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Government Spurs Agencies To Commercial Remote Sensing

December 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A road map aims to increase civil use of the embryonic market.

A new policy that directs government organizations to expand the use of U.S. commercial remote sensing technology is opening the eyes of government and industry to potential partnerships. Government entities that had not used remote sensing before are discovering applications that may become integral to their way of doing business in a few years. Concurrently, commercial satellite imagery providers are finding unexplored market possibilities. This growing synergy ultimately may lead to civil government input on the design and development of future remote sensing platforms.

Government and industry experts have identified a host of remote sensing imagery applications that could apply across the breadth of civil agency activities. The challenge is to raise awareness among both groups, explains R.J. Thompson, chief, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) EROS Data Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and head of a working group that is addressing implementation of this new space policy.

The White House released its U.S. commercial remote sensing policy last spring (SIGNAL, July, page 6). Among its goals was the fostering of a healthy commercial remote sensing industry. At the heart of this policy was that the U.S. government would “rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities for filling imagery and geospatial needs” across the spectrum of military and civil agencies.

This policy is not a mandate or a direction to use commercial space remote sensing, Thompson emphasizes. The goal is to encourage agencies to consider this data when they make program decisions. “It doesn’t tell us anything that we already should not have known,” he says, “but it brings it to a much higher level of attention both within the administration and within the agency management structure.”

The working group was put together in the spring shortly after the release of the remote sensing policy. The group held its first formal meeting in May, and it since has held dozens of meetings to deliver its implementation plan last month. About 20 agencies are involved in the process, with the three most active agencies being those named in the policy: NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the USGS. Open forums have provided input from nonmember agencies and industry groups. The group produced its final draft implementation plan at the end of September, and industry and government comments ensued through the month of October. The report was being finalized in November, and Thompson hopes that it will lead to a “road map” for civil government remote sensing use within a year.

The plan addresses generally some longer term issues of sustaining a long-term partnership with the private sector. For the next year, the plan focuses on near-term actions that would establish a foothold for civil government in the commercial remote sensing arena. This might include pilot projects and preliminary steps. The goal is to have an early operating capability—the ability to define a requirement by a civil agency, translate it to a procurement requirement and establish a contractual mechanism to execute the requirement and place orders with licensing—by early fiscal year 2005, Thompson reports.

“We think of this as a governance model,” Thompson says. “[It is] a governance model for improving the communication and coordination among the civil agencies, the flow of information to commercial industry, the visibility of what commercial industry has to offer—all those things play in this governance model. Still, there is a lot of interagency coordination that will have to happen to make this come to pass.”

Several issues have emerged from the working group’s meetings. Licensing, for instance, may require the most effort to develop a methodology that works for both government and industry. Civil government agencies that would purchase remote sensing data rarely are looking for one-time use. For example, when a government purchases a piece of data, it will want to preserve a copy of the data in a library so that it is accessible for reuse and redistribution to other agencies. This calls for a licensing agreement that permits repeated use of the data, its sharing and possible distribution to the public. And, the government also must enable an image data library to facilitate that sharing.

“If we buy this data, we want to be able to share it with our academic researchers; we want to be able to work cooperatively across agencies; we want to be able to use these kinds of data in our grant programs for research; and obviously an agency that has a contractor doing work in an operational monitoring program needs that latitude,” Thompson explains. “The nature of the policy itself, in terms of encouraging the civil agencies to make more use of this data … is to buy it once and proliferate it around the civil agency community. So certainly, the capability to share—as well as the license to share—is important.”

Price is another issue. Thompson relates that civil agencies do not have budgets flush with funding for these types of purchases. The civil agency budget allocation process will remain thorny for some time, he allows. This will take work within the individual agencies.

On the commercial side, industry wants assurances that this new emphasis on procuring its imagery is not just a flash in the pan. Thompson observes that this relatively new industry is trying to survive and build a long-term relationship with government. From industry’s perspective, its major concern is, “Yes, we want to sell more data; we want to make our missions and programs more viable; but we also want to know that there is a long-term commitment on the part of the government to follow through on the intent of this policy,” he offers. Industry wants government to push as many of its requirements toward the commercial remote sensing sources as possible, instead of just automatically assuming that the private sector will build a satellite and launch it as a matter of course.

This group is working to establish communications and coordination within the array of civil agencies that are active in the use of remote sensing—particularly space remote sensing—and their scientific programs.

The civil agency representatives in the working group have focused on understanding their respective concerns and how the commercial policy will assist in resolving those concerns, Thompson allows. The group aims to build an awareness of the space remote sensing data that is available from commercial sources. Many agencies are not sufficiently aware of the available products and services, he states.

Another objective is facilitation. When civil agencies want to use civil remote sensing data, they would receive advice on available capabilities and methods for obtaining useful products. This thrust would include simplifying the acquisition process.

But, this education and facilitation process is a two-way street. Commercial firms also need to learn about the needs of civil agencies, Thompson notes. So, the group aims to increase awareness of the government requirements process, which has a mixed record of effectiveness among different agencies. Thompson relates that some agencies have fairly clear definitions of requirements, while others do not know how they might use this data and only vaguely understand its value.

“There is a requirements process that needs to be enhanced within the federal agencies,” he says. “Some agencies do a pretty good job of defining their requirements and planning for their future program requirements. Some don’t do as good a job. We are trying to encourage the civil agencies to document their requirements, communicate those to commercial industry and, at the same time, make the civil agencies aware of what the commercial industry representatives have to offer,” Thompson explains.

He admits surprise at how difficult it has been to get civil agencies to recognize that this new policy is an opportunity rather than a problem. Many individuals do not have a commitment to the technology and, as a result, are not inclined to dive into its aspects. Even though officials may not be comfortable with the results, if they are not a part of the process, it still can be a struggle to build participation, Thompson allows.

Part of the road map for government remote sensing use could include an annual performance report. This summation would comprise the amount of data purchased by the government, for which agency it was purchased, whether the product was timely enough and how well it worked to satisfy agency requirements. This would generate a measurement of the policy implementation’s success, he submits.

Civil agencies now are finding just how more readily available these commercial products are, Thompson notes. These agencies also are recognizing the higher quality of the imagery, as well as discovering that it is available from more sources than they realized.

“It’s as much an education within the civil agency community as it is with commercial industry about what the civil agencies want,” he observes.

It is the array of products and services from industry that surprises agencies the most, Thompson says. In addition to building and launching systems, the commercial sector has been developing baseline data and value-added services to offer customers. This complex array includes hardware and software, raw imagery data and information products. So, an agency may not know whether it wants raw data or a finished geospatial imagery product. If it wants a finished product, the agency may not know what that product should be or which company is best equipped to provide it.

Every time a civil agency representative goes to a commercial imagery provider, the acquisition becomes a procurement process that may require competition, Thompson notes. “There are a number of things that can be perceived as obstacles to gaining access to that array of products and services,” he adds.

Making civil agencies aware of existing products and capabilities is only part of the solution. Another aspect aims to spur agencies to look ahead to potential requirements in future years. Agency experts might try to predict how they might be able to exploit future remote sensing capabilities—spectra, resolution and products—that do not even exist today, for example.

Once those requirements are understood, government and industry must work to facilitate greater commerce. This might entail governmentwide contracts, or even simple approaches such as having the commercial providers market their wares in their own ways. “We would be building a conduit between industry and civil agencies,” Thompson says.

The defense community already has “a much more elevated level of attention about the value that commercial remote sensing technology brings to the table,” Thompson allows. A sizable part of this enthusiasm comes from operation Enduring Freedom, where the military bought large amounts of commercial remote sensing imagery (SIGNAL, February 2002, page 21) that, being unclassified, could be circulated widely and shared with the news media.

Thompson believes that the largest amount of civil agency use will be in research. In turn, this research likely will generate hitherto unexpected applications. Topics might include techniques for improving map-making processes and updating relevant data, for example.

Other research areas might lead to new ways of incorporating remote sensing data in vital applications such as hazardous materials issues or a natural disaster. Timeliness usually is an issue with these applications, so research could lead to ways that this data could flow to users faster and more effectively, Thompson suggests.

Commercial remote sensing companies are working toward new ways of exploiting spectra, and research may open up venues that lead to new sensors on future generations of satellites. Examples include lidar and radar as well as hyperspectral sensors. A burgeoning market will uncover new applications that increase the focus on new sensors.

“As this kind of policy opens up the flow of information from a source to a user, then those kinds of applications begin to emerge; and the research associated with using that data in almost any kind of an agency application will begin to make this connectivity between agency requirements and industry capabilities more obvious,” Thompson states.

Landcover mapping, for example, is an issue that affects the USGS. Impervious surfaces such as asphalt and concrete abound across the country. The amount and location of these surfaces influence many issues such as thermal patterns, plant growth and runoff. Creating a data set to provide this information requires research into defining impervious surfaces, remote sensing resolution and data processing.

Another research area focuses on characterizing and quantifying the accuracy of space data. This will be especially important when a new sensor comes on line, Thompson says. Any determination from a piece of imagery must be verified for accuracy, and the metric for this must come from research.

Several applications stand out as benefiting from the new policy. First and foremost is mapping. A lot of the work associated with mapping for the USGS is outsourced, and the commercial remote sensing industry can contribute significantly here. Another area is activity monitoring, where observers can measure the progress of a particular event such as a flood, a forest fire or agricultural practices. And, environmental monitoring always will find applications in remote sensing.

Homeland security certainly will have applications, especially in areas that involve understanding the U.S. national infrastructure. Thompson relates that these may include population concentrations and facility locations.