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Imagery Agency Passes the Torch To Commercial Service Providers

May 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Rapidly growing private sector technology advances will feed government geospatial information needs.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency is fielding a team of commercial companies to provide vital geospatial information services to military and civilian government customers. The goal is not only to rapidly obtain various products ranging from basic mapping to detailed geospatial imagery, but also to establish an extensive commercial base of geospatial information services and generate two-way technology transfer.

A prime objective of this effort, known as the omnibus geospatial information and imagery intelligence solicitation program, is to shorten the procurement time frame for goods and services from months to weeks. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency’s (NIMA’s) customers include policy makers, warfighters, peacekeepers, the intelligence community and federal agencies. The actual delivery time of some geospatial information system (GIS) products to these users could be only a matter of days.

NIMA’s Darryl E. Crumpton explains that this program is a contract vehicle that allows the agency to select the most qualified contractor to provide “virtually any kind of production that we would expect to encounter in the imagery intelligence or geospatial information and services production.” Crumpton, associate director, geospatial information and services contract production division, adds that the agency will proceed with a high degree of certainty that it will receive quality products for its customers.

The agency has access to a significant commercial production capability through the services that many companies have already been certified to provide, Crumpton says. The new contract program complements that large capability with an even greater capacity than existed before.

A total of 15 prime contracts have been awarded under the program, and they include up to 200 subcontractors. Awards range from a minimum of $3,000 to as much as $600 million over five years.

The agency has long been seeking new products and data sets for its customers. These new products “fell out of scope” of existing contracts, Crumpton explains, and renegotiating often took too long—up to four months. To meet these new and evolving user requirements, the agency sought a more flexible contract vehicle that would permit quicker acquisition of the necessary tailored data sets.

An additional impetus was lower costs. Allocations will be made on the basis of a number of factors, including acquisition history, but quality and cost will be significant. Simply tapping established products that contractors have been making for years does not emphasize quality, Crumpton remarks.

The adoption of this contracting approach encompasses more than recognition of newly emerging commercial GIS capabilities, however. In addition to a host of new enabling technologies, the information age also has brought a shrinking decision time line. This has been the main driver behind the omnibus contract, Crumpton states.

The omnibus contract program is divided into three service categories. The first is surveying, which encompasses all the typical surveying activities that are necessary for GIS imagery intelligence information. The second is traditional mapping and charting. This comprises compilation, digitization and finished mapping products. The third category covers imagery intelligence and photogrammetric services. These are required to generate the agency’s more digital-oriented products.

Ten years ago, Crumpton notes, the systems used to exploit national sources were large and were developed specifically for government applications. Over the past five years, the advent of commercial systems that can exploit national or commercial image sets for GIS intelligence products has allowed NIMA to tap the private sector for more complicated production activities.

“Before these COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] systems were available, we focused on functional support,” Crumpton relates. “We would ask contractors to provide a capability to do a particular function in an entire production process.” Now, teaming arrangements allow the agency to take the best capabilities from various firms in a prime/subcontractor relationship. These companies can produce the end-to-end GIS intelligence that NIMA requires for its users, he adds.

The 15 prime contractors are Autometric Incorporated, Springfield, Virginia; Azimuth Incorporated, Salt Lake City; Earthdata International, Gaithersburg, Maryland; ESRI Incorporated, Redlands, California; GDE Systems Incorporated, San Diego; Geonex Corporation, St. Petersburg, Florida; Harris Corporation, Melbourne, Florida; Intergraph Corporation, Huntsville, Alabama; Logicon Geodynamics and MRJ Technology Solutions, both of Fairfax, Virginia; Raytheon Systems, Garland, Texas; SAIC, Tucson, Arizona; Space Imaging, Thornton, Colorado; Spatial Data Integrations, Louisville, Kentucky; and 3001 Incorporated, Sulpher, Louisiana.

A vital aspect of this effort is the willingness of industry to team and, in effect, harness the capabilities of various firms in a virtual organization, Crumpton states. This partnership’s ability to create an end-to-end production capability allows NIMA to turn to the private sector for complicated production activities hitherto limited to the government.

This represents a new era in the way NIMA does business. “We’re placing more and more reliance on contracting the production of geospatial information and imagery intelligence,” Crumpton declares. “As we get into larger coverages of commercial imagery, that will be another technology enabler that will give us access to more information in more areas of the world—quicker and of the quality that we require to produce our important data sets,” he emphasizes. Another commercial technology that is key to this effort is COTS workstations that are able to “ingest, exploit and attribute” various GIS future requirements, Crumpton allows.

One important characteristic of this new approach is the ability to produce tailored data sets. NIMA has been generating these unique sets for years, but now it can define this specific GIS intelligence and have it produced in the private sector for the user. “The customer will spell out the requirement, and we’ll assist in acquiring the information that it requires,” Crumpton offers.

Under old procedures, identifying a requirement and giving the work to the contractor could take up to four months, with contractors selecting their subcontractors. Now, with the cadre of 15 proven contractors, the agency can deliver a statement of work and define NIMA’s deliverable products for a contractor in only weeks. For actual data collection, a complex data set that is not overly extensive could be completed for the customer in only 48 hours.

Competition and profit motivate contractors to incorporate the best techniques and technology advances, Crumpton states. However, these contractors are not thrown together for a winner-take-all competition. The omnibus program employs a qualification-based selection process. An agency database contains records of past contractor performance, and this information helps determine the best choice for the tasks defined in each required-work statement. Issues such as a contractor’s production capacity, quality of work and timeliness are taken into account.

Companies are not limited to their traditional areas of expertise, however. A company can apply to NIMA to be recognized as a supplier of a new capability. The certification process would include a review of past performance and would conclude with the registration of the company as a proven provider of the new service. This process becomes especially important as companies expand their capabilities through new technologies.

The agency is budgeting $75.3 million this year for contract production of geospatial information. This amount will increase annually through 2005, when it will total more than $100 million. This steady growth demonstrates the agency’s increasing reliance on contract services for GIS information.

However, NIMA is not limiting itself to U.S. commercial providers. The agency has used, and will continue to use, data from the French Spot Image remote sensing orbiter, Crumpton declares. The same holds true for Canada’s Radarsat and the Indian Remote Sensing satellite system, or IRS. This willingness to consider foreign sources includes commodity buys that may be information that has already been produced. NIMA would convert it to suit its customers’ needs.

Similarly, program product sales are not limited to U.S. customers. Crumpton relates that NIMA has entered into a foreign military sales agreement with Thailand. The Asian country is paying NIMA to tap its contractor base to provide GIS products to its government. The five-year, foreign military sales agreement focuses on providing digital terrain data over all of Thailand, along with 1:50,000 topological map graphics. Crumpton emphasizes that these products will come exclusively from the omnibus contracting base. Similar agreements may be reached with other U.S.-friendly countries that lack indigenous mapping capabilities, he adds.

“This is an ever-expanding [program],” Crumpton warrants. “When we increase our capability in NIMA to provide this information, most of the growth will come from the commercial sector.

“This will enable us to be flexible enough to react to changing requirements. A strong commercial base exists with incentives through competition and technology advances to be able to stay on the leading edge of requirements,” he concludes