The National Reconnaissance Office has announced three new contracts to purchase more commercial imagery for the Intelligence Community.

The NRO awarded contracts May 31 to BlackSky Global, Maxar Technologies and Planet that will allow the agency to study the satellite imagery capabilities of the three companies and determine whether they will meet government requirements. The values of the three contracts were not announced. The NRO announced the deals June 3.

A key part of the study will be determining the extent to which the NRO — which is in charge of operating reconnaissance satellites for the government and providing satellite data to the broader intelligence community — could license and use the data received from the companies. Troy Meink, director of the NRO’s Geospatial Intelligence Directorate, declined to lay out all the agencies that would have access to the commercial data, but he did state that it would be more than just the NRO and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

“This is just the first step. We figure within the next 6-12 months, if all goes well with these initial contracts, we will be awarding procurement contracts,” said Meink.

Maxar has been providing imagery to the national security community for close to a decade, but this would be the first commercial imagery contracts with the NRO for BlackSky Global and Planet.

The intelligence organization hasn’t always been in charge of obtaining commercial satellite information.

“Traditionally, we’ve just supported the national agencies. This is a little bit of a new role for us,” said Meink. “We are kind of the procurement arm of NGA when it comes to satellites and satellites procurement.”

In 2017, the NRO was tasked with buying commercial imagery for the intelligence community. Then, in 2018, the NRO took over the EnhancedView contract from the NGA and awarded an EnhancedView follow on contract to DigitalGlobe, which operates under the Maxar brand.

“We just changed the business model for how we interact with the companies,” Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, NGA’s director, said during a media availability. “We write the requirements — they go out and acquire pixels on contract.”

Sharp said the arrangement was working well so far.

“I want to approach it, really, from making sure customer requirements are being met, and the feedback I’ve had thus far is that we’re still meeting customer requirements,” said Sharp. “Right now I think it’s really working for us.”

Meink said that the growing demand for more data is driving the NRO to pursue purchasing more commercial imagery.

“The demand signal is growing. That’s one of the reasons why we’re going to be stepping up our procurement of commercial imagery,” said Meink. “We really needed to look at increasing the number of vendors and getting access to more vendors to meet those capabilities.”

“[Commercial imagery] is going to give us more capability for the dollar than we would have otherwise,” said Meink.

The results of the contracted studies will inform the NRO’s 2020 commercial imagery procurements, and Meink said agency leaders will likely look to continue adding commercial capacity.

“The next step is going to be looking at other contractors and other phenomenologies, radar and others, that are just in the incubation period in the commercial world,” said Meink.

In a June 3 press release, Dan Jablonsky, Maxar’s cheif executive, said “this new study contract with the NRO, coupled with our recent EnhancedView Follow-On agreement, demonstrates that the U.S. Government recognizes the value of procuring commercial satellite imagery both now and into the future.”

In addition, Rich Leshner, Planet Federal’s executive vice president of operations said in a June 3 release, “The NRO is examining how it can expand a partnership with the commercial remote sensing industry in 2020, so it’s looking into new capabilities and keeping an eye on future developments. Planet is constantly iterating and improving, so it’s great that they’re willing to explore these new capabilities with our data and tools.”

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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