Q&A with former DigitalGlobe CEO Jeff Tarr on the future of commercial remote sensing
Jeff Tarr is the former CEO of DigitalGlobe, where he served in that position from 2011 until the sale of the company to MDA to form Maxar Technologies in October 2017. During his tenure with DigitalGlobe, Tarr led the transformation of the company into the world’s largest operator of commercial Earth imaging satellites and a trusted source of information about our changing planet. Tarr is also a member of USGIF’s Board of Directors.
You moderated a panel on the main stage at GEOINT 2018 in April titled “The Future of Commercial Remote Sensing.” What, in your opinion, were some of the most important takeaways from that discussion?
Four takeaways top the list. First, is the number of participants in the GEOINT industry. There are more than 30 companies operating Earth imaging satellites or that have announced intent to do so. And more than 100 companies are focused on helping customers make sense of the data. The large number of players and diversity of business models and strategies raises the question of who will ultimately be successful. More companies leads to more innovation, and that benefits the industry, but inevitably, not all will survive.
Second is the importance of new technology. The panelists talked about the application of new technologies to make sense of the vast and growing volume of remote sensing data, including artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and augmented and virtual reality. All of these are being applied both by operators—those in the business of collecting data—and those providing analysis.
Third is the breadth of business models. For example, the operators are pushing beyond collection into analysis using the cloud, AI, and other technologies. At the same time, a large number of new players are emerging who neither own nor operate assets in space but are buying and analyzing data to serve specific customer verticals.
Finally, the panelists spoke at length on the importance of GEOINT as a contributor to transformative technological trends and critical global issues. For example, autonomous vehicles and the rollout of 5G telecommunications are both dependent on advances in GEOINT. Geospatial intelligence is also critical to addressing the most serious humanitarian challenges facing our world, ranging from combatting climate change to eradicating polio, to human trafficking, to protecting the food supply and ensuring access to clean water. For all of these and more, GEOINT promises to contribute substantially to solutions. And, of course, commercial remote sensing is critical to global security, and also contributes to the radical transparency having a profound impact on the geopolitical landscape.
Even though geospatial intelligence has a vital role in so many worldwide industries and challenges, it is still not a commonly used term outside the realm of defense and intelligence. How do you suggest the community addresses this?
I don’t believe we should. Our energies should be focused on solving customer problems, not on terminology. Remote sensing, like other technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is characterized by a blurring of the lines between the digital and the physical as well as between once distinct technologies. The term geospatial intelligence attempts to address that “blurring of the lines” in our industry by encompassing a wide range of related technologies—from remote sensing (whether from space, air, or ground), through to data analysis (whether by humans, machines, or both). It’s a powerful term that captures the breadth of related geospatial technologies. But while the term may be helpful, it’s more important those in our industry understand the convergence of these technologies, and that our customers understand what GEOINT can do for them.
What can be done to help customers better understand the landscape?
USGIF is doing a lot already. The foundation is playing an important educational role, whether it’s through the GEOINT Symposium, trajectory magazine, or new, commercial-facing events it is seeking to establish. Then there’s the work USGIF is doing with universities to help educate students and support research in these fields. These are all ways we’re advancing the state of the art.
Long ago, GEOINT’s primary use cases were related to national security. We’re far beyond that, and I’m excited USGIF is striving to provide a forum for those who are interested in GEOINT and the art of the possible to come together, learn from each other, and establish connections.
Do you think the “killer app” for GEOINT has been discovered yet? If not, what do you predict it will be?
Yes, there are killer apps today, and there may be others in the future. However, in the end, searching for one killer app may be the wrong way to look at it. One killer app is the map: the driving directions, how to get from here to there, the traffic insights. We use it every day, every time we try to find the quickest route home or discover a new local business. Every time we want to know the weather forecast, we’re using GEOINT. And yet another is precision agriculture, without which even more of the world’s population would be hungry. These are just a few of the killer apps out there today.
Will there be other killer apps? Certainly. For example, the software that supports the autonomous vehicle will not be possible without GEOINT. I’m sure there are applications that have not yet been imaged.
I’m especially excited about applications that offer the potential to meaningfully improve the state of the world. For example, if you’re going to bring internet to everyone in Africa you need better population density maps. If you’re going to eradicate polio you need to know where people are that need to get vaccinated. If you’re going to ensure safe, clean water for everyone, you need to understand the state of water tables and distribution and drainage systems in underdeveloped communities. At its core, each of these examples is GEOINT at work. GEOINT is a killer technology with a lot of amazing applications.
In the inaugural edition of trajectory in 2012, our cover story claimed the commercial remote sensing industry stood at a crossroads as the community waited to see whether DigitalGlobe and GeoEye would consolidate. DigitalGlobe has since acquired GeoEye and the industry has experienced numerous acquisitions. How do you think consolidation has changed the community in the past six years?
Six years is a long time for any high-tech industry. There have been successes, failures, consolidations, and new technologies powering new solutions. But some things haven’t changed. Companies still need to have compelling business models that work. You need to have a model that delivers return on investment to your shareowners and—especially in capital-intensive industries—a model that can scale.
Consolidation has contributed to that scale and a healthier industry. Smart consolidation has also accelerated the pace at which companies have been able to take advantage of new technology. It has spurred innovation and created efficiencies, which have in turn created value for both customers and shareowners.
You provided a mentoring session at GEOINT 2018 for participants in USGIF’s Young Professionals Golden Ticket program. Why was this important to you?
I love meeting young people who are building their careers in GEOINT. It was energizing and encouraging. My advice to these young professionals, the future leaders of our industry, is to always be learning—learn from each other, from new experiences—and always strive to get better. I encouraged them all to pick a few aspects of their personal leadership they can develop and improve upon. I also encouraged them to stay in touch with their sense of purpose and to look for ways to use this technology for good. In this industry that is not hard to do.
What does it take for a business in the GEOINT industry to be successful?
A lot of insights on this topic came out of the panel discussion at GEOINT 2018. First, you have to know your market. It’s important because you can do so many things and answer so many questions with GEOINT. Make sure you understand what your customer needs and that you are actually providing a better solution for them than all other alternatives.
Secondly, data quality matters. GEOINT is used to answer high-stakes questions such as those that keep nations safe, help companies determine where to drill for oil, drive financial markets, and inform life-or-death decisions. The cost of high-quality data is usually much less than the value of getting the answer right or the cost of getting it wrong. If higher quality GEOINT is the difference between an autonomous vehicle getting safely from point A to point B versus having an accident along the way, then how much more are you willing to spend?
Third, understand the trade space as you seek to build the best solution for your customers. There are always tradeoffs in collecting and processing GEOINT. The easiest to understand is the trade-off between resolution and area coverage. If I want more area coverage, I may choose to achieve that by raising my orbit and capturing a larger area at lower resolution. But there are many others—more frequent revisit, full-motion video, additional spectral bands—that all come at a cost to other aspects of performance. These decisions must be informed by a deep understanding of customer needs. The decisions must also anticipate where the competition is going. For example, free and low-cost sources of low-resolution imagery continue to emerge.
Finally, instill a sense of purpose in your workforce. This is an industry with so much potential for good. If you want to attract and retain the talent necessary to succeed and if you want to build and sustain customer trust, you must have purpose.
You can be successful in this business, but if you lose sight of any one of those key success drivers you will find yourself in trouble. It ultimately comes down to having a laser focus on understanding the customer, delivering better value, delivering a return, and leading with purpose.
USGIF founder shared what the beginning of the Foundation looked like, how the GEOINT community has changed over the years, and what receiving USGIF's 2021 Lundahl-Finnie Lifetime Achievement Award means to him.