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NRO Says It Buys 50K Commercial Images Weekly — Tally Likely to Grow

By Frank Wolfe | November 4, 2021

      Photo: National Reconnaissance Organization

      The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) said on Nov. 3 that it has released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the agency’s Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL), as the agency looks to boost its involvement with commercial companies.

      “Right now, we procure approximately 50,000 commercial images each and every week, and certainly we see a lot more of that in the future,” Pete Muend, NRO’s Commercial Systems program director, told reporters in a pre-RFP release question and answer teleconference on Nov. 2. “That imagery is a key part of the overall national and commercial hybrid architecture that the NRO brings to bear in support of our overarching mission and requirements.”

      Muend’s comments add to prepared remarks by NRO Director Christopher Scolese last month at the Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Symposium in St. Louis that commercial contracts “are providing about 100 million square kilometers of commercial imagery every single week.”

      The agency intends to award multiple EOCL contracts early next year and said on Nov. 3 that the EOCL RFP is open to U.S.-owned, operated, and controlled organizations.

      “This decision is based on the National Space Policy of the U.S. and the desire to foster greater stability and investment in the U.S. market,” per the agency. “NRO and its [intelligence community] partners are committed to stable and increasing funding for commercial services into the future to support this acquisition.”

      The EOCL Statement of Capabilities document, approved by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on Sept. 29, sets the baseline for EOCL, Muend said. The requirements for imagery capacity and revisit rates are “significantly improved from what we have on contract,” and a “broad level of shareability and user-friendly license conditions” are “part of this contract,” he said.

      On Dec. 19, 1976, the NRO launched its first EO satellite – KH-11 KENNEN – to provide near real-time imagery to decision makers, and former President Jimmy Carter declared the satellite operational on inauguration day on Jan. 20, 1977. Commercial EO satellites are now providing capabilities that the NRO, which became publicly known in 1992, is looking to take advantage of.

      The first commercial EO satellite was Lockheed Martin‘s and the then-Space Imaging’s IKONOS satellite, launched in September 1999. Space Imaging is now part of Maxar Technologies.

      Customers for commercial EO have included agricultural companies, insurance companies looking to estimate possible fire damage to homes near forests, cities looking to combat the effects of global warming by increasing the tax burden on companies having sites with impermeable surfaces, and environmental stakeholders wanting aid in color coding beaches by bacterial risk and the sharing of that data.

      On the national security side, the NRO wants commercial EO satellite imagery to help sustain and strengthen U.S. industry and increase the capacity and resilience of satellites used for national security purposes.

      “We know that a diversified architecture made up of both national and commercial satellites – both large and small constellations across multiple orbits – truly is essential to our national security,” Muend said. “Our [EOCL] RFP will help support that.”

      Commercial companies could bolster the NRO in broad area map making; responding to decision maker requests regarding geo-political events and natural disasters; and tracking of global events. In so doing, commercial companies may help maximize the capacity of the NRO’s monitoring and move global hot zones to lower risk ones.

      The NRO’s customer base includes the IC, more than 2,000 domestic agencies, policy makers, and the U.S. military, Muend said.

      Last month, the NRO discussed a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for Strategic Commercial Enhancements to allow the agency to buy commercial imagery quickly. The BAA has three stages – the first, in which a company may not have a satellite on orbit yet but are close and are evaluated by NRO based on modeling and simulation; the second, in which the NRO evaluates the imagery of a satellite provider and conducts demonstrations; and a third, in which the NRO establishes a more regular, acquisition framework with technology insertion.

      The NRO has said it recently worked with some of its contractors to downlink imagery into theater, a capability the agency will continue to focus on so that it becomes routine for the military services to use.

      Through existing contracts procured using traditional federal acquisition regulations, Maxar Technologies and BlackSky Technology have successfully downlinked imagery into Army terminals, and BlackSky and HawkEye 360 have downlinked into Navy terminals, per the NRO.

      The BAA is to enable the NRO to buy a range of commercial imagery, including EO, radar, hyperspectral, radio frequency remote sensing, and LIDAR, and to help providers scale up their capabilities

      Scolese has said that the traditional NRO acquisition process takes five to 10 years and the agency has already demonstrated it can acquire capabilities in three years. The goal with the BAA is to shrink that further, he said.

      The first focus area of the BAA will be commercial radar.