Satellite imaging companies look for growth in data analytics

NGA’s Dave Gauthier said the agency has a growing appetite for new types of analytics services offered by the private sector

WASHINGTON — Satellites in space, operated by private companies, have helped governments and news media tell the story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With the momentum of these operations, the players in this industry hope to expand their business and sell not only images but also analytical products that pull trends and insights from raw data.

The main customer for these services is the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which last year a $29 million procurement of data analysis services over a five-year period and intends to increase purchases as companies develop new products, said David Gauthier, director of NGA’s Commercial and Business Operations Group.

The agency has traditionally relied on its own analysts to extract insights from images. But the NGA has a growing appetite for new types of analytics services offered by the private sector, Gauthier said Sept. 15 at the Intelligence & National Security Summit in National Harbor, Maryland.

Of interest are surveillance services performed by small satellites that take repeated image acquisitions at fixed intervals. The frequent, automated collections – and the analyzes performed with artificial intelligence and machine learning software – help to track changes and identify trends.

Industry can do this quickly, Gauthier said. “It reduces latency for us, it reduces the barriers to operational deployment and integration into our workflows.”

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Gauthier said NGA uses commercial services to monitor global economic trends, for example. “We buy automated detections that tell us things about infrastructure, roads, rails and building damage,” he said. “We buy automated detection to tell us about objects, cars, ships and planes.”

The data provides insights into activities that impact national security and the economy, such as illegal fishing, GPS jamming or the flow of methane gas, he said.

Earth monitoring and satellite imaging company BlackSky has won some of the NGA’s recent economic monitoring contracts. The company received orders totaling $13.8 million last year, BlackSky said Sept. 19.

“These awards underscore the growing demand for commercial AI-driven, real-time surveillance services that uncover economic activity in manufacturing hubs, major seaports and airports around the world,” BlackSky said in a statement.

Competitive advantage

Government and commercial spy satellites are proliferating, and the United States will face increasingly stiff competition in this space, said Frank Garcia, professional fellow for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

This should put pressure on US intelligence agencies to enter the commercial market to gain a competitive advantage, Garcia said at the INSS symposium Sept. 15. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, he added, are concerned the US government is not doing enough to encourage private investment in the industry.

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The House and Senate Intelligence Committees asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate these questions. The GAO in a report concluded earlier this month that “action is needed to make better use of commercial satellite imagery and analysis.”

One of the insights from the GAO report, Garcia said, is that a procurement organization is needed to work with industry to develop “a next generation of capabilities that will benefit commercial applications as well as government intelligence gathering and combat support.” will come”.

Garcia said one of the challenges is procurement bureaucracy, as intelligence agencies have shared responsibility for procurement. The National Reconnaissance Office operates the country’s spy satellites and is responsible for purchasing commercial imagery, while the NGA is responsible for analytical products and services. “It’s a tension that I don’t think has been fully resolved,” he said.

The NGOs in May 10-year contracts awarded to Maxar Technologies, BlackSky and Planet Labs to provide images. This creates “a certain stability,” Garcia said. However, he said, “You don’t want to be trapped for so long and miss out on opportunities that can arise very quickly… and miss out on the opportunity to onboard new entrants as innovations come.”

On Capitol Hill, he said, “members think it’s really important that we keep investing. And yet, when the budgets come in, we still see some level of underinvestment, which is kind of disappointing.”

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He suggested the government should share with industry a forward-looking spending plan for commercial imaging and analytics services that would likely boost private investment, Garcia said. “We’re trying to encourage administration to put that out.”

While NGOs are a major buyer of electro-optical imagery, agencies have yet to take advantage of the new types of commercial satellite data—such as synthetic aperture radar, radiofrequency mapping, and hyperspectral imagery—where the commercial market is immature. said Garcia.

HawkEye 360, a commercial provider of space-based radio frequency data and analytics, is one of the newer entrants, having seen growing demand for its services during the Ukraine war and is looking for longer-term, firm contracts.

James Doggett, vice president of mission assurance at HawkEye 360, said the US government has made it clear that it wants to work with commercial providers but doesn’t want to be the anchor customer, putting pressure on companies to look for business elsewhere.

For newer companies that don’t have multi-year contracts, “it can be existential if government demand falls,” Doggett said.

Lifelines are being sought in the export market, he said, but companies need help from the US government to navigate the interagency process and obtain export licenses. “And I think that’s a key area where the government can act as a partner.”

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