ST. LOUIS – The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency plans to conduct an annual assessment of commercial satellite imagery like the Olympic-themed evaluation the organization conducted earlier this year.
“Over the next four to five years, we expect to see 500 remote sensing satellites each year launching into space,” Dave Gauthier, director of NGA’s Commercial and Business Operations Group said Oct. 7 at the GEOINT 2021 Symposium here. “That’s going to be a massive change in the capacity and the types of capabilities we can get commercially.”
The Olympics inspired Gauthier’s staff to present the findings of their first commercial imagery assessment as gold, silver and bronze medals for nations with the top offerings in nine categories: panchromatic resolution, electro-optical persistence, shortwave infrared, synthetic-aperture radar (SAR), SAR persistence, mid-wave infrared, video, multispectral imaging and hyperspectral imaging.
While many in the intelligence community were well aware of the leading role foreign firms played in gathering commercial imagery, the results of the first annual evaluation produced some surprises.
“We expected Maxar’s Worldview-3 system to have the best resolution in the world and it does,” Gauthier said. We expected Europe to be the leaders in SAR, as they have for many decades. And they do.”
The competition revealed, however, that Finland’s Iceye offered the world’s highest SAR revisit rate and U.S. company Capella Space offered the highest SAR resolution.
“The smallsat SAR community is shaking up the game,” Gauthier said.
Another surprise was “just how fast China proliferated their low Earth orbiting electro-optical constellations,” Gauthier said. They have great video systems. They’ve got high revisit rates.”
One more surprise was Argentina claiming the gold medal for multispectral imagery thanks to Satellogic.
Gauthier stated that it was important to have allies and partners to help you complement your strengths with those of others.
The competition also showed that since everyone can obtain commercial imagery and data, the advantage will come from turning data into analytic insights, Gauthier said.
The Olympic medal results shocked some U.S. policymakers who thought U.S. companies led the world in acquiring Earth imagery, Gauthier said.
After seeing the standings, many policymakers asked NGA officials how they could help U.S. industry win the global Earth-observation competition. Gauthier stated that the Intelligence Community Commercial Space Council was addressing this question.
NGA officials, meanwhile, are figuring out the most efficient way to obtain new commercial datasets and to turn them into analytic services. The unified document will contain their conclusions and outline the U.S. government’s commercial geospatial Intelligence strategy.
A primary component of the strategy will include the “need for unification of our efforts to improve efficiency and effectiveness in approaching the market,” Gauthier stated.
Also highlighted will be the need to “increase the adoption of these capabilities into our intelligence production and use them as primary sources in producing intelligence for the warfighter,” Gauthier said.
“We won’t get there overnight,” Gauthier cautioned. This is a shift in mindset that says, “You don’t need to have a national or classified source to produce intelligence reports. He said that you can have a commercial source, and that can be used as a primary source of production.
It also will take time for intelligence analysts to become accustomed to turning to commercial sources first, Gauthier said. He said that commercial data is not classified, so reports made with it are easier to share and may be easier to combine with other datasets.”
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