NIMA requests detailed satellite map imagery

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency last month issued a call to industry for proposals on how to integrate commercial systems for processing high-resolution imagery with the agency's existing systems.

NIMA's request comes amid a changing mission focus for the Defense Department, which is responding to small, sudden conflicts rather than protracted battles or defending against the Cold War. At the same time, the private sector, from real-estate firms to farmers, has fueled a growing commercial imagery industry that DOD can tap.

Key to NIMA's program, called the Commercial Imagery Initiative (CII), is a desire to provide its customers, from warfighters to diplomats to spies, with highly detailed, satellite-generated maps or digital photos that are less than a day old and clearly show objects that are 1 meter or larger in size, or so-called "1-meter imagery. "Something has to be bigger than a breadbox to be seen," a NIMA official said.

NIMA said it is keen on relying on the commercial sector to provide those images. "NIMA is committed to using commercial imagery where the capability exists to fulfill customer imagery and geospatial requirements," a NIMA spokeswoman said. "As commercial abilities continue to mature, we expect them to become increasingly valuable sources of data for our customers."

John Pike, director of the Space Policy Project at the Federation of American Scientists, called 1-meter imagery "the greatest thing since sliced bread for anyone who wants to look at buildings and count cars in the parking lot. The product is more detailed and current than [paper] maps, so it is great for soldiers in the field, humanitarian relief organizations, [and it is] excellent for bomb-damage assessment."

Lockheed Martin Corp. plans to launch in June a satellite that will create 1-meter images. But NIMA may be a little slow in preparing its systems for commercial 1-meter imagery. Pike said that as Lockheed Martin launches its satellite, NIMA will issue the first of several $5 million awards for research and development into how to integrate new systems with existing systems. The deadline for vendors' R&D proposals for the CII is today. "Unless the black [highly secret] side of NIMA is much further along, it seems to me that NIMA is really behind the curve," Pike said.

Robert Steele, the chief executive officer of information consulting firm OSS Group, said NIMA's focus should be on building computer systems to analyze and process imagery from an array of sources, not just sources that produce 1-meter imagery. "NIMA is not providing solutions today that it needs to be," Steele said. He also said high-resolution imagery— on the order of 2-meter, 5-meter and 8-meter resolution— already can be bought from French, Canadian, Russian and Indian companies.

NIMA officials said the agency is considering foreign imagery.


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