’s source operations management directorate. “It turns the economics completely around.”

As a new commercial imagery providers emerge, teams at both NGA and the NRO are seeking opportunities for the intelligence community. At the NGA, this has meant meeting with more than 25 companies — some of which Goolgasian acknowledges have yet to raise outside capital — to learn about the mix of must-have and nice-to-have capabilities these firms hope to supply to intelligence agencies. In addition, the NGA has tapped the non-profit Mitre Corp. to work with a select handful of emerging providers for a closer look at how the intelligence community could use some of the promised capabilities.

The U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, which works closely with the NGA, recently identified Terra Bella, Planet Labs, UrtheCast and BlackSky Global as the front runners among emerging satellite imagery providers vying for paying customers.

“We would welcome a program that enables NGA and the broader U.S. defense community to access new imaging space capabilities such as what BlackSky will be able to provide,” said Rakesh Narasimhan, executive vice president and general manager of BlackSky, a Paul Allen-backed venture. The company is poised to launch its first satellites — a pair of tiny spacecraft built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Services around a 1-meter-resolution imager supplied by Harris Corp. — aboard India’s PSLV rocket in July. The full 60-satellite constellation, expected to be on orbit in 2019, offers a rapid revisit capability attractive to the NGA.

Terra Bella, the Google-owned company formerly known as Skybox Imaging, has had two full-motion video satellites on orbit since 2014 and hopes to deploy upwards of 20 next-generation satellites by the end of 2017. Planet Lab, which like Terra Bella has a Silicon Valley address, has launched since 2013 more than 130 cubesat-based satellites — many of which were deployed through a small airlock on the International Space Station — capable of collecting 3-5-meter resolution imagery. UrtheCast has two Earth-facing HD video cameras mounted on the space station and two satellites — .75-meter-resolution-capable craft launched in 2014 and an older 22-meter-capable craft — that came along in the Vancouver company’s 2015 acquisition of Spain’s Deimos Imaging. Urthecast plans to deploy 24 more satellites in the near future.

With all this potential new capacity coming down the pike, the NGA — which has pumped billions of dollars into DigitalGlobe through anchor-tenancytype contracts — is wrestling with what role it should it should play in relation to this new wave of upstarts.

Goolgasian said one of the first steps is developing a new contracting approach that fits the evolving marketplace and allows the NGA to work with multiple providers. The NGA doesn’t “have enough dollars to do everything,” he said.

“Do we want to have a $100 million contract with each of them? First of all. we don’t have the money, but probably not,” Goolgasian said. “A lot of them aren’t looking for us as major customers anyway. They’re looking at us as a customer, not the customer.”

In evaluating current and promised capabilities, the NGA has found it could put almost all of the data to use — a point in favor of working with multiple providers. Another advantage: buying from multiple providers insulates the NGA — and its customers throughout the U.S. government — against all manner of setbacks, notably business failures, spacecraft anomalies and hostile attacks.

The NGA and GSA could award its first CIBORG related contracts as early as next year. Goolgasian won’t say how much money NGA is prepared to put behind this effort since U.S. intelligence agency budgets are classified, but he said there is money for the effort in NGA’s 2017 budget with larger amounts planned for 2018-2022. “It’s real money,” he said. “It’s not a few hundred thousand dollars.”

An industry day is planned for June.