Remote Sensing Policy Stirs Debate

By | September 8, 2003 | Feature

Commercial remote sensing companies would benefit from modifications to a new White House policy intended to aid federal civil agencies in acquiring data and imagery from space, industry representatives said.

The Bush administration has been asked by industry officials to incorporate their recommendations into a new U.S. policy aimed at streamlining the federal government’s purchase of satellite imagery for uses other than national defense and intelligence gathering. The timing of the request comes as a federal working group is readying an implementation plan for the new policy to be submitted to the White House this month.

Recommendations by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Space Enterprise Council, contained in an Aug. 13 letter to the Bush administration, went well beyond policy changes unveiled by the White House last April. The letter specifically urged:

  • Designation of a single government agency as lead coordinator for the federal civil sector’s purchase, distribution and archiving of commercial satellite remote sensing data;
  • Implementation of firm, multi-year contracts for streamlining the purchase and use of commercial satellite data cost-effectively across civil agencies;
  • Allocation of funding for civil agencies to outsource their commercial satellite data needs, beginning in fiscal year 2004, to enhance the federal government’s sharing of data across agencies and to meet most of the civil agency geo-spatial data requirements; and
  • Selection of a senior geo-spatial information officer (GIO) within each appropriate federal civil agency to take responsibility for overseeing geo-spatial policy and strategies, coordinating with the lead civil agency, and continuing the implementation of the new policy.

The recommendations support the U.S. government’s overall remote sensing policy objectives and help to ensure that multiple suppliers are available to meet federal civil agency requirements, according to the Space Enterprise Council. Unless these recommendations are adopted, the development of the commercial remote sensing industry would be hurt, it added.

One way for the civil agencies to help themselves would be to broaden their knowledge of how to procure commercial imagery, said David Logsdon, executive director of the Space Enterprise Council, during an exclusive interview with SATELLITE NEWS. As a result, each agency could use a senior-level person to serve as a resource to help his or her colleagues obtain the imagery that they need, Logsdon said.

In addition, the call for a single federal agency to coordinate the purchase of commercial satellite data and imagery for all civil agencies would follow the model of using the National Imagery and Mapping Agency [NIMA] to serve in that role for the U.S. government’s military and intelligence agencies.

Fledgling Industry

Dawn Sienicki, director of Washington operations at DigitalGlobe, a Longmont, Colo.-based satellite-imagery company, described the remote sensing sector as “a developing industry.”

Digital Globe, for example, is a startup company that owns and operates the world’s highest resolution commercial imaging satellite, QuickBird, offering resolution of 0.61 meters or the equivalent of two feet.

“However, the industry as a whole needs to continue to get firm, long-term contracts from the U.S. government to procure imagery,” Sienicki said. “By either getting money up front from the government to help develop next-generation systems, and or through firm, long-term, purchasing commitments, our company becomes more attractive to financial investors.”

The White House’s remote sensing policy is viewed favorably by the industry, but the key to making it a success is effective implementation by the various federal civil agencies and by the industry, Sienicki said.

“Companies in any industry would have a hard time developing future business plans without firm, consistent, long-term contracts in place,” Logsdon explained. “We have started to see firm, long-term contracts on the defense side for the commercial players. Now, we are hoping to see the same thing provided by the civil agencies.”

A new national security and homeland defense paradigm has been established that dictates the need for commercial remote sensing products, Logsdon said. Several high-resolution commercial satellites have been launched in the past few years to address the need for enhanced imagery, he added.

Mark Brender, vice president of corporate communications at Denver-based Space Imaging, said images of 168 million square kilometers of the Earth’s surface have been collected by his company’s IKONOS high-resolution satellite, offering .82 meters or roughly 3-feet of resolution.

“That data is available to government customers right now,” Brender said. “Once a lead agency has been designated and funding provided, this technology will be an important decision-support tool to better serve the taxpayer. Quality satellite imagery, married with geo-spatial information systems technology, goes a long way in helping government customers understand issues that deal with homeland security, transportation, agriculture, mapping and forest management.”

The need for government contracts is high at ORBIMAGE, a Dulles, Va.-based provider of imagery services that is looking to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy court protection in the near future.

Timothy Puckorius, ORBIMAGE’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing and sales, said his company supported the revision to the remote sensing policy and provided input during the early drafting process.

The new policy was needed to permit the commercial remote sensing industry to grow and to compete globally, Puckorius said. A clear U.S. government policy on how federal civil agencies purchase commercial imagery will help to remove “glass ceilings” that posed barriers in the past, he added.

The Space Enterprise Council’s recommendations that a single agency become the aggregator of commercial imagery follows the model currently in use with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), which serves the Department of Defense (DoD).

“On the DoD side, the policy has been set,” Puckorius said. DoD mapping requirements now will be fulfilled using imagery from the U.S. commercial industry whenever possible, he added.

The U.S. Geological Survey, part of the Department of the Interior, provides geo-spatial information and mapping products to U.S. civil agencies and would be the best agency to coordinate the imagery needs on the civil side of the U.S. government, Puckorius argued. Indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey operates the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based EROS (Earth Resources Observation Systems) data center to receive, archive and disseminate imagery from Landsat-7, a medium-resolution government remote sensing satellite.

Created to gather information about the natural resources of the Earth using satellites, the EROS data center now manages the world’s largest civilian archive of aerial photographs, satellite-borne sensor information, and digital information collection.

In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey has successfully interacted with mapping providers to distribute remotely sensed data to the federal civil sector, Puckorius said.

“The U.S Geological Survey’s charter makes it the logical agency to do the acquisition and management of imagery for the civil agencies,” said Gary Adkins, ORBIMAGE’s vice president of federal and national security programs.

Data Proponent

“We’ve been a strong proponent for the use of remote sensing data,” said R.J. Thompson, who became chief of the EROS data center in May 2002 after spending nearly 40 years with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Remote sensing is an area in which the U.S. Geological Survey has a great deal of interest and experience, said Thompson, who also is chairman of the federal working group that is developing the implementation plan for the White House’s new remote sensing policy.

Regardless of whether or not a single federal agency is chosen to procure remote sensing data and imagery for civil agencies, a significant amount of “inter-agency coordination” will be required, Thompson said. The best way to coordinate remote sensing imagery for all the federal civil agencies is among the “policy issues” that remain under discussion by the working group, he added.

“What will really be important next is for Congress to appropriate funds for the U.S. Geological Survey to be effective in its role and place contracts with U.S. commercial providers of imagery and related products,” Puckorius said. Purchasing, interacting with and coordinating commercial remote sensing companies will be critically important for the agency that spearheads the U.S. government’s civil needs, he added.

“At the end of the day, the only meaningful measure of the success of the implementation plan is whether or not contracts are put in place similar to ‘ClearView’ on the DoD side,” Puckorius said. The ClearView Program established long-term federal contracts with U.S. commercial remote sensing providers to supply DoD with imagery, he added.

ORBIMAGE’s highest resolution satellite, Orbview-3, was successfully launched on June 26 by an Orbital Sciences [NYSE: ORB] Pegasus rocket. The Orbview-3 satellite now allows all three of the existing U.S. remote-sensing providers to offer high-resolution imaging capabilities.

With all of the companies trying to rein in costs, the selection of the U.S. Geological Survey to coordinate the purchase of imagery for all U.S. civil agencies would reduce the need to hire additional sales people.

“The benefit to us is that we will more easily be able to pass onto the government the benefits of our recent restructuring,” Puckorius said. “If the federal government has a single agency purchasing imagery for all its civil needs, they will get large volume discounts and I don’t have to hire five different people to sell to each agency. Rather, I will have one person selling to the government and pass on the savings in the form of volume discounts to the federal civil agencies. Individual procurement contracts would not get the benefit of a volume discount.”

Orbview-3, a 1-meter-imaging satellite, is able to provide both black and white and color data sets.

“We are not new to the high-resolution industry, ” Puckorius said. “ORBIMAGE has been making map products and geo-spatial data products for the U.S. government using high- resolution imagery from both the commercial and classified sectors for years. With the successful launch of Orbview-3, we are adding our own high-resolution data source to that chain to become a more complete end-to-end solutions provider.”

–Paul Dykewicz

(David Logsdon, U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Space Enterprise Council, 202/463-5479; Dawn Sienicki, DigitalGlobe, 202/662-3734; Mark Brender, Space Imaging, 703/558-0309; Timothy Puckorius, ORBIMAGE, 703/480-7527; Gary Adkins, ORBIMAGE, 703/480-7551; R.J. Thompson, Ron Beck, EROS, 605/594-6551)

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