Rethinking Commercial Imagery

NRO’s Jimmy Comfort speaks at USGIF GEOINTeraction Tuesday

By Lindsay Tilton Mitchell

March 16, 2016

While much of the GEOINT Community embraces the potential of commercial imagery and next generation remote sensing systems, the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) Jimmy Comfort shared a cautionary viewpoint March 8, at USGIF’s GEOINTeraction Tuesday event.

More than 100 individuals attended the event, sponsored and hosted by OGSystems headquarters in Chantilly, Va. Attendees had the opportunity to network with colleagues, watch demos by OGSystems, and hear from guest speaker Comfort, who is deputy and technical director of NRO’s Imagery Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate.

Comfort focused his speech on commercial imagery and began by reading an official NRO statement: “Commercial imagery has and will continue to be essential to the U.S. Intelligence Community. Within the IC, NGA and NRO will work jointly to ensure the best mix of commercial and national GEOINT capabilities to fully leverage IC and DoD needs. The IC will leverage future commercial GEOINT capabilities as they are proven in the marketplace.”

Comfort then paraphrased the statement, saying, “NRO wants to be potential buyers of imagery and imagery services, not long-term investors.”


Following the official statement, Comfort shared his personal opinion on the commercial marketplace, which he emphasized may be different from the official NRO position. Comfort expressed a desire to see more caution regarding government spending on commercial products and capabilities.

“Let’s just make sure we’re not all running off after the ‘shiny penny’ and are [instead] doing our due diligence,” he said.

Adding to this, Comfort said commercial imagery would not be viable without the government. For example, he elaborated, the first government-licensed commercial imaging satellite was launched about 15 years ago, and revenue generated by commercial imagery satellites is still dominated by U.S. and international governments. This is “not very commercial like,” Comfort said.

He also listed three factors he considers when examining the commercial market: investment financing, technology, and the business case. In the area of technology, Comfort said satellites are getting cheaper and smaller, and highlighted commercial launch companies SpaceX and Blue Origin as making waves in the marketplace. However, Comfort added, strong business cases are essential for the government to see a credible commercial venture.

Comfort remarked that commercial markets such as agriculture, oil and gas, mining, forestry, and civil applications have not sustained a purely commercial imagery base to date. Rather, he predicted, UAVs might disrupt the commercial remote sensing industry in these use cases.

Comfort did point to advanced economic and business data as a more promising market for commercial imagery.

He concluded by emphasizing the need for government to make good use of taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t know the future … but I want [the government] to make the right choice about commercial imagery going forward,” he said.