Space

NRO to add more commercial imagery providers as it builds a ‘hybrid architecture’

Pete Muend: Several commercial providers of space-based RF data will likely be announced next month

WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office expects to select next month multiple providers of radio-frequency data collected by commercial satellites. RF data is used to track ships, vehicles or any devices that emit radio frequency signals. 

Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, said several proposals were received after the agency issued a solicitation in July. The plan is to sign agreements that give the NRO access to data collected by companies’ commercial satellites so government analysts can better understand the quality of the data. 

Another key goal of these contracts is to figure out how to integrate commercial data into government ground systems, Muend said Aug. 25 during an online event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

The agreements with RF data providers would be the second round of study contracts awarded by the NRO this year. In January the agency selected five suppliers of commercial synthetic aperture radar imagery. 

The NRO is the U.S. intelligence agency responsible for developing, launching and operating the nation’s spy satellites. It is also the primary acquirer of commercial imagery for the federal government.

“We want to be able to understand where the commercial remote sensing capabilities are, and help inform operational capabilities and eventually requirements in the long term,” said Muend.

Even though these are study contracts, the companies are providing a significant amount of data used in day-to-day operations, he said. “The radar contracts are going very well, providing a lot of data to the user community.”

The NRO is trying to build a hybrid, or mixed architecture of government and commercial remote sensing satellites, Muend said. The agency has signed 10-year deals with three providers of electro-optical imagery but so far has not awarded similar contracts to providers of other types of imagery like radar, RF and hyperspectral. Muend said study contracts with a broad range of providers will inform “formal statements of capabilities” that could lead to long-term contracts.

The agency last year launched a new program called Strategic Commercial Enhancements in an effort to attract non-traditional vendors. 

Muend said the commercial enhancements program allows the NRO to take advantage of emerging space industry systems and move closer to achieving its goal of a hybrid architecture with data from commercial and government satellites analyzed side by side.

Building a mixed architecture is a complex task, said Muend. “There are a lot of parts that go into making that operationally effective … Integrating data in ground systems is a big part of the work we have ongoing.”

Commercial providers, on average, deliver over 75,000 images every single week into the NRO’s ground enterprise, Muend said. “That’s a very significant amount of imagery,” he said, although he could not specify what share of the overall imagery used by the NRO comes from commercial sources.

“As I said, the ground is a really big part of actually making that useful,” he insisted. “It’s one thing to have contracts in place to get the data, but actually making it work as part of a larger hybrid enterprise is a key part.”

The idea is to take the “best total value” from national and commercial systems to deliver insight and intelligence. “We spend a lot of time and a lot of energy working through to make sure that the ground architecture can seamlessly plug in multiple commercial providers at scale, moving beyond, I’ll say, historic stovepipes.”

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