NGA developing commercial buying guide for satellite imagery

The agency's new "commercial supplier matrix" is intended to help intelligence analysts and other users sort through a growing mountain of space imagery.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is building a commercial buying guide for its partners across the defense, intelligence and federal community, as the agency increasingly turns to commercial sources for imagery analysis and other geospatial intelligence.

Dave Gauthier, director of commercial and business operations at NGA, said the “commercial supplier matrix” will help match users who may need airfield monitoring, for instance, with the best service available to them.

“The intent is for my organization to have the best information or knowledge about all these capabilities out there in the supply side,” Gauthier said during an interview on “Inside the IC.” “And then take the requirements we get from our users and do the best we can at orchestrating and matching commercial supplier solutions to the needs of our users.”

NGA is leading a shift toward turning to commercial sources of GEOINT as “primary sources” of intelligence, as opposed to internal, often highly classified capabilities. The shift is spelled out in NGA’s latest commercial GEOINT strategy released in the fall.

With so much commercial imagery now available, Gauthier said NGA is also making a “fundamental shift” toward commercial analytic services, rather than just trying to obtain imagery and other rawer forms of intelligence for its analysts.

“It’s this idea that companies themselves, either the imagery providers or in partnership with analytics companies, will work to extract information from imagery, and provide us what I like to call the box scores instead of the game tape,” he said.

Intelligence analysts also have new forms of intelligence, termed “phenomenologies,” available to them on the commercial market beyond imagery, including radio-frequency information, social media feeds and other Internet-derived data.

“With so many different types of suppliers, and so many opportunities to pull in these services, we really have to provide a catalog of capabilities to our user community,” Gauthier said.

The platform’s initial release is intended for intelligence, defense and federal civilian agencies, but some aspect of it could be made available to the public, he said.

Gauthier said the platform is currently in testing.

“It’s still being built in [and] populated today,” he said. “We do have a community of beta testers to help us understand and make sure we’re answering the questions and can anticipate the questions that those users would have when they want to research this information for their own decision making.”

Commercial-first strategy takes hold

NGA’s commercial-first strategy represents a “monumental shift” for the intelligence community that has traditionally relied on government systems to glean information about the Earth, Gauthier said. NGA has been using commercial capabilities since the first companies formed the market in the 1990s and early 2000s, but typically as secondary sources.

“For the past 20 years, our philosophy, our culture has been one of augmenting what we do internally with some additional information that can be procured from the commercial market,” he said. “And so it’s always been government systems as primary source with augmentation from commercial capabilities as we could.”

Many commercial satellite operations started out to monitor agricultural operations or to search for opportunities in oil and gas. Now NGA is watching as satellite companies begin to fill a void for information about where to put solar farms, or provide imagery for urban planners developing schematics for smart cities.

“We’re also looking at a large upsurge in funding for climate and environmental projects around the world,” Gauthier said. “So there are some companies who are fully funding satellites based on charitable contributions that are interested in climate change. And so those are all very new investments that are also propelling our market forward.”

Beyond traditional satellite imagery, NGA is closely watching the radar imaging market, Gauthier said. The National Reconnaissance Office recently awarded contracts to five commercial synthetic aperture radar vendors.

“We will be seeing hundreds of radar imaging satellites go up over the next two or three years,” Gauthier said. “And so we’re really structuring some of our contracts to take advantage of that and bring that information into our analytic users hands every day.”

Gauthier estimated more than a quarter of the imagery NGA takes in today comes from commercial vendors.

“I foresee that number getting to 50%, and that’s where we might be able to say, ‘Now, we are predominantly using commercially provided data,’ as soon as we cross that threshold,” he said.

Bailment agreements grow

One way NGA has been testing out commercial capabilities is through the use of “bailment agreements.” The arrangements give the agency a chance to take temporary possession of a company’s imagery, analysis or other service at zero cost, so it can determine its utility and provide feedback to the vendor.

NGA has completed nearly two dozen bailment agreements over the last few years, and several companies have now won operational contracts with the agency, according to Gauthier.

“We’re trying to try out these goods and services,” he said. “If they’re not ready, they get feedback on how to make them more ready for government contracts. And then once they are, they’re in there competing with everybody else to win business.”

NGA signed 12 bailment agreements in 2021, and Gauthier expects that rate to continue in the years ahead.

“I think that’s sort of what we’re on pace to do every year, is to keep bringing in new actors into this competitive space, and ensure that we can get the types of services we need to satisfy mission,” he said.

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