As the federal government undergoes a sweeping administrative transition, the need for commercial space initiatives and in particular the information yielded by small satellites will remain steady, according to experts at USGIF’s Small Satellite Workshop.
USGIF hosted its second Small Satellite Workshop at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Springfield, Va., Nov. 14 and 15, as part of the Foundation’s 2016 GEOINT Community Week. The Nov. 14 agenda was unclassified while the second day was classified.
NGA Director Robert Cardillo provided the opening keynote address at the unclassified session, noting the workshop represents the transparency by which the planet is now observed and understood.
Cardillo discussed the $20 million contract NGA awarded small sat operator Planet in September to provide the agency with a near global imagery refresh every 15 days. According to the director, the agency is two months into the evaluation period, exploring data sets and running algorithms against Planet’s imagery.
“We’re very interested to get off the PowerPoint chart and into the lab, and excited to exploit this new capability and take lessons learned into other workflows,” he said.
Cardillo cited examples of what Planet’s low-resolution, high revisit rate has recently revealed: the expansion of illegal mining in Peru, new air fields being constructed in Honduras, and damage to roads and bridges in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew.
He said although the agency is further along in building its relationship with Planet, it is “ready and willing to jump in with both feet with more commercial companies”—in particular those that are Amazon C2S compliant. Cardillo emphasized the cloud is essential for NGA to leverage automated analytics, an area in which the agency is still seeking solutions from industry, and which will be necessary to fully exploit the deluge of commercial imagery small sats will produce.
The New Space Renaissance
Dr. Fred Kennedy III, senior policy advisor for The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, also gave a keynote address, and claimed we are witnessing a perfect storm in space access.
“This is the new space renaissance,” Kennedy said. “We just need to figure out how to feed it and keep it moving forward.”
He elaborated that commercial space is on the cusp of the most innovative space access he has ever seen, with space being increasingly accessible beyond governments and large companies, and true system reusability becoming more of a possibility.
Kennedy said commercial space advancements would continue with proper investments in space-based broadband and small launch capabilities as well as a focus on policy to smooth the way for new space entrepreneurs.
From Abundance to Ubiquity
The unclassified agenda also featured panel discussions on turning pixels into answers, launch, and policy.
During the panel on turning pixels into insight, John Charles, NGA’s national GEOINT officer for commercial imagery, said machine learning and cognitive analytics would be key to making sense of commercial data generated by small sats.
“NGA is serious about leveraging these new capabilities,” Charles said, nodding to the recent Planet contract. “The challenge is finding the right mix of imagery and analytics to acquire.”
Charles’ fellow panelists pointed to the ubiquity of smartphone-based navigation as an example of how a technology can become so accessible, repeatable, and dependable it is no longer thought of as technology. Google Maps, for example, provides answers from pixels, said Andy Hock, a product manager for Terra Bella, asking the audience how pixels can be exploited in the same way to discover answers to economic, environmental, and geopolitical questions. Richard Leshner, director of government affairs for Planet, added proper and full exploitation would be the difference between data abundance and data ubiquity.
In the panel on launch, experts discussed the need for dedicated small sat launch vehicles and compared the benefits of air and vertical launch.
“A dedicated ride to space equals full control over your business case,” said Mandy Vaughn, senior director of business development and mission management for Virgin Galactic, which plans to begin test flights in the second half of 2017 to launch commercial satellites from a Boeing 747-400.
During the policy panel, Kevin Pomfret, a lawyer who specializes in geospatial and remote sensing law and policy, pointed to recent progress in Federal Aviation Administration regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles, encouraging the commercial space industry to talk with their representatives and put pressure on Congress to encourage policy advancements for their industry.
A Team Sport
Michael Foster and Peter Muend, NGA and NRO’s Commercial GEOINT leads, respectively, outlined how CGA will: serve as the focal point for the Intelligence Community’s engagement with the commercial imagery industry; orchestrate assessments of emerging commercial capabilities, and recommend how NGA and NRO can shape U.S. remote sensing policy.
The pair also presented and answered a list of “Top 10 Questions about CGA”—some serious and some tongue-in-cheek—reassuring the audience commercial imagery is not intended to replace national technical means nor is CGA a veiled attempt to hinder commercial advancement.
Cardillo gave some impromptu closing remarks following Foster and Muend.
“It is not optional to take advantage of this market,” Cardillo said. “This is a huge opportunity for us.”
Cardillo dubbed CGA as exemplar of how the adoption of next generation commercial imagery is a “team sport,” and encouraged the audience to help Foster and Muend achieve success by challenging them, offering solutions, and asking questions.
“There are big decisions about large sums of money ahead,” Cardillo said.
Photo by Erica Knight, NGA