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NGA to tap commercial satellites to patrol maritime hotspots

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May15,2024

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is making a major push to harness commercial technology for tracking maritime threats around the world, the agency’s director said May 6.

Speaking at the GEOINT Symposium, Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth announced the agency’s first-ever solicitation for commercial solutions focused specifically on maritime domain awareness.

A new “Commercial Solutions Opening” seeks to establish partnerships with private companies to develop AI-powered analytics that can automatically detect illegal shipping activities like smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing and more.

“We believe partnership with and among our commercial industry colleagues will unlock promising solutions to some of our customers’ most challenging needs,” Whitworth said.

​​NGA, part of the U.S. intelligence community, serves as a combat support agency that collects, analyzes and distributes data to the Earth’s geography, imagery, and mapping. The data is used for military operations, policy decisions, navigation safety and disaster relief efforts. NGA’s work also gives policymakers insights into global geographic issues, threats, and geopolitical dynamics. 

Additionally, NGA creates nautical and aeronautical charts essential for safe air and maritime travel.

Monitoring hotspots

The Commercial Solutions Opening maritime initiative is part of a broader strategy at NGA to rely more heavily on commercial satellite imagery, data services and artificial intelligence capabilities. Whitworth said the demand for geospatial intelligence has been heightened by the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, increased tension with Russia and Iran, and other global crises requiring “warning, situational awareness, targeting, safety and humanitarian assistance.”

To meet these requirements, NGA is “turning more and more to commercial analytics. This to free up our exquisite capabilities and analysts for deeper intelligence and defense work,” the director said.

In the Indo-Pacific region alone, Whitworth said, NGA wants to leverage commercial analytics to automatically “track every ship, every day” as part of efforts to ensure free and open waters.

The new maritime solicitation joins other major contract opportunities NGA has released recently. 

These include a $490 million “Luno A” and “Luno B” programs for commercial GEOINT analytics services. The agency is reviewing bids for “Luno A” and recently issued a request for bids for “Luno B.”

Tsunami of data

Satellite imagery and other geospatial data is expected to triple over the next decade, Whitworth said, adding that NGA is turning to commercial tech to handle the “tsunami of data” that will be critical for maintaining decision advantage over rivals like China and Russia.

Mark Munsell, NGA’s director of data and digital innovation, said the agency is closely following development in commercial analytics and how they apply machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

“We are big fans,” he told SpaceNews. “The commercial market is going to invest in stuff that maybe we’re not focused on. And so much good can come from that.”

“We absolutely are encouraging companies that are coming up with novel and unique interesting ways to do analytics using computer vision, using artificial intelligence,” said Munsell. 

Multiple vendors sought 

Commercial Solutions Openings are processes used by DoD agencies to acquire commercial technologies from non-traditional vendors. The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit frequently issues CSO opportunities. 

NGA’s director of commercial operations Devin Brande told reporters May 6 at GEOINT that the CSO vehicle gives the agency more flexibility to work with the commercial sector on projects. 

NGA wants to figure out a strategy to work with multiple vendors to develop a commercial sensor architecture capable of tracking and monitoring illicit maritime activity. Commercial vendors would work together to establish tasking algorithms for tipping and queuing a diverse array of sensors, conduct analysis and deliver unclassified, shareable intelligence of illicit maritime activities in the Indo-Pacific region.

Selected vendors will be invited to pitch their capabilities at the Defense Innovation Unit’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, in late June.

Those who make the cut will be invited to participate in a $1.5 million pilot program to test capabilities. If the pilot program is successful, the project could become a major acquisition.

The Commercial Solutions Openings opportunity comes just two weeks after NGA issued a separate solicitation seeking commercial solutions for maritime domain awareness in the Persian Gulf and South China Sea regions. 

“One area of particular focus is the Persian Gulf, where the narrow Strait of Hormuz is a vital chokepoint for global energy supplies,” said the solicitation. NGA wants to use commercial data to rapidly identify potential threats to freedom of navigation from Iranian naval forces or proxy militias.

Doubling down on commercial data

Whitworth told SpaceNews in a recent interview that the agency is dialing up its use of commercial satellite imagery, aiming to equip analysts with a wider lens to monitor global security threats. 

NGA’s platform for accessing commercial satellite imagery, known as the Global Enhanced Geoint Delivery (G-EGD), has more than 400,000 users across government agencies and authorized partners, he said. “There’s a lot of excitement in the air about the use of commercial.”

The G-EGD system was first introduced in 2011 as a platform that only accessed imagery from Maxar Technologies, formerly DigitalGlobe. But it’s evolved into a one-stop shop for electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery from a growing constellation of private satellites, Whitworth said. 

“It now has Maxar, Planet, Iceye, Blacksky, Capella Space and others,” he said.

As geopolitical tensions amplify worldwide, NGA aims to maintain an information advantage by combining commercial and government space-based sensors and analytics, Whitworth said.

Supporting safe maritime navigation has become a key focus, Whitworth said. NGA is leveraging commercial satellite data to maintain a watchful eye over the world’s oceans, seas and chokepoints like straits and canals. The idea is to detect “anomalies,” he said, such as activities that violate international sanctions, illicit movement of people and weapons, and illegal or unregulated fishing.

Increased demand for SAR

Industry executives said a greater focus on maritime awareness is creating demand for SAR data.

SAR satellites are useful for maritime applications because they detect the signatures of vessels against the dark background of the ocean’s surface, said Eric Jensen, CEO of Iceye US, the U.S.-based subsidiary of SAR satellite operator Iceye.

There are increasingly more security concerns, ranging from blockades to maritime shipping routes, to low-cost drones that threaten commercial vessels, Jensen told SpaceNews. “We are starting to see shipping companies’ insurers looking at commercial SAR as a capability to monitor waterways for threats.”

The majority of shipping routes between major ports around the world exist in locations that are cloud covered, and generally “bad things often happen at night,” which makes radar a sought-after sensor that it is not encumbered by clouds or bad weather. 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “NGA to tap commercial satellites to patrol maritime hotspots”
  1. As a tech enthusiast, I find it exciting to see the NGA embracing commercial satellite technology for maritime surveillance. Leveraging AI-powered analytics to combat illegal activities at sea is a proactive step towards enhancing global security.

  2. As a maritime industry analyst, I believe tapping into commercial satellites for surveillance is a crucial step towards enhancing maritime security. The use of AI-powered analytics in detecting illegal activities such as smuggling and human trafficking will greatly improve our ability to protect our seas.

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